Day III: An Inspiring Smile

Development Policy06 Jun 2009Marieke Hounjet

Today was a day filled with numerous interesting panels, in perhaps slightly less traditional research areas, but certainly in ‘up and coming’ fields. One was themed ‘Navigating Urban Space’, where the speakers introduced interesting ideas about the urban space. One of the main lines of thought was the question whether there is this specific aspect that the ‘urban’ creates. Are certain things only possible in the urban space? Although urban environments can be very segregated environments, people can also cross the borders. Ulrika Anderson presented her study where a person in a Nigerian City simply shifted his own place and belonging in the urban space by changing his clothes, going from Christian to Arabic and vice versa, as he was familiar (and fluent) in both cultures. As urbanization is the phenomenon of our times and the time ahead these strands of research will probably only grow and hopefully generate more such interesting insights.

Another contemporary theme in African studies is related to predominantly China but now also increasingly India’s involvement in Africa. In the panel ‘Reinventing the International in Africa’ Dave Harris and Simona Vittorini presented on the politics of Indian aid, trade and investment in West Africa. They argued that India’s presence is both diverse and huge, and that investments (although numbers are hard to verify) indicate true commitment. India approaches Africa with exceptionalism, making a clear claim to be different than the other global players, stemming from it being a developing, multicultural, post-colonial and democratic nation. It sees itself different from China as it does not deploy a government-led strategy and because it is better located in the African context; and different from the West by respecting African countries’ sovereignty and realising mutual benefits. Focussing on Liberia and Ghana specifically they concluded that once sovereignty is indeed maintained in the relationship, these governments (having showed developmental intentions) might find more leeway and room for manoeuvre which might create positive effects.

Julia Gallagher presented in this same panel her fascinating study, not on what China’s role is on the African continent, but how the British depict China as the ‘villainous other in Africa’. British politics, surprisingly with much consensus, does not allow a possibility for ‘mixture’ in China’s motives behind its activities in Africa. Gallagher explains how Britain sees its own role in Africa as simply non-complex and ‘good’, which ironically rather resembles how the Chinese depict themselves in Africa. This indeed raises questions of what assumptions we make on India’s and China’s role in Africa; UK headlines speak of China’s growing ‘slave empire’ in Africa rather than the fact that China contributes more troops to the UN security council’s operations in Africa than any other of its members. As one participant in the panel suggested we should perhaps team up more often with Indian and Chinese scholars for these studies. Furthermore, the panel concluded that the elephant in the room was really the relevance of the question how African governments will respond and use this potential space that multi-polarity on the continent might open up.

Thus, many interesting debates are lying ahead in African studies and this is just a miniscule representation. Someone mentioned to me today how much inspiration this Conference provided him with, and I think this is the best potential outcome of the knowledge exchange that a conference really is. Moreover, my understanding of inspiration here moves beyond its pure ‘rational’ sense. When I was watching the speakers in the panel on ‘navigating urban space’ this morning I saw how, when the speakers introduced ‘the site’ of their research (specific country, city or neighbourhood) they instantly started smiling, and that really is most inspiring.