Knowledge, Tradition, and Domination: The Parallels of Colonial Discourse in “Development” Projects

“The effects of the theoretical work done by ‘development’ discourse on Lesotho are far- reaching. The constitution of Lesotho as a suitable theoretical object of analysis is also, and simultaneously, its constitution as a suitable target for intervention.”

–Jim Ferguson, The Anti-Politics Machine (73)

In his case study of the World Bank’s 1975 report on Lesotho as a “less developed country,” Jim Ferguson defines the notion of “development” through a comparison to the foundation of colonial discourse. He writes, “Like ‘civilization’ in the nineteenth century, ‘development’ is the name not only for a value, but also for a dominant problematic or interpretive grid through which the impoverished regions of the world are known to us” (xiii). Through a certain form of knowledge production that defines and containerizes its subjects’ identities, modern “development” projects find deep roots in the patterns, strategies, and structures of colonialism. By understanding the significant parallels between these two endeavors of domination, we will illuminate the similarities in these projects’ concrete political effects. Colonial and “development” discourses both operate through the depoliticization of intervention, the homogenization of native identities, and the insistence upon the inferior native as “traditional.” By tracing these comparable manifestations, we will discover the tangible consequences shared between the two projects–stronger governmental power within the subjected nations, and the sustained hegemony of the “civilized” or “developed” nations over the rest of the globe.

Colonialism and “development” projects share an impulse to seek knowledge. In his book Saviors and Survivors, Mahmood Mamdani explains,

“Modern colonialism usually began with a comprehensive assessment of the prize that had been won. When possible, a variety of surveys were carried out—geological,ecological, economic, and so on—to assess the colony’s potential and decide how best to tap it” (146).

The necessity of studying the colonized land and subject is illustrated in H.A. MacMichael’s advice to British colonizers in Sudan: “The administrator…should learn all he can of the customs and beliefs of the people who are in his tutelage and utilize these customs and beliefs to the full extent of which their nature permits” (9). Colonizers rewrote the histories of the colonized, named and categorized the social and political units of the natives, and analyzed their psychology and rituals, employing scientists, anthropologists, and economists. “Development” projects also rest upon the production of knowledge. The 1975 World Bank report on Lesotho is just one example of many quantified analyses on African histories, economies, social structures, and political landscapes.

While much scholarship has proven colonial and “development” scholarship to be factually inaccurate, the effects of this knowledge production are far more interesting. Yusufu Bala Usman asserts that, despite the “objective” claim of such studies, knowledge is formed through specific perspectives and assumptions, creating a “conceptual framework” that informs all collections and reports of so-called fact (22). The conceptual frameworks structuring colonial and “development” knowledge create substantial effects, concealing political assumptions and objectives while simultaneously transforming the native subject into a certain political mold. Ferguson describes this, “’Development’ institutions generate their own form of discourse, and this discourse simultaneously constructs Lesotho as a particular kind of object of knowledge, and then creates a structure of knowledge around that object” (xiv). The same process occurrs in colonialism – the native subject takes on a new identity, shaped by the “conceptual framework” of colonialist study.


A common effect of both projects’ knowledge production is the depoliticization of intervention through a claim of moral and technical justification. Both discourses are rooted in a standardized ideal of “modernity” and “progress”—whether this takes on the teleology of “civilization” or “development,” all knowledge of the native subject is organized in relation (and opposition) to this ideal. The ostensibly scientific study of the colonized or the “less developed” subject serves to “prove” the inferior condition of the native in contrast to the colonizer or the “developed” nations. With this framework, the hegemonic party positions its intervention as a beneficent moral project, a “mission” to help the inferior natives attain “modernity.” This direct link between seeking knowledge and the moral justification of intervention is evident in MacMichael’s paper Arabic and the Southern Sudan:

“Instead of running gratuitous risks and simultaneously robbing our officials of half the incentive to study the local languages and organisations, encourage them by every possible means to acquire a fuller and more intimate knowledge of all that pertains to the great negro tribes and devote a whole-hearted enthusiasm to ‘the cultivation’ of their language, conservation and sublimation of all that is of value in their customs and institutions, frank recognition of the measure of truth contained in their religion” (4).

With this reasoning, MacMichael and his colonialist counterparts depoliticize their colonization with a claim of an altruistic “cultivation” toward the prescribed ideal of “civilization.” This theme is deeply embedded in “development” discourse as well. With scientific knowledge testifying that the “less developed” countries need “cultivation” in order to “catch up” to the superior nations of the globe, the “developed” countries become morally justified in its intervention. But the foundation of colonial and “development” knowledge in so-called objective disciplines even further depoliticizes the intervention. This knowledge constructs a narrative of progress that relies only upon technical, apolitical improvements “proven” to bear economic and social “progress.” Explaining this phenomenon in the case of Lesotho, Ferguson writes,

“For an analysis to meet the needs of ‘development’ institutions, it must do what academic discourse inevitably fails to do; it must make Lesotho out to be an enormously promising candidate for the only sort of intervention a ‘development’ agency is capable of launching: the apolitical, technical ‘development’ intervention” (69).

By rooting the projects in a certain production of knowledge, colonialism and “development” work conceal the political nature of their interventions by constituting the ventures as justified, objective instruments of moral and technical progress.


A common method utilized by both colonial and “development” discourse in order to establish this effective, apolitical mode of knowledge is the categorization and homogenization of native identity. Winston Churchill’s account of Sudanese history, The River War, is a salient example: “The Soudanese are of many tribes, but two main races can be clearly distinguished: the aboriginal natives, and the Arab settlers” (7). Usman challenges readers to question the divisions and containerizations of identity in the colonial historiography of Sudan. He argues, “The way that [these categories] are used in most of these writings as given, fixed, and historical entities, blocks our comprehension of the extent, nature and significance of this diversity” (23). In other words, colonial knowledge produces categorizations that conceal plurality. A comparable incident of the homogenization of identity arises in Ferguson’s work, as he describes the trend in “development” analysis to insist upon the central role of agriculture in “less developed” countries. Ferguson explains,

“In ‘development’ discourse, Basotho are, by decree, ‘farmers.’ Even people with no land and no animals are ‘farmers.’ There are no unemployed in Lesotho, according to the table on employment in the USAID Country Strategy Statement, since anyone without a job is defined as a subsistence farmer” (59-60).

Homogenization and categorization of native identities are not only strategies of convenience. They work to create and sustain a binary opposition between the colonized and the colonizer, or the “developed” and the “less developed.” This opposition, founded in these certain forms of knowledge production, contributes to the crafted legitimacy of hegemonic intervention.


The categorization of colonized and “less developed” societies as “traditional” is integral to the process of domination. Both the projects of colonialism and “development” use this label to maintain the subject’s status as stagnant, incapable of progress, and in need of external intervention. Mamdani explains how the formation of a homogenized native identity as “traditional” in colonial scholarship furthered the project of political domination:

“The political objective [of colonialism] was to reorganize colonized populations around narrower identities. Sometimes, this involved a benign acknowledgement of existing identities, but at other times, it involved a wholesale reidentification of peoples … At the heart of the political objective was a compact with fading elites: propping them up as ‘traditional’ in return for recognition of colonial tutelage as ‘legitimate’” (145).

Colonial knowledge finds “scientific” evidence to assert this homogenized, “traditional” identity upon the colonized populations. This category exists in direct opposition to the concept of “modernity,” as if native societies have not changed or evolved in any way throughout time. Churchill writes of Sudan, “Strong, virile, and simple-minded savages, [the natives] lived as we may imagine prehistoric men” (7). The perception of the subject as a “primitive” society, as illustrated by the colonial constitution of the native, is found in “development” discourse as well. Ferguson, quoting the World Bank, identifies the “assertion that Lesotho in 1966 was ‘a traditional subsistence peasant society,’ ‘virtually untouched by modern economic development,’” (25). Labeling a society as “traditional” through ostensibly apolitical knowledge, colonial and “development” projects create a colonized and “less development” subject that requires external intervention to make “progress” toward “modernity.” In this way, the projects’ employment of depoliticizing knowledge and construction of homogenized identities become the primary political tools for intervention and the imbalance of power that the projects produce and preserve. “Traditional,” a marker of stasis and inferiority, is an identity produced by both colonial and “development” discourses, but the two projects utilize the notion in differing ways. As prescribed by the colonial system of indirect rule in Africa, colonizers sought to define and preserve native “tradition” in order to protect colonial rule from any native uprisings or challenges. In Maffey’s 1924 memorandum about British indirect rule in Sudan, he writes, “Under the impulse of new ideas and with the rise of a new generation, old traditions may pass away with astonishing rapidity. It is advisable to fortify them while the memories … are vivid still and while tribal sanctions are still a living force” (2). Colonialists wanted to preserve “traditional” systems of authority so that tribal chiefs and administrations would govern on behalf of (and below) the colonial power. The aim was to ensure a smooth transition of power without resistance from the natives, who greatly outnumbered the colonial settlers. MacMichael writes, “The whole crux of the matter lies in gaining understanding [of the native] and winning confidence and even affection” (5). But, since the “understanding” gained by colonial knowledge is shaped by the political need to define and containerize the native as primitive, isolated, and static, the “tradition” that indirect rule preserves is not authentic but is instead a new system and phenomenon constructed by “apolitical” colonial scholarship. The type of “traditional” rule crafted by colonial rulers excludes the true mechanisms and plurality of authority in precolonial Africa. Mamdani expounds upon this,

“Like all colonial powers, the British worked with a single model of customary authority in precolonial Africa. That model was monarchical, patriarchal, and authoritarian … One needs to realize that notions of a precolonial tradition are far more constraining than illuminating” (39).

The homogenized identification of natives as “traditional,” as corroborated by “objective” colonial study, is deployed as the foundation of colonialism’s political strategy of domination, indirect rule. While colonialists claim to conserve native “tradition,” the epistemological systems employ the new definitional category to further their political interests.

“Development” projects, on the other hand, which also produce and maintain this “traditional” identity of the subjected society, fortify its claims of political superiority and justification by proclaiming its intent to dismantle the primitive hindrance of “tradition” and replace it with “modernity.” Ferguson illuminates this trend in “development” discourse:

“One final feature of the ‘aboriginal’ portrait drawn by ‘development’ discourse is that the less developed society is ‘traditional.’ People’s attitudes and values are not yet in harmony with modern economic life. Whether they take the form of backward land tenure laws or reluctance to sell livestock, ‘social/traditional constraints’ stand in the way of change… Achieving ‘development’ is thus largely a matter of changing value and attitudes” (58).

In colonial and “development” discourse, “tradition” is something stagnant, ahistorical, and primitive. While colonial indirect rule aimed to preserve this constructed category, “development” projects want to overturn it to help the “less developed” country progress. This notion of needing to convert the native to modernity parallels an earlier form of colonial authority, direct rule. Direct rule manifested the West’s “civilizing mission,” which lives on today in “development” discourse. Ferguson asserts, “The premise of all ‘development’ analysis of Lesotho is that it is a stagnated agricultural peasant economy which requires only the correct technical inputs to become ‘developed’” (58). By rendering the society as “traditional,” the “developed” countries simultaneously render the “less developed” nations as logical candidates for apolitical intervention, which will ring in “modernity” and “progress.”

Despite the fact that enterprises utilize knowledge production to buttress apolitical justifications for intervention, colonialism and “development” projects create far-reaching political effects by strengthening governmental power. Colonial indirect rule fashions a decentralized despotism, and “development” projects augment the reach and degree of the state’s bureaucratic control. Claiming to be “preserving” “traditional” forms of authority, the colonialist project actually formed an entirely new system of power, one that dismantled the power restraints in place in pre-colonial governance. Mamdani explains how the colonialist containerization of the native society as “traditional” transformed authentic modes of authority into decentralized despotism: “From African tradition, colonial powers salvaged a widespread and time-honored practice, one of a decentralized exercise of power, but freed that power of restraint, of peers or people. Thus they laid the basis for decentralized despotism” (48). By shaping the history and identity of the native, colonialists directly shaped the political reality of the colonized. In other words, as Mamdani writes, “More than reflecting a slice of reality in the collage that was nineteenth-century Africa, the colonial notion of the precolonial was really a faithful mirror reflection of the decentralized despotism created under colonial rule” (39). After rendering the native society as static and primitive through a teleological framework of “modern civilization,” the colonial project employed the newly crafted category of “tradition” as a form of rule. This system deconstructed checks on political power and produced decentralized despotism among the tribal authority. In this way, it is clear that the theoretical constitution of the native is the foundation for the concrete political constitution and reality of the native.


Bolstered political power is also an effect of “development” interventions. In its insistence upon the enclosed unit of the nation-state, “development” discourse operates on the “governmentalist assumption,” which Ferguson describes as “the assumption that whatever economic changes have or have not happened in Lesotho are to be explained by reference to Lesotho or Colonial government policy” (36). In this way, the state government becomes the “machine” for implementing “development” projects to spur “progress.” Ferguson demonstrates that “development” discourse positions the state as an “apolitical tool for delivering social services and agricultural inputs and engineering economic growth” (65). Armed with new bureaucratic instruments, “development” programs, the state government becomes a point of the concentration of power over the nation’s population, economy, and society. According to Ferguson,

“The growth of state power in such a context does not imply any sort of efficient, centralized social engineering. It simply means that power elations must increasingly be referred through bureaucratic circuits… The ‘developmental’ state, then, is a knotting or a coagulation of power” (274).

In producing the identity of the “less developed” country as “traditional,” the “development” discourse creates a subject that requires technical intervention for “progress,” which may only be implemented through a powerful and expansive political bureaucracy of the state. The goals for this centralization of power (“efficiency” and “modernization”) are not actualized, but the expanded reach of state bureaucratic control becomes a concrete political reality.

The drive underlying these projects is the maintenance of global power imbalances. Claiming to do the opposite, colonizers and “developed” countries preserve the inferior status of the subjected society in efforts to buttress their own dominance. Colonialism arose from the expansion of capitalism. Walter Rodney explains in his book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa that the “technological and economic gap between Western Europe and Africa was part of the trend within capitalism to concentrate or polarize wealth and poverty at two opposite extremes” (136). In other words, capitalism requires this binary relationship between extreme wealth and extreme poverty. In order for wealthy European capitalist nations to remain powerful, they need to fashion this oppositional binary by producing and sustaining the poverty of others. Rodney continues,

“[Imperialism] meant that European (and North American and Japanese) capitalists were forced by the internal logic of their competitive system to seek abroad in less developed countries opportunities to control raw material supplies, to find markets, and to find profitable fields of investment” (136).

Aiming to ensure capitalist wealth, colonialists defined the native as “traditional,” producing a candidate for capitalist intervention that would maintain Western dominance. Many colonialists denied this political and economic motive behind their conquest, as is illustrated by the case of King Leopold, who masked his violent, profitable exploitation of the Congo as a diplomatic mission for human rights (Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost). But many colonialists did admit their economic motivation to control resources and gain profit from colonies. Still, their success in extracting wealth and sustaining domination was rooted in colonial knowledge production and maintenance of the native identity, which concealed the expanse of the colonial political project. The vast effects of such theoretical constitution of the colonized society and the intervention of capitalist expansion created and preserved the poverty and “inferiority” of the colonized, in direct opposition to the wealthy and powerful colonizer.

“Development” projects also work to preserve this imbalance of power, containerizing the “traditional” society to remain in its “less developed” state and ultimately failing to achieve the “development” it preaches. Samir Amin explains this phenomenon:

“This ‘traditional’ society was not, therefore, in transition to ‘modernity’; as a dependent society it was complete, peripheral, and hence at a dead end. It consequently retained certain ‘traditional’ appearances which constituted its only means of survival” (405).

Like colonialism, “development” discourse defines and traps the “primitive” society in a binary opposition to the “modern” and “developed” countries, whose superiority is dependent upon the inferiority of the “less developed.” Unlike colonialism, the admission of the developmentalist’s economic motives is not common. Instead, the teleological narrative of a “developed” country injecting certain moral, apolitical, and technical programs to usher “modernity” into a barbaric, “traditional” nation continues to operate in contemporary discourse.


A close analysis of the parallels between colonialism and “development” projects reveals the widespread effects of the knowledge, identities, politics, and hierarchies produced by these discourses. Operating in a certain conceptual framework, colonial and “development” knowledge creates and containerizes native identity as the ideal candidate for intervention. Through the preservation or manipulation of constructed “tradition,” the projects strengthen the native government authority and simultaneously blockade the “progress” promised. Emblematic of the tangible, political effects resulting from theoretical, conceptual framework, colonizers and “developed” countries employ these strategies to sustain economic and political hegemony.

By Lucille Marshall. Written for Major Debates in the Study of Africa with Professor Mamdani at Columbia University


Works Cited

Amin, Samir. Imperialism and Unequal Development. Hassocks: Harvester, 1977. Print. Churchill, Winston Spencer. The River War an Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan.

Mengeš: PeBook, 2013. Print.
Ferguson, James. The Anti-politics Machine: “development,” Depoliticization, and

Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990. Print.
H. A. MacMichael, “Indirect Rule for Pagan Communities,” Sudan Archives, University of

Durham, SAD 586/1/1
H.A. MacMichael, MacMichael Papers, “Arabic and the Southern Sudan”

Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998. Print.

J. L. Maffey, Khartoum, 1st January, 1927, ‘Minute, His Excellency the Governor General,’ dated 1:1:27, in SAD 695/8/3-5

Mamdani, Mahmood. Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror. New York: Pantheon, 2009. Print.

Rodney, Walter. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Washington: Howard UP, 1974. Print.

Usman, Yusufu Bala. Beyond Fairy Tales: Selected Historical Writings. Zaria, Nigeria: Abdullahi Smith Centre for Historical Research, 2006. Print.


About lucystarer

college student. hiker. oatmeal eater.

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