Violence, Justice and Decolonization

If you are looking for a tour de force of colonialism, anti-colonization struggle and decolonization, Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth (1961) should be high on the list. Fanon is a unique voice; in style, content and argument. This work has influenced revolutionaries from Palestine to Sri Lanka and South Africa, as well as the United States. In his day – and undoubted in our times – Fanon was a radical. Fanon is probably most well known for his promotion of the use of violence, which comes out clearly in the first chapter of this book. He begins: "decolonization is always a violent event" (p. 1).

Will people will power – who use that power to entrench severe inequalities and enrich themselves – easily give up that power? Would they do so voluntarily? Fanon suggests not. "In its bare reality, decolonization reeks of red-hot cannonballs and bloody knives. For the last can be the first only after a murderous and decisive confrontation between the two protagonists. This determination to have the last move up to the front, to have them clamber up (too quickly, say some) the famous echelons of an organized society, can only succeed by resorting to every means, including, of course, violence" (p. 3).

Violence is not a means that is sought for its own sake, according to the author. For Fanon, violence is an expression of equality: "If, in fact, my life is worth as much as the colonist's, his look can no longer strike fear into me or nail me to the spot and his voice can no longer petrify me. I am no longer uneasy in his presence. In reality, to hell with him. Not only does his presence no longer bother me, but I am preparing to waylay him in such a way that soon he will have no other solution but to flee" (p. 10). The colonized person "is dominated but not domesticated. He is made to feel inferior, but by no means convinced of his inferiority" (p. 16). "Over the years I have had the opportunity to verify the fundamental fact that honor, dignity and integrity are only truly evident in the context of national and international unity. As soon as you and your fellow men are cut down like dogs there is no other solution but to use every means available to reestablish your weight as a human being. You must therefore weigh as heavily as possible on your torturer's body so that his wits, which have wandered off somewhere, can at least be restored to their human dimension" (p. 221).

There have been tens of books, and hundreds of academic articles, published on the importance of strict non-violence in mass action, citizen movements. For the last decade, efforts have been made to show that violence does not work, and that only strict non-violence should be used. Fanon might suggest that this trend is not, in fact, novel: "At the critical, deciding moment the colonialist bourgeoisie, which had remained silent up till then, enters the fray. They introduce a new notion, in actual fact a creation of the colonial situation: nonviolence. In its raw state this nonviolence conveys to the colonized intellectual and business elite that their interests are identical to those of the colonialist bourgeoisie and it is therefore indispensable, a matter of urgency, to reach an agreement for the common good" (p. 23). However, the author argues that "the underprivileged and starving peasant is the exploited who very soon discovers that only violence pays. For him there is no compromise, no possibility of concession" (p. 23). Furthermore, the control and exploitation need not be direct to be subject to violence, economic domination does also (p. 27). Fanon foresaw the real issue of the day being inequality: "What matters today, the issue which blocks the horizon, is the need for a distribution of wealth. Humanity will have to address this question, no matter how devastating the consequences may be" (p. 55).

For all his original contributions, however, I found some aspects of Fanon's writing challenging – even self-contradicting. In many ways Fanon speaks for the people – for example: "what the colonized people want…" (p. 13); "the youth of Africa should not be…" (p. 137). This is a disempowering narrative for the people. Rather than advocate for the people to have their voices heard, and for their ability to create their own forms of governance, Fanon speaks on their behalf. Undoubtedly, Fanon argues in favor of governance by the people (e.g. p. 130), but his writing does not always reflect this (e.g. "the government must serve as filter and stabilizer" (p. 137)).

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Life After Violence: Burundi

What happens after conflict ends? How are lives changed, perceptions altered and the future envisioned? Peter Uvin held hundreds of interviews in Burundi to find out in his book "Life After Violence: A People's Story of Burundi" (2009). The author presents "a snapshot of life as lived and analyzed by ordinary Burundians" being "based on the voices of the people – primarily young people – throughout Burundi: people who have been refugees, internally displaced, dispersed, ex-combatants; in the city and the collines, Hutu and Tutsi" (p. 1). He starts with the context:

  • "Institutional transformation had to be achieved against a backdrop of unimaginable poverty and the social exclusion of most Burundians. The rural and urban poor, whether Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa, were the ones being killed and abused by all sides. They were the ones whose land was stolen, whose food, credit, and aid were being skimmed off, whose children were dying from preventable diseases at a rate that is one of the world's three highest. Few of those in power or vying for it, regardless of their party affiliation, were deeply connected to the poor or seemed to have their interests at heart." (p. 18).

Some parts of this book read like a report (which may have been its original intention as a World Bank supported project), and neglects to include some important contextual and methodological information. The greatest weakness appears to be that while almost four hundred interviews were conducted, we do not know how the volumes and volumes of content were analyzed and how the few selected quotes were chosen. Unless the result of systematic analysis (e.g. coding in NVivo or another software), one wonders if the quotes reflect those that seemed most interesting to the author, or are representative of the norm. Uvin offers some statistical breakdowns of how many interviewees answered in which ways, but these too leave the reader wondering how categorizations were done, as certainly there are instances wherein multiple experiences and positions are expressed about an issue. Quotes and analyses inform narrative and it is therefore important for authors writing narrative as authority on behalf of others to offer details and be reflexive about the processes involved.

Uvin offers some interesting criticisms of societal discourse, such as the following on perceptions of corruption: "Corruption has become a short-cut accusation, a term used by those who are angry at the system to express dissatisfaction and cast aspersions. It is a (rhetorical) weapon of the weak – all the more credible as there indeed is a lot of corruption in Burundi" (p. 68). And Uvin provides examples of how these claims are not always actual cases of corruption, such as a the relatively wealthy complaining about lack of support by emergency aid (excluded due to targeting) or the demobilized soldier refused aid (due to a policy). In another instance he criticizes the international discourse: "even in countries at war, there is more going on than war. War may capture the attention, dominate the political discourse, and its resolution may be a sine quo non for meaningful change, but it is not the full story of life, and people know it." (p. 82-84). In yet another part he takes aim at academics: "It seems to me that the way Burundian society defines peace is well represented in the post-conflict agenda – thus contradicting the academically popular but simplistic notion that this is all a mere neocolonial agenda. The first three categories – accounting for 80 percent of all answers – are the exact categories that the international community privileges: security, development, and the restoration of social relations. This is good news: even though peace-building experts and ordinary Burundians use different terms, they seem to talk about the same things." (p. 51) As Robert Chambers wrote in 1983 (in Rural Development: Putting the Last First, p. 30), "Academics are trained to criticize and are rewarded for it. Social scientists in particular are taught to argue and to find fault." At least in this book, it appears that Uvin has worn his critical fault-finding social scientist hat.

In reflecting on recent economic development, Uvin offers two, somewhat contradictory opinions. First, a strong promotion of job creation by any means: "job creation is the only key to development. Nothing else matters. Any way to promote job creation must be pursued" (p. 119). But, then, in reflecting upon the impact of capitalism, writes: "By calling it a capitalist ethos, I make it sound wholly positive and desirable, especially to Americans, who have been told that there is no more beautiful way of organizing life than unbridled capitalism and individual competition. But the spread of this cutthroat capitalism constitutes a profound loss for Burundi as well. Burundi's capitalist ethos feeds on fear and desperation – the knowledge that destitution and death lurk around every corner, that nobody is there to help you, and that you can only count on your own actions to survive, day by day, month by month." (p. 120). Putting these comments together, one could reasonably assume that the recommendation for job creation is not actually by any means, but directed and regulated so as to ensure the jobs do not increase vulnerability and inequality, and that they do not displace the poor and marginalized further by the relatively wealthy and investors (as the large-scale land grabs have shown can be the outcome) of job creation and economic transformation schemes.

The author also wrote a highly recommended book about international aid and violence. And, those familiar with this earlier work, will anticipate that Uvin is not pleased with the international community nor the system of international aid. His passion for justice comes out less forcefully in this book, but he offers clear reminders of his position: "the lives of most of the people we interviewed lead are an affront to human dignity and totally deny any notion that there is an international community that stands for any values of equity or justice… They die from easily preventable or curable diseases – tetanus, malaria – at scandalous rates… The poverty of Burundi, and the stinginess of the international community when dealing with it, is revolting in our world of over-consumption." (p. 2). Later in the work Uvin continues, "donors, in Burundi and elsewhere, seem incapable of understanding politics or acting politically. There are important processes that can lead to peace, the expression of citizenship, and the learning of democracy in Burundian society. But donors fail to understand them or to act on them. They simply copy products, but do not support processes. This worked reasonably well when it came to the transition, which consisted of a set of clearly defined products: demobilization of soldiers, creation of a transitional government – any government – for a number of months, organization of elections by a specific deadline, etc. But it works less well once this easy phase is out of the way, and sustainable, locally owned institutions need to take root" (p. 79-80). The passion is also found in works by Paul Farmer, wherein academic interests and practical experience are infused with deep rooted desire to advocate for justice. 

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Does Development Aid Violence?

​Peter Uvin's "Aiding Violence: The Development Enterprise in Rwanda" (1999), should be read by all students, practitioners and scholars of development studies. The book offers unique perspectives on the linkages between development activity and politics, power, exclusion, marginalization and processes that generally counter the objectives of the development enterprise, and specifically the Rwandan genocide.

The book opens forcefully with the statement that: "Almost none of the foreign experts living and working in Rwanda expected the genocide to occur or did anything to stop it from happening" (p. 2), and "the way development was defined, managed, and implemented was a crucial element in the creation and evolution of many of the processes that led to genocide" (p. 3). This is because "the way development (aid) is defined and implemented interacts with processes of elite reproduction, social differentiation, political exclusion, and cultural change" (p. 6).

Yet, Uvin recognizes the limitations of such broad, general claims: "Another problem is that this book describes the development aid system at large and therefore generalizes and simplifies. It is likely that for any statement I make, there have been agencies and people who acted or thought differently. Any statement about "the development enterprise" is bound to do injustice to some people and organizations. The same holds true, for that matter, for statements about "farmers," "politicians," "Hutu," or "Tutsi." (p. 9).

The international community, Uvin argues, was blind to the processes that led to the genocide: "In its "soft" version – that Rwanda underwent a social revolution and its regime truly represents the masses – there were almost no dissenters internationally. If one reads, for example, project documents, policy statements, and analyses by foreign aid agencies or their employees, one is surprised to find, over and over again, an uncritical acceptance of the merits of the social revolution and the representative nature of the state" (p. 27). Even when racism, ethnic differentiation and marginalization were directly and indirectly apparent "no aid agency has ever pushed the government to change these policies. Alison des Forges, one of the foremost American specialists on the Great Lakes region and a human rights activist (working for Africa Watch), bitterly laments the fact that all foreign aid agencies accepted the continuation of the ethnic IDs and did not pressure the government to abandon them – not even in 1992, when it became clear that they were being employed to target Tutsi for harassment and extermination" (p. 37). Exclusion "was embedded in the functioning of society" in social, regional and ethnic levels, and "it comes as no surprise that exclusion was deeply ingrained in the processes of so-called development (p. 118). "Development aid strengthens processes of exclusion both directly, through its own behaviors, and indirectly, through its acquiescence and implication in other actors' behaviors" (p. 153).

  • "Ethnic inequality; institutionalized, state-organized racism; regional politics; lack of dignity and self-respect; the generalized presence of impunity and fear of the absence of justice; human rights violations; the oppressive presence of the state, and the like are emphatically not parts of this "solvable problem" or of the mandate of development agencies; they are thus evacuated, ignored, considered not to exist. (p. 45)
  • "Ethnic and political amnesia does not make development aid and the processes its sets in motion apolitical; it just renders these processes invisible." (p. 232)
  • "When the large majority of high-level civil servants and project managers in Burundi are Tutsi; where there are legal limits on the number of Tutsi that can enter civil service in Rwanda; when the top positions go disproportionately to people from the president's region and assorted other friends; when the best-paid jobs are always reserved for Bazungu, regardless of competence; when many of the people with well-paid positions in the private aid sector are Tutsi; in other words, when ethnic and regional criteria intervene so crucially in the distribution of the direct benefits of development projects, is the aid system neutral?" (p. 147)
False attacks were utilized to fuel national and international sentiment against Tutsi people, including an all-night attack on Kigali in 1990, staged by the army, and again in 1991, both of which justified mass imprisonment (p. 63-64). At the same time, the trendy and innovative approaches in the development community prioritized governmental ownership and control of aid resources (p. 88), yet Uvin wonders if these policies "reflected any understanding of the disintegration of Rwandan society and its structures of governance" (p. 89). Aid agencies could not, Uvin argues, claim ignorance. "All aid agencies, from headquarters in Western capitals to local offices, were aware of the rapid deterioration of Rwanda's human rights record (from already low levels) and of the rise in racism and violence; similarly, all development experts were daily confronted at the personal level with the fear, hatred, and insecurity that characterized daily life in Rwanda in the 1990s. None of them, though, felt that the development assistance mission ought to be, or could be, fundamentally rethought" (p. 94). Uvin wonders if it really needed to take a genocide to understand that development could not take place without peace, justice, civil society, human rights and conflict resolution (p. 100).

  • "There is no way that the government could implement any policy, coherent or not, without the assistance of the foreign aid community; as a matter of fact, there is no way that significant parts of the government bureaucracy could even exist without international aid. In countries such as Rwanda and many other African countries, development aid is the fuel that allows the government machinery to exist, to expand, to control, to implement." (p. 227)

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Logan Cochrane

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