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An Unlikely Villain


by Emma Starink

For parts of the world experiencing a combination of both a humanitarian crisis and terrorism, international aid efforts are almost guaranteed to not provide adequate relief.

This depressing phenomenon of repeated failure can largely be blamed on so-called Material Support Laws. These laws heavily penalize the act of providing any kind of material support to terrorists, regardless of whether that support was provided intentionally.

In response to these laws, humanitarian aid organizations often wholly avoid areas where terrorists operate to avoid accidentally providing them with support and facing repercussions – to the detriment of millions of lives that could be improved or saved through well-designed systems of aid provision. 

This article focuses on international humanitarian aid coming from the United States and the United Kingdom, representing the first and fourth largest aid-giving states. The article principally emphasizes case studies in the United States, as American humanitarian aid workers experience the impact of these laws to the greatest degree.  It defines terrorist organisations as those party to the United States Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list. This definition is highly debated as to who it ultimately serves, but for the purpose of this analysis, no particular position will be assumed. 

Material Support Laws today

In the United States, courts consider three key laws and statutes when handling cases of individuals or organizations providing material support to terrorists. These laws define and describe material support, who is prohibited from receiving material support, and what the punishment is for those who intentionally or unintentionally provide material support.

These laws are Section 805 of the United States PATRIOT Act, and Sections 2339A and 2339B of the United States Code Title 18

The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act (PATRIOT Act) was drafted in direct response to the September 11 terrorist attacks and essentially marks the start of the ‘War on Terror’. It was the first of its kind to outline heavy penalties for individuals found guilty of even the smallest connection to terrorists.

United States Code Title 18 Sections 2339A and 2339B expand on the PATRIOT Act by providing specifics on what is considered material support and what the penalties are for providing it to terrorists. Section 2339A defines what exactly prohibited material support is, and keeps its scope purposely broad so as to allow nearly anything to be interpreted as material support. Section B of 18 U.S.C § 2339 focuses on what punishment any individual or organization will face if found guilty of providing material support to terrorists and is also deliberately broad with punishments ranging from lengthy prison terms to heavy fines.

Credits: David McKelvey via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In the United Kingdom, the 2019 Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act serves as the main reference for definitions of acts of terrorism and penalties for those found guilty of association. A preliminary iteration of the Act included a provision that gave the Home Secretary the power to prohibit UK nationals from entering or remaining in a designated region due to terrorist operations in that area. Had this version passed, this provision would have prevented UK humanitarian aid workers from providing aid in said designated regions, with penalties for doing so including police investigation and prosecution.

Successful advocacy by peacebuilding activists added stipulations to this provision in the final version of the act that allows humanitarian aid workers to enter and work in these regions and considers aid delivery a “reasonable excuse” for travel to and from them. Nevertheless, these stipulations still dissuade many aid workers from travelling to designated areas for fear their work will not be considered a “reasonable excuse” or that they themselves would not be considered an aid worker. UK aid providers in these areas continue to face issues with overseas bank accounts being closed or frozen thus prohibiting the transfer of money while working, among other legal troubles upon return. 

Somalia: a case study in frustrated resignation

Somalia provides a clear case study on the failure of these laws to provide aid to victims of famine in regions controlled by terrorists. Recurrent droughts and mismanagement of food aid by local governments have contributed to the majority of Somalia’s population facing persistent famine for the past decade.

Taken in Mogadishu in 2017. Credits: AU-UN IST/Stuart Price via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Additionally, the terrorist group al-Shabaab, on the FTO list since 2008, continues to operate in and control the southern half of the country. This combination means trouble for humanitarian aid workers looking to avoid jail time. Restrictive Material Support Laws mean that famine-stricken Somalis living in regions controlled by al-Shabaab receive only around 10-15% of the amount of aid that Somalis living outside of al-Shabaab’s reach receive. This comes from fear of prosecution by Material Support Laws for providing aid to areas with an al-Shabaab presence as well as concerns regarding disorganized or unfair distribution. No matter where the majority of the blame falls, the end result is that two million people suffer needlessly in Somalia annually.  

Part of what makes these laws so frustrating is that they were codified before many modern crises began. The PATRIOT Act and 18 U.S.C § 2339 A and B were adopted into United States law in 2001 and 2002, respectively. These years correspond to the very beginning of al-Shabaab’s presence and growth in Somalia. For this reason, they cannot have been written with Somalia’s current context in mind. As a result, aid workers and political leaders in the United States and the United Kingdom find their hands bound by ill-fitting terms of engagement.

It’s not all doom and gloom. In Somalia’s case, during a particularly terrible period of famine in 2011, the U.S. Department of State announced that “any U.S. aid groups that provide famine aid in areas of Somalia controlled by al-Shabaab…will not be prosecuted for violating the U.S. law prohibiting material support of terrorism if they act in good faith to reach victims of the famine”. This meant that aid workers were able to engage in delivering famine relief without fear of prosecution for unintentionally providing material support to terrorists.  

This small exception to the rules had disproportionately positive impacts on people’s lives. It also set a promising precedent for future permanent change. After all, the charge of Material Support Laws is not to block life-saving aid to starving foreign nationals, but solely to prevent terrorists from receiving said aid.  

Towards a set of solutions

Alright, how do you fix these problems created by Material Support Laws? Several potential solutions exist, with a wide range of feasibility. 

First, similar to the case of Somalia in 2011, is the creation of a governmental body in aid-giving states which independently reviews cases for temporary exceptions to the laws.

This body would work on a case-by-case basis to review humanitarian crises and judge whether or not a certain crisis meets specific criteria to qualify for an exception to Material Support Laws. These exceptions would be temporary, to ensure that engagement with and provision of material support to terrorists could not take place years after the initial exception was granted and the initial humanitarian crisis resolved. In the UK, cases could be reviewed by the Home Secretary’s office just as areas being designated as prohibited for travel are reviewed. 

Second, amendments can be passed into law that change the very language of the existing material.

The language of these amendments would need to offer greater legal protections to humanitarian aid organizations that unintentionally provide material support to terrorists, or provide clear explanations as to what would qualify as an exception to the rules. Essentially, the text of the PATRIOT Act Section 805, 18 U.S.C § 2339A or B, or the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act would need to be altered or expanded upon. Enacting changes to these laws in this manner is certainly a lofty and likely time-consuming goal, as it would need to pass through several rounds of approval in US and UK governments. However, what this method lacks in speed, it makes up for in permanence. This process would likely only need to be completed once (in the foreseeable future, at least).

A third and final recommendation to improve the ability of humanitarian aid workers to provide aid to terrorist-adjacent crises despite Material Support Laws, is a complete restructuring of the way governments work with terrorists.

This recommendation is by far the most ambitious in scope; the bottom line is that policies preventing work with terrorists need to be separated from policies outlining how to work with national governments defined as terrorists by the FTO. One potential avenue involves not designating those involved in a state’s legitimate central government as a faction of the terrorist organization. By doing this, humanitarian aid workers would still be able to work with the central government to better distribute aid. One precedent to this solution is the purposeful non-designation of the Afghan Taliban as an FTO, despite the Pakistani Taliban arm being considered one. This strategy allowed the U.S. to make the 2020 deal with the Afghan Taliban – a genuine sign of cooperative intentions despite its relative success or failure. 

Terrorists in countries experiencing a humanitarian crisis complicate the delivery of necessary humanitarian aid and material support. With that in mind, Material Support Laws in crucial aid-giving states like the United States and the United Kingdom must change to improve in order to save lives around the world.

Humanitarian aid or development projects?


by Naomi Gammon

Boasting full moon parties, sandy beaches and gleaming temples, Thailand is renowned as a popular and safe holiday destination. The growing tourism industry in Thailand has fuelled rapid development in recent decades, with life expectancy reaching 78.7 years (United Nations Development Programme, 2021) – almost 14 years longer than in neighbouring Burma, a country well-known for decades of oppressive governance (ibid.).

Along the 2,416km border, the contrasting fates of the two nations fuse in vibrant, and often unstable, melting pots which are strategic locations for organisations delivering assistance to those affected by conflict in Burma. One of the best-known is the Thai town of Mae Sot, 4km from the border.

Refugees and migrants on the border

Mae Sot has a long history of receiving migrants and refugees from Burma, who are fleeing political oppression by the military government, known as the Tatmadaw. Burma became independent from Britain in 1948 and was renamed ‘Myanmar’ in 1989. Despite acceptance by the UN, this name is rejected by the US, the UK, and those in-country who feel that it legitimises the military regime (BBC, 2011). The military seized control in a coup in 1962, initially banning opposition parties.

Although the government progressed towards democracy in the early 2010s, with democratically-elected Aung San Suu Kyi becoming state counsellor in 2015, military chief Min Aung Hlaing gained power following a coup in 2021 (Al Jazeera, 2021). The Civil Disobedience Movement and some ethnic armies are resisting the coup, leading to a resurgence of fighting in ethnic regions and undoing the development progress of recent years.

A protest against the military coup. Source: MgHla on Wikimedia Commons via this CC licence

Rarely mentioned in Western media, most refugees around Mae Sot are from the neighbouring Karen State. The Karen — or Kayin, as some call themselves — are one of Burma’s many ethnic minorities, who have suffered longstanding inter-ethnic conflict and unequal treatment by the government. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (2022) reports over 91,100 refugees registered in nine border camps of which the largest, Mae La, is 57km from Mae Sot. This total is dwarfed by the estimated 200,000 migrants around Mae Sot, where they are permitted to work in jobs which are dangerous, dirty and difficult (Chalamwong et al., 2010).

Responding to the refugee crisis

The myriad challenges faced by refugees and migrants have received much attention from international humanitarian and development organisations, including the International Rescue Committee.

Around 10,000 refugees arrived in Thailand following a military attack on Karen rebels in 1984, and a further 10,000 fled following crackdowns responding to the 1988 uprising of student-led protests against government rule. By 1994, there were around 80,000 refugees in Thai camps (The Border Consortium, 2021), attracting a growing population of international workers to Mae Sot. International non-governmental organisations (NGOs), including the UNHCR, and journalists brought flows of donor funding, which was readily available for local CBOs throughout the early 2000s (Nazaryan, 2020). As a result, Mae Sot became the “de facto border headquarters of the international aid community” (Gray, 2015).

However, international funding to Thailand-based organisations fell throughout the 2010s, following political change in Burma. The Burmese president Thein Sein implemented reforms in 2011, including the release of political prisoners and reduced censorship. Reforms made cooperation with the Burmese government more plausible for Western actors. Prospects for assisting democracy in Burma increased further following Aung San Suu Kyi’s 2015 election victory 2015 (Quadrini, 2020). The increasing challenge of justifying long-term assistance to refugees in Thailand meant international funding was often reallocated towards supporting the peace process and delivering education and livelihoods-focussed programmes in Burma.

Supporting a peaceful Burma in which refugees can resettle is vital for human development in the region. However, the shift in donor priorities came at a cost: a 25% reduction in aid to refugees between 2010 and 2020, undermining the work of organisations supporting the refugee and migrant communities (Quadrini, 2020).

The human costs of funding reductions

For organisations such as The Border Consortium (TBC), slashed funding has reduced capacity for programme delivery. TBC works through the Karen Refugee Committee to provide food and shelter in camps and supports camps for internally displaced peoples (IDPs) within Karen State. Between 2012 and 2016, a fall in funding of almost 50% forced TBC to decrease medical care, increase school fees in the camps, and means-test ration provision – the standard adult monthly rice ration has dropped from 15kg to 9kg (Lynch, 2017).

The Mae La refugee camp, home to thousands of Karen refugees. Source: Mikhael Esteves on Wikimedia Commons under this CC licence

TBC also terminated ration delivery to Ei Htu Hta, a camp for Karen IDPs 30km from the Thai-Burma border, in 2017. These cuts came because of reduced funding from western nations, with an EU Commission spokesperson reporting that reductions were part of a strategic shift away from short-term humanitarian aid toward more development-focused programmes (Quadrini, 2020) such as the STEP Democracy programme, which launched in 2015 to support electoral processes and stakeholders (European Commission, 2022).

Financial pressure has forced less resilient organisations to go a step further: Wide Horizons, which offers community development training for refugees, moved from Mae Sot to Burma in 2016 to continue receiving funding from a significant donor (Quadrini, 2020).

When working in Mae Sot this summer (2022), a staff member at the Mae Tao Clinic explained that they had faced similar challenges. The Mae Tao Clinic provides low-cost healthcare for refugees and IDPs, filling a critical hole in care resulting from the lack of rights for refugees in Thailand and the underfunding of healthcare in Burma’s ethnic regions. The clinic has lost funding from major donors such as Norwegian Church Aid, who withdrew support in 2012 (Naing, 2012).

Decisions made by ‘development experts’ in Western nations are also intimately connected to the operation of the clinic, having caused a 20% salary reduction for staff and the introduction of an obligation for patients to pay up to 30% of the cost of non-urgent procedures if they can afford it. Whilst the Mae Tao Clinic received over 50% of funding through governments prior to 2017, the clinic’s 2019-2020 Annual Report reveals that direct government grants accounted for just 4% of funding, with 51% now coming from non-profits and foundations. This shift is emblematic of Western governments’ increasing preference to work directly with the Tatmadaw and the broader shrinking of international development budgets.

Overall, donors’ focus on large-scale political progress has come at a social and economic cost to migrants and refugees remaining in Thailand, who are largely forgotten. It is this decrease in opportunities and welfare provision for those remaining in Thailand, rather than any improvement in prospects in Burma, that drove an increased refugee return rate prior to the military coup of 2021 (Lynch, 2017).

2021: a U-turn in funding patterns?

Since the military coup, donor perceptions of the Burmese government have reshaped funding patterns. Governments such as the US have terminated funding for programmes benefitting the Tatmadaw (Cornish, 2021), whilst INGOs have faced problems such as poor internet banking systems and safety concerns (Root, 2021).

Taken in a refugee camp on the border. Source: Mikhael Esteves on Wikimedia Commons via this CC licence

There has consequently been a shift toward international organisations relocating foreign workers to Thailand, and speculation that we will return to the situation of 10 years ago in which funding is directed towards NGOs rather than the Burmese government (Cornish, 2021). It is unclear whether increased need outweighs any benefit of greater funding prospects for organisations operating in Thailand.

Lessons for a post-coup world

As governments and NGOs respond to the coup, it will be important to learn from the funding struggles of organisations in the Mae Sot area: the needs of Burma’s vulnerable populations cannot be met by concentrating resources on one side of the border alone. The infeasibility of sending aid directly to the government of Burma requires an innovative approach to support IDPs and promote development in the ethnic regions: a UNOCHA report (2022) suggests that governments and INGOs should engage with Burma-based CBOs, migrant workers associations and cross-border charities to deliver resources where need is most critical.

Cross-border assistance has historically been successful in Afghanistan, where INGOs including the International Rescue Committee began to support locally-focused Afghan medical NGOs in the early 1980s and set a model for NGO engagement through the following decades (Bowden and Siddiqi, 2020).

International attention must also return to the migrant and refugee population, which has grown by over 17,000 since the coup (Sullivan, 2022). Whilst attention is oriented towards emergencies including the Afghanistan crisis, donor funding should not take an ‘out of the news, out of mind’ approach if the UN’s call to leave no one behind is to be truly achieved.

The paste on this woman’s face is known as ‘thanaka’. Source: Adam Cohn on Flickr via this CC licence

Finally, governments must ensure that the long-term imperative of development in Burma does not eclipse the enduring need of refugees for whom home is no longer inhabitable. When dealing with refugee crises across the globe, the balance between the often-competing causes of humanitarian assistance and sustainable development remains elusive: despite an aversion in the international development industry to supporting projects such as camps which are not designed as long-term solutions, it is vital to take a holistic approach that considers need on both sides of the border when tackling transnational crises.

Featured image credits: Mikhael Esteves on Flickr via this CC licence

Sixty Years After the Cuban Missile Crisis – Martin E. Hellman


Sixty Years After the Cuban Missile Crisis

Author of Report: Prof. Martin E. Hellman, Stanford University
Introduction & Artwork by: Ryan Ward, Cambridge & Oxford University.


Martin Edward Hellman is Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering at Stanford University and has previously served at MIT. He is known for his involvement with the invention of public key cryptography in cooperation with Whitfield Diffie and Ralph Markle. The technological breakthrough that currently secures the internet and is used to transfer trillions of dollars daily, amongst many other use cases.

Hellman has made vast strides as a critical contributor to the computer privacy debate, along with his work in applying risk analysis to a potential failure of nuclear deterrence while providing an ethical outlook on technological development and national security. He is highly recognized, receiving several honors and awards, such as the ACM Turing Award, otherwise known as “the Nobel Prize of Computer Science.”. His approach has been endorsed by several prominent individuals, including former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Stanford’s President Emeritus John Hennessy.

In 2016, both he and his wife of fifty-plus years have together published “A New Map for Relationships: Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet,” providing a “unified field theory” for peace by illuminating the connections between nuclear war, conventional war, interpersonal war, and war within our psyches. A free PDF download is available for this book.

We are honored that Martin is willing to share his latest work on nuclear deterrence at such a critical time with the International Development Society at Cambridge University. We look forward to building a resilient relationship and sharing more of his writings.

Reference to biography:

Wikipedia & Stanford.

Martin E. Hellman (Source: https://ee.stanford.edu/)

Executive Summary

When I first contemplated writing this report about a year ago, I expected to say that never again must we make mistakes that take us dangerously close to the nuclear abyss, as happened during the Cuban missile crisis. Unfortunately, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine once again has brought us to a very dangerous place.

This report shows that, prior to the war in Ukraine we were playing a global version of Russian roulette with a nuclear-armed gun once every fifteen years, whereas now the trigger is being pulled once every year that the war drags on.

A number of dangerous mistakes that resulted in those risk levels are documented.

As an historical example, during the Cuban missile crisis, three Soviet submarines were attacked by American destroyers. Only forty years later did we learn that those subs each carried a nuclear torpedo and, in one case, crew members maintained that the captain ordered it to be armed.

The most dangerous recent mistake was Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which has greatly increased the risk of nuclear war. But, since we in the West do not have power to directly correct his error, it pays to look for mistakes that we are making. One is our overly simplified narrative which sees the war in Ukraine as solely Russia’s fault. In contrast, while 85% of Ukrainians in a University of Chicago poll see Russia as responsible for the war, 70% say the same about their own government and 58% say that about the US. We need to support Ukraine in its resistance to Russia’s unjustified invasion, but we also need to recognize that the situation is more complex than its current portrayal

While nuclear disarmament is often posed as the required response to the nuclear threat, it is shown that the solution involves a long-range process of change in which fundamental assumptions about national security are corrected to reflect the realities of the nuclear age. Only after such earlier moves are made can nuclear disarmament and other possible solutions receive serious consideration.

A number of hopeful signs are then highlighted, including the fact that we are almost half way from the peak of the arms race to an intermediate goal that requires a fundamental shift in our thinking about national security.

Society’s increased concern with other technological threats such as climate change, cyber warfare, and AI is also hopeful — but only if we recognize that all of those risks, along with the nuclear threat, emanate from the same fundamental source: the chasm between the godlike physical power technology has given humanity and our, at best, irresponsible adolescent behavior. We need to grow up really fast or we will kill ourselves.

If we can find the courage to stop clinging to security blankets that no longer work, we will build a world that we can be proud to pass on to future generations. We will have transformed the nuclear threat into the nuclear opportunity.

Read the full report:

Martin’s website provides further research on defusing the nuclear threat:


Lusophone Africa: an atypical model of post-colonial influence


Published by Will Peet and artwork designed by Ryan Ward

There can be no doubt that colonialism and its legacies have been responsible for the crises of statehood that have gripped many African nations in the 20th century. Indeed, the Portuguese-speaking, or Lusophone, continental African nations of Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau all share a similar historical experience of a brutal liberation war, followed by postcolonial instability and prolonged internal conflict. This is largely down to the hurried manner in which the Portuguese left their colonies after the Carnation Revolution of 1974, a coup led by left-leaning army officers who had grown tired of the military expenditure and international isolation that the possession of colonies brought. In Mozambique, for example, over a 15-year civil war, 100,000 Mozambicans died. Amongst other atrocities, the mobilisation of children, who often had to kill members of their own family in initiations, has led to widespread instability and collective trauma in subsequent years.

Amidst the presence of 380,000 settlers in Angola and Mozambique by the end of the 1960s, the relative poverty of the Portuguese economy meant that a strong attachment grew to its colonies as a means of bolstering Portuguese prestige and gaining resources for the benefit of the metropole. This prolonged the sufferings of indigenous inhabitants, who, according to Joanna Mormul, “did not have in fact any public rights”. Yet, in spite of the obvious, multifaceted brutalities and unjust, racist tendencies of the colonial regimes in Africa, Portuguese language and culture is widely prevalent as a means of ensuring development through uniting the ethnically diverse peoples of Luso-Africa.

In the last 30 years, much has been done to promote the notion of a shared Portuguese culture amongst ex-colonies that has tied together otherwise geographically unrelated Lusophone nations. The Lusophone world, or Lusosphere, an ethnolinguistic community of nations intrinsically linked to the Portuguese Empire, co-operates to this day in realms like politics, culture and the economy. They do this most prominently through the Community of Portuguese Language Economies (CPLP). Within this transnational framework, a shared history, language and sense of identity have often left positive impressions of Portugal on these former colonies. The CPLP, formed in 1996, has since expanded to include nine states spread across the globe, and its strong pull has been demonstrated by Equatorial Guinea’s desire to join, despite being a Spanish colony for most of its colonial history.

Furthermore, within the postcolonial nations themselves, it was post-independence that cultural connections to Portugal crystallised. Despite the injustices of colonial regimes, connections to Portugal and its culture have been greatly coveted. Mozambique offers a pertinent example. Wojciech Charchalis has argued that the “Portugalisation” of Mozambique occurred most intensely after the departure of colonial authorities. This is most prominently symbolised by the adoption of Portuguese as the national language in 2004, despite it being spoken by only a minority of the 10.7% of Mozambicans (according to the 2007 census). Indeed, Samora Machel, the first president of independent Mozambique, stated “for the nation to live, the tribe must die”: seeing ethnic division as the greatest threat to the new state, he promoted Portuguese as a unifying language. Further, parents often seek out monolingual educations for their children since Portuguese holds a social capital that conveys status. Young Mozambicans who do not remember pre-independence times also see it as a mark of Mozambican national identity. Indeed, many young Mozambicans can reconcile Lusophony with their own national identity, despite its negative connotations with colonialism. The Portuguese language thus transcends a negative history.

These surprising facts may be largely due to the fact that Portugal is no longer seen as an imperialistic influence or a model for development, but rather a culture to be emulated. In a recent survey from 2014-15, 52% of Mozambicans saw China as exerting the most influence, with Portugal only indicated in 5% of answers. In the same survey, only 6% saw Portugal as a developmental model to follow. Even in the Luso-African island-nations, Portuguese influence is not perceived to be strong: only 25% of Cabo Verdeans and 17% of Sao Tomeans thought that Portugal exerted the greatest influence. 

The negative consequences of colonial rule, be it the horrific violence suffered, or the lack of infrastructure provided, are usually adduced for the dysfunctionality of postcolonial states. Certainly, there is merit to this argument, and there is no way to deny that Portuguese colonial rule led to widespread destruction, and hampered development. Yet, in the case of Luso-Africa, Portugal, and its language and culture, are now generally perceived in a benign way. Lusophone Africa has transcended the perception of postcolonial states as continual, passive victims of the suzerain nations and organisations of the Global North. Critically, this allows us to see Luso-African countries as active agents in the shaping of their own postcolonial trajectories. Whilst it is China that now exerts the strongest developmental influence over these Lusophone nations, investing heavily in African infrastructure, Portuguese cultural influence has bred a positive unity amongst the ethnically diverse nations of Luso-Africa. In the words of Samora Machel on the eve of Mozambican independence in June 1975:

And so, and so, we say that the Portuguese people are our friends. Our friends, our allies all the time. Do you hear? (We hear).

Decolonising the child: a perspective on the extant colonialism in global early childhood education and reflexivity in research and action


Published by Sabilah Eboo Alwani, & artwork by Ryan Ward

Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” But what if education is the weapon we are using to keep the world the same?

The lasting legacy of imperialism in education, as enacted through the auspices of international development, is yet apparent, even in the earliest institutions of formalised learning. This is not simply because NGOs promote a certain type of school or preschool – in fact, there are numerous organisations who are invested in home-grown solutions that empower people locally, and that are culturally contextualised (like Kidogo in Kenya (1)). Rather, it’s because the project of international development, as a 50-year endeavour, was itself conceived as a ‘new imperialism’ which incorporated poor economies into a global governance system built on orientalist constructs and derived from the age-old desire for western nations to ‘participate in’ (read: control) other economies. 

How education became a sub-theme of international development is a story we can understand by employing the lens of postcolonial theory to analyse the intellectual tradition of development itself: modern international development is the child of economics. The story gets interesting at the University of Chicago in the mid-1960s, where American economist Gary Becker, and his colleagues Theodore Schultz (also U.Chicago) and Jacob Mincer (Columbia, my alma mater) developed what we know as Human Capital Theory – an amalgam of premises founded on Adam Smith’s work that conceptualised investment in human development as the key to economic growth. This was quickly co-opted by the project of international development, both at the level of the State Department and by other players like the World Bank, who were extremely influenced by the work emanating from these intellectual centres, and who rapidly helped popularise a view of education as the ideal human capital investment. As a result, education has been a critical part of the operationalisation of international development. 

Where the story narrows to early childhood is with the work of Cunha and Heckman (2), two other University of Chicago economists, who built on the work of Becker, Schultz and Mincer by demonstrating that investing in the youngest of children, at the earliest possible stage of schooling, offered both individuals and economies the greatest return. Enter: the role of preschool in economic development, from a western-centric perspective, theorised by American economists, and with an evidence base fully determined by American experiments. But many countries didn’t have home-grown models of pre-school – the idea that ‘formal’ education should extend to this early age was imported. Today more and more LMICs have designated policies for early childhood care and education (3). This in itself isn’t bad, it’s good – but the modus operandi has been to look at preschool in the global north and emulate, if not replicate (4). 

The result of this human capital approach to education, and its simultaneous relationship with projects of international development, is that there has been a perpetual colonialist slant to education constructs around the world. Bristol-based Professor of Education Leon Tikly articulates succinctly why this is a problem: he says, “This new role for education… serves to reinforce the new imperialism through further limiting the capacity of low-income countries to determine their own educational agendas.” But what we haven’t realised is that this has been happening all along – that the 150-year process of western nations establishing schools in other countries, or playing a hand in education policy in other countries, has set in stone certain typologies of pedagogy, and commodified certain skills, that have obvious historic links to our economies and our interests – a subtle manifestation of neo imperialism (5). 

A key example is the commodification of the English language as a medium of instruction in schools around the world where English is not the spoken first language. Historically, schools that taught in English were missionary schools, who were certainly connected with a kind of ‘development’, for though it was religious in nature, it came attached to western notions of knowing, being, and behaviour. This was built on in the second half of the 20th century post-war world, when through the operationalisation of international development for the purpose of promoting global capitalism, as conceived of by human capital theory, we have (accidentally or not) made English the passport to participation in the global economy, as well as the project of knowledge-making. But as Professor Boa de Sousa Santos noted in Cambridge’s launch of CERJ Volume 7 (6), “you cannot experience capitalism without colonialism.” And in addition, Dennis Brutus, South African activist and educator, noted that English was always an extension of the project of colonialism – a way for the British and Americans to ‘colonise the mind’ (7). Operating in English, therefore, seemed to pander to the construct of western hegemony. The result of this is that the framework of the English language, a historic language of colonialism, continues to circumscribe educational experiences and define the parameters of knowledge making from the outset of children’s engagement with learning in many international contexts. 

In India, for example, parents across large swathes of the country indicated that they wanted their children to attend English-medium schools, working extra to pay the price for their children to attend private preschools and grade schools that offered this, seeing it as a future advantage for their children and an indicator of what a ‘good education’ looks like (8). The expectation is that better, more highly qualified teachers – even at preschool level – are able to teach in English (9), and meanwhile, the conception is that local, state-run education services are poor quality, and that they do not prepare their students for intellectual or economic engagement. However, research has shown a significant difference (10) between how well children learn in their own language versus in English – and it’s not English-medium instruction that fares better. In fact, being forced to learn in English often significantly hampers how students perform. Imagine what this means for a child who is only four or five. Their entire educational journey is already set back, and willingly, by parents and school systems who mistakenly think they are advantaging those children because of our imperialist legacy of education, where not only our schools, but also our language of instruction, has remained the model de rigeur. This shows how English-medium instruction in schools serving pupils as young as pre-school age continues to be what Foucault might conceive of as a form of the technology of power, simultaneously achieving both authority and exclusion (11). 

Circling back to Mandela, he also said of education that “without education, your children can never really meet the challenges they face… so it is vital to educate children and explain that they should have a role in their country”. How then do we view the child who is from the age of 3 or 4 expected to read and write in English, a language they have no connection to? The child who is implicitly taught that this language is better than theirs, more powerful, more valuable? What dichotomisation of the mind will they experience, and how will their perceptions change of those who only speak their local language, their native tongue? There will be an inevitable, subtle, othering of those who do not have this ‘advantage’ (as English has been designated as such), but how can we begin to examine the inevitable, subtle othering that must occur inside for that child? What does this mean for Mandela’s idea that educated children will have a role in their country, if the children’s perceptions of ‘their country’ are coloured by latent imperialist modes of knowing? The resulting identity politics are dividing people up into new castes based on the ability to speak English well, on English fluency from childhood. 

What’s worse is that scholarship validates this, at the other end of the education pipeline. Academic papers published in English have far more citations in comparison to those published in any other language (12), and in some countries academics publish in English rather than the native language at the astounding rate of 40:1 (13). This is as if to say that the entire project of knowledge making is defined by the parameters of the English language. But to see this continued to be imposed on the youngest of the world’s learners means that yet another generation will be confined by this subjectivity, this neo imperialist approach to knowledge, and also defined by this internal schism of mind and identity. 

For most of you readers, you will be playing some role in the project of knowledge making. You will be a researcher, a Professor, a scholar of some kind. We need to ask ourselves what our role is in this, whether we are in the field of education or sociology or international development or anything else. What is our role in decolonising modes of knowing? As de Sousa Santos’ book The End of Cognitive Empire encourages us to ask reflexively, what is our role in being open to other forms of knowledge, other languages of writing which might not be our first language, where we might have to take a backseat and have things explained to us? Can we sit with that sacrifice? Can we explore the real cost of our positionality (14) as researchers on continuing to institutionalise forms of knowing that do not represent the full picture, by which we – as Edward Said said (15) – quietly normalise unseen power? 
For those who are not in scholarship, but who are in praxis: we must seek to champion the role of local experts (16), and local expertise, as a pathway to decolonise education for international development. Though the international development sector has been making important efforts (17) to decolonise itself, we have for too long been presumptuous – bringing in programs, installing mechanisms and leadership structures that prioritise outside people and outside ideas, without thinking hard enough about the need for localised experience and trust-building that should be playing a critical part in the work that is done. This continues to manifest in contested forms such as pay gaps (18) between international and local aid workers, and even at the highest levels of representation within the NGO sector (look here at the international leadership team of World Vision (19) – what do you notice?). Rather than thinking of going somewhere and building a bridge, we need to envision our work as actually building a bridge. As it has been said, “one hand cannot clap.” We do not have all the answers, and we do not have all the knowledge. Once we accept this ourselves, the patterns can start to shift – and we can hope that the next generation of little learners stand a chance to learn in their own language, to value their own knowledge, and to strike out in the world without the burden we have continued to place upon them right from the start.

1 https://kidogo.co/

 Flavio Cunha & James Heckman, ‘The Technology of Skill Formation’ (2007) 97 American Economic Review 2

 Michelle J. Neuman & Lynette Okeng’o, ‘Early childhood policies in low- and middle-income countries’ (2019) 39 Early Years

 Jane Murray, ‘Early childhood pedagogies: spaces for young children to flourish’ (2015) 185 Early Childhood Development and Care

 Leon Tikly, ‘Education and the New Imperialism’ (2004) 40 Comparative Education 173

 Cambridge Educational Research e-Journal, https://cerj.educ.cam.ac.uk/

Wolfgang Schäfer, ‘South African Literature Liberation and the Art of Writing’ (1986) Evangelische Akademie

 Uma Vennam et al, ‘Changing Schools in Andhra Pradesh: The Experiences of Children and their Caregivers’ (2014) Young Lives

 Michelle J. Neuman et al, ‘A Review of the Literature: Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Personnel in Low- and Middle-Income Countries’ (2015) 4 Early Childhood Care and Education Working Papers Series 37

10  P. Sree Kumar Nair, ‘Does Medium of Instruction Affect Learning Outcomes? – Evidence Using Young Lives Longitudinal Data of Andhra Pradesh, India’ (2015) 68 ESP Working Paper Series

11  Robert J. C. Young, Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction (Wiley-Blackwell, 2016)

12  Mario S. Di Bitetti & Julián A. Ferreras, ‘Publish (in English) or perish: The effect on citation rate of using languages other than English in scientific publications’ (2017) 46 Ambio 1

13  Adam Huttner-Koros, ‘The Hidden Bias of Science’s Universal Language’ The Atlantic (21 August 2015) https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2015/08/english-universal-language-science-research/400919/ accessed 22 November 2020

14  Elizabeth Mackinlay, Critical Writing for Embodied Approaches: Autoethnography, Feminism and Decoloniality (Palgrave, 2019)

15  Edward W. Said, ‘The Public Role of Writers and Intellectuals’ in The Public Intellectual (Blackwell, 2002)

16  Veronique Barbelet, ‘As local as possible, as international as necessary: Understanding capacity and complementarity in humanitarian action’ (2018) HPG Working Paper

17  ODI Bites: decolonising international development (15 October 2020) < https://www.odi.org/events/17431-odi-bites-decolonising-international-development?utm_campaign=1579316_ODI%20newsletter%2023%20October&utm_medium=email&utm_source=Overseas%20Development%20Institute&utm_country=&dm_i=4O2W,XULW,695XUA,47KM3 ,1> accessed 22 November 2020

18 Tobias Denskus, ‘The salary gap between expat and local aid workers – it’s complicated’ The Guardian (19 April 2017) <https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2017/apr/19/the-salary-gap-between-expat-and-local-aid-workers-its-complicated> accessed 22 November 2020

19 https://www.worldvision.org.uk/who-we-are/our-people/

The Politics of Imperialism: How the legacy of colonialism drove the depoliticization of international development


Published by Francesca Farrington and artwork by Ryan Ward

International development is haunted by the spectre of colonialism. In the critical scholarship on international development accusations abound of cultural and economic imperialism. That is, there is a fear that international development organisations could be perpetrating the same injustices as colonialism through their reform agendas. At first glance, these two ideas – colonialism and international development – seem to be worlds apart. One attempts to accumulate territory and resources through violent and suppressive forces. The other, seeks to undo the injustices and inequities produced by colonialism. Despite these differences, international development and colonialism have a shared history, one being born out of the – alleged – demise of the other. International development, as we know it, evolved during a moment when the colonial power matrix was being dismantled. As a result, international development has always run the risk of replicating rather than rebalancing those power dynamics. Alive to this possibility, international development organisations have been at pains to distance themselves from the rhetoric of colonialism. However, international development may have more in common with colonialism than we like to admit. 

In particular, in international development, countries are measured against the archetype of the ‘developed’, which has invariably been Western nations. In doing so, we make a determination that non-Western nations are ‘less than’, are under-developed, and in need of reform. This often ignores the grave injustices that persist within so-called developed nations. More recently, it has become clear that developed countries have their own shortcomings, many of which are tied to the very ideals they promote abroad. For instance, unconstrained private capital accumulation has been linked to increased inequality, increased mental illness, economic crises, and environmental degradation. Yet, even in the post-Washington consensus, neoliberalism has kept a hold of the international development agenda. 

The Washington Consensus (1989) prescribed a number of remedies for ailing economies, with the economy identified as the locus of development, the objective of development became oriented around stimulating economic growth. These policy prescriptions were indisputably neoliberal in character, they included: privatisation, de-regulation, trade and financial liberalization, openness to direct foreign investment, reorientation of public expenditure, fiscal discipline, and tax reform. The shift towards a market-centred approach to development de-politicized the international development agenda. Neoliberals saw the political as the site of inequity, a sphere of relations governed by class bias, cronyism, and corruption.  In contrast, the economy, under capitalism, is viewed as an unbiased mechanism for redistributing societal goods. This conception of the economy is only sustainable if we are willing to accept that the economy is (i) free of bias, and (ii) separate from the political sphere. The post-Washington consensus emerged because these assumptions proved to be untenable. Inequality grew under neoliberalism and persistent economic crises made the need for state intervention undeniable. So, the post-Washington consensus focused on tempering the market fundamentalism of its predecessor by reorienting development around building market-supporting institutions and promoting good governance.

However, the assumption persists that international development is neutral as to political, cultural and moral values. I can hear the reader’s reflexive gasp. How can this claim be sustained when democracy, human rights, the rule of law (and an array of other western-liberal values) form the core of much development work? The apolitical thesis can only be sustained if all these values are packaged as means rather than ends. If these values are given an instrumental function, they can retain the veneer of neutrality. Democracy, human rights, and the rule of law are considered the means to attain development. If you are from a liberal-democracy you may instinctively agree with this proposition. It seems innocuous, these values are all ‘good’ values in the eyes of the liberal-democrat. Indeed, empirical studies have shown a causal connection between these values and development. Perhaps, the issue is that we see ‘development’ as an indisputable ‘good’ rather than a politically loaded ideal. 

These values also have a homogenizing nature, they replace and in doing so eradicate alternatives. One response might be that – well the alternatives weren’t working anyway. And, for many people they were not. But this may be less to do with the worthiness of the institution than the other exogenous forces that have impeded that institutions effectiveness. For instance, communal land holdings are often dismantled in favour of a formalized system of private property rights. Communal land is seen as a barrier to economic development because it cannot be exchanged in the way that private property can, and exchange is the basis of any capitalist society. Consequently, privatization is still a key tool of international financial institutions as it is linked to economic growth. However, in the process of stimulating the economy, we may be dispossessing indigenous people of their lands and/or dismantling methods of land sharing that respect and protect the environment. In doing so, we return to the colonizing logics that were thought to be a relic of the past. 

It can be a difficult proposition to confront, in confronting the colonial legacy of development we risk undermining much of the good being done across the world. Confronting the colonial legacy of development does not requires us to abandon the project altogether. It simply requires a more context-specific approach to development. This happens by preparing the reform agenda in collaboration with locals, and using local knowledge and expertise to understand the issues and solutions. It requires us to confront the assumption that there is one path to development and that there is one idea of development.  

Foreign aid: a humanitarian development initiative or a geopolitical tool?


Published: Louise Chatterton, and artwork by Ryan Ward

Foreign aid is undoubtedly a divisive topic in international development. If handled effectively, foreign aid has the capability to precipitate transformative effects in developing countries, through the alleviation of poverty and the acceleration of GDP growth in the poorest countries in the world. However, it is vital that the political motivations of such initiatives are scrutinised: does foreign aid primarily act as a mechanism to advance foreign policy objectives under the pretence of humanitarian assistance? Or is foreign aid actually reaching the people and communities it claims to help?

As of 2016, UK law dictates that the government must contribute 0.7% of its GDP to overseas aid; this is compliant with the UN target for donor countries.  Approximately one third of UK foreign aid is “multilateral” and is therefore spent via organisations such as the UN or the World Bank. One of the primary goals of such multilateral organisations is to reduce poverty in developing nations, therefore this form of aid is considered to be less politically motivated. The remainder of UK foreign aid is “bilateral”, meaning that resources flow directly from the UK government to the governments of recipient countries; it is this form aid that is more overtly problematic. 

Donor countries have the agency to use bilateral aid as a tool to pursue geopolitical objectives, which often operate at the expense of the very communities which could actually be supported by such aid. A prime example of this is the controversial aid deal between the UK and Saudi Arabia in 2018. In Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Downing Street, a £100m aid agreement was signed alongside trade deals worth £65bn. In this flagrant pursuit of geopolitical objectives, the UK aligned itself with a country that is responsible for the destruction of Yemeni homes, schools and hospitals. It is vital to question this perverse role of aid in a conflict which is causing severe hardship for millions of people: how can a government claim they are providing philanthropic aid whilst they are simultaneously responsible for the provision of weapons that fuel the humanitarian crisis in Yemen? 

The colonial implications of foreign aid add further complexity to this debate. It is clear that selfish interests often drive donors to use foreign aid to generate influence overseas, where aid can be withdrawn or granted at the whim of colonial powerhouses. For example, in 2014 the British government came under criticism for using aid in the interests of big business, through allocating £600m of aid to an agricultural scheme that was described as “a new form of colonialism”. The scheme was proposed to accelerate responsible investment in African agriculture and to lift millions out of poverty, however, the prioritisation of multinational firms over smallholder African farmers was said to have exacerbated poverty further. Many of the products and profits of this scheme were exported to developed countries, meaning that the smaller-scale farmers who provide food for the majority of the African population were actually damaged by a scheme that claimed to be serving them. 

Aid initiatives such as this contribute to the cultivation of paternalistic relationships between recipient and donor nations. The implementation of colonial projects under the guise of foreign aid blatantly disregards those who are most in need, highlighting a significant problem that stems from, in many cases, the true motivations behind international aid.

Even in the case of genuine altruistic motivation, it is imperative to address whether foreign aid actually reaches the people and communities it claims to help. Bilateral aid has the capability to foster corruption, with the looming threat of aid ending up in the back-pockets of corrupt politicians and their cronies. A report published in early 2018 tracked billions of pounds of foreign aid to have ended up in tax havens, shedding light on the significant difficulties that occur in the handling of foreign aid. Fundamentally, the system is inadequate if it is not operating to help the people it claims to. 

If we accept that humanitarian development is truly the objective of aid, then it is clear that we must reconfigure the way in which foreign aid is distributed. There is evidence to suggest that the use of foreign aid as a ‘bottom-up’ tool can lead to positive developmental outcomes, where agency and power is placed within the heart of recipient local communities. This could be seen in the response to the Nepalese earthquake in 2015, where local NGOs such as Lumanti enacted the successful implementation of local earthquake relief activities. The allocation of aid to such organisations was an effective development strategy, as they could respond quickly and efficiently, based upon the community’s own understanding of its needs in the wake of this natural disaster. Local agencies are able to shape response programmes in a contextually appropriate and culturally sensitive manner, indicating that such organisations can be more effective in responding to local crises, as far as their capacities allow.

It is undeniable that when motivated and used appropriately, foreign aid is a resource that has the potential to improve the lives of millions across the globe; therefore, we must strive to re-evaluate the way in which foreign aid is allocated, through placing more agency in the hands of local communities.  

Changing the Way Student Volunteering is Done: Lessons from Dar es Salaam


By Tads Ciecierski-Holmes and George Holmes, artwork by Ryan Ward.

Many of us students experienced a stressful week in mid-March as the flood of COVID-19 emails came through from the University. I had to write one of my own, as the Director of a student-led charity in Cambridge, to all the volunteers working for the Cambridge Development Initiative (CDI) who were due to travel to Dar es Salaam to work on community development projects in collaboration with our Tanzanian student partners at Knowledge and Innovation for Technological Enterprise Dar es Salaam (KITE). It became quickly apparent after the March meeting of CDI’s trustees that the summer project period in Tanzania we had planned was cancelled. One trustee quite wisely said, “it is not a matter of if, but when COVID will reach Tanzania” – and indeed, Tanzania soon reported its first case of COVID-19.

However, out of the disappointing circumstances, rapid shift to remote working, and personal hardship for everyone involved in the UK and Tanzania, came new opportunities for CDI and KITE to, once again, change how student volunteering is done. Namely, becoming catalysts for Tanzanian-led development projects, and supporting the leadership of local actors working in their communities.

The CDI Perspective

CDI was founded in 2013 by students who, like many who are looking to work in the Development sector, have had volunteering experiences that left them sceptical about student volunteering in general. Voluntourism indeed comes under severe criticism for doing more to bolster the CVs of volunteers, while doing little to promote solutions to challenges faced by individuals living in poverty in low-income countries. So the challenge was: how can students become real agents of change, implementing innovative and impactful community development projects?

Seven years and hundreds of UK and Tanzanian volunteers later, CDI has made great strides. Some of its biggest successes are the implementation of a Simplified Sewerage network in an informal settlement in Dar es Salaam that is now being maintained and expanded by a local water authority, and the founding of KITE Dar es Salaam (formerly CDI Tanzania), a student-led Tanzanian NGO with whom we work closely to implement our health, education, entrepreneurship, and water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH) projects. CDI and KITE have demonstrated that students can power change, and they have inspired the foundation of similar student-organisations in Toronto, Nairobi, Oxford and Gulu.

Along with CDI’s successes, there are of course failures. While failure is to be expected when piloting projects that are breaking new ground, some project streams still fell into the category of bolstering the CVs of volunteers and not addressing the issues faced by those in the communities we serve, even with the best of intentions from the CDI and KITE teams.  They either lacked impact or sustainability, which could be attributed to, amongst other things, a lack of expertise, resources, and support from local actors. 

Our 2019-20 strategy attempted to address these issues. We formed new partnerships with development research groups and Tanzanian organisations to plug gaps in expertise and funding. We put an emphasis on prioritizing Tanzanian perspectives and ensuring that the projects are Tanzanian-led. In this light, the pandemic accelerated our strategy: with CDI volunteers no longer working on the ground, further space opened up for our Tanzanian partners to take ownership of projects, and for CDI to work remotely in a supportive capacity from the UK.

The KITE Perspective

KITE Dar es Salaam was formally founded in 2017, and registered as an NGO in Tanzania by CDI Tanzania alumni and other Tanzanian students. There is an abundance of talented and engaged students in Dar es Salaam who wish to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to solve problems faced by local communities. For instance, it is the technical expertise of the KITE engineers that led to the design and construction of low-cost handwashing facilities for primary schools in the informal settlement of Vingunguti over the past summer, and their ability to engage with local communities allows both KITE and CDI to understand problems facing local communities and to research potential solutions. 

So far, they have always had CDI by their side. KITE’s Director comments that working alongside CDI is an interactive and impactful experience, because of the knowledge-sharing that takes place between CDI and KITE: CDI shares new ways of working, such as the use of software and other tools that may be more common in the UK than in Tanzania; KITE brings cultural insights, with CDI volunteers learning about the lived experiences of the urban poor in Dar es Salaam; together, both learn new skills when implementing the appropriate research and Monitoring and Evaluation methodologies for their projects. 

Responding to COVID-19 was therefore a difficult experience for the Tanzanian team. Not only did the universities in Dar es Salaam close for two months, leading the KITE team to start working remotely on project plans, but they also had to plan for a summer without the CDI half of the team. This did not stop their resolve. While some timelines had shifted due to the closing of universities, KITE could still advance our planned projects in health; education, entrepreneurship; and WaSH, and recruit a larger Tanzanian team to make up for the lack of CDI volunteers.

Despite the challenges they faced, the KITE team successfully implemented two WaSH projects constructing handwashing facilities in schools lacking sanitation facilities, ran hand-washing and soap-making workshops in schools around the Vingunguti district of Dar es Salaam, and furthered research into four new initiatives for implementation in 2021. In the meanwhile, CDI continued to work quietly in the background, providing advice on strategy, project planning and design, and fundraising support – enabling KITE to do their best work. 

The Future of Student-Powered Initiatives

KITE’s success, with CDI’s support, has led to real positive impact. While evaluations of the current projects still need to take place, we have already received positive feedback from the school students and teachers we are working with. More importantly, we have successfully piloted a new way of working for both organisations: Cambridge students do not need to be working on the ground in order to contribute to projects, putting the power in the hands of Tanzanians. Student collaboration, even in the time of a global pandemic, is still a force for change – and the way student volunteering is done has changed for us once again.

Considering Geopolitics in a Post-Oil Economy


Published: Florence Conway and artwork by Ryan Ward

Energy – and the power and riches that come with it – is the driving force in our world.  For the second half of the 20th century, the pursuit of oil has been at the centre of the geopolitics of energy. Countries with oil have historically had power, literally and physically. It has granted countries, who would otherwise have taken a back seat on the world stage, a prominent and threatening role. And unsurprisingly, given the power oil holds, it has also been central in triggering many conflicts, from the Gulf War to the Arab Springs. 

However, the energy policy agenda is changing: the looming threat of climate change has prompted widespread decarbonisation policies, and combined with the increasing development of renewable resources, the world now faces a transition to a post-oil economy. Whilst there is little consensus over when this change will occur, it inevitably will, radically impacting global geopolitics.

Undoubtedly, this transition represents a challenge for oil-producing countries. Will the world’s biggest fossil fuel producers lose their crucial influence? Will this lead to an increase in conflicts, both regionally and internationally? And moreover, what will happen nationally? Many of the largest oil-producing states are state-led economies, with fragile, often corrupt governments. Worryingly, it is also those countries who have not yet managed or are failing to diversify their economy, and are thus placed in a more precarious position, ill-equipped to deal with the rapidly changing landscape of energy transition. 

The implications for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are the most striking cause for concern. Not only are countries in this region failing in diversification, but they are also the most politically unstable; hence they pose an increased threat of sustained political and economic turbulence in the MENA region, with a potential risk of state failure. Indeed, as Professor Paul Stevens, a distinguished fellow at Chatham House, notes:  


“The oil producing government gets revenue; if that revenue falls or disappears, the government is no longer able to sustain the non-oil sector, which means you will have rising unemployment, you will no longer be able to pay subsidies to keep your population happy.  

Many of the large oil and gas exporters are what might politely be described as politically unstable. So the faster the transition [to renewables], the greater the fall in gas and oil revenues, the more disruptive it is going to be and so you are looking at potentially a large number of failed states.” 


Thus, failure to deliver stability in the oil industry in these countries will impact their internal stability, which will incite grave consequences, both nationally and globally.

Furthermore, the demographics of the MENA region increase the risks faced – it is characterised by young, rapidly expanding populations, which are predominately urban. Whilst this may suggest a promising level of development at present, many of these populations would face high rates of unemployment and economic collapse in a post-oil world. Civil unrest is almost inevitable and will exacerbate the devastating consequences. This troublesome combination of factors may also foster an environment for extremism, furthering instability and disturbance. Major unrest in these regions then also has the potential to create significant migration problems for mainland Europe, triggering even greater international instability.  

Inextricably linked to this post-oil world is the expansion of renewable energy sources. As the use of oil falls, that of renewables increases. Consequently, minerals such as cobalt and lithium – both vital components in renewable technology – will be increasingly sought after, and this will almost certainly cause geopolitical tensions. 

For example, the majority of these resources are found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which already has a weak government, imbued with corruption and incompetency, potentially amplifying any adverse outcomes. China’s ‘neo-colonialism’ in Africa, meanwhile, whereby the former offers billions of dollars in ambiguous loans to the latter in order to access minerals, is already the source of much tension both within the continent and without – particularly with Trump’s America feeling threatened, and citing it as a reason for its trade wars.  

More globally, there are clear risks associated with smart electricity grids, which are progressively becoming more significant in ensuring system stability in solar and wind power. This is namely that terrorist organisations or hostile countries may attempt to access these systems to seek sensitive information, disorder them, and cause economic and social damage. Therefore, the transition to renewable technology, as well as the decline of oil, looks to have the potential to dramatically reshape the balances of power on the world stage.  

There is nothing certain about what lies ahead, and it is indeed daunting. But despite these challenges, the global energy transition is turning the world in the right direction, equipping us to more readily respond to what many already define as the main geopolitical threat of the 21st century: climate change. 

Effect of female political enfranchisement on development


By Alice Kinsella, artwork by Ryan Ward

Many people’s first introduction to ‘development’ was the Millennium Development Goals: in 2000, the UN pledged to reach eight targets by 2015, including the eradication of extreme hunger, universal primary education, and the empowerment of women. However, it is misguided to consider the empowerment of women simply an outcome of development; instead, it should be seen as a factor that actively promotes development itself. Female political enfranchisement is the lynch-pin of contemporary development issues. The fight for gender equality has an immeasurable impact on every facet of society, fuelling progress in innumerable areas, from healthcare to education. Our failure to prioritise gender equality will always be the greatest hurdle facing significant developmental progress across the world. 

Female political enfranchisement encompasses a range of meanings – generally, ‘enfranchisement’ is synonymous with ‘a right to vote’. However, it can encompass all manner of political empowerment: running for office, engaging in debate, or holding political power. While women should have a de-facto right to full political participation, regardless of the quality of their contributions, they also happen to provide a uniquely important perspective. In many countries, women politicians attend to female-centric issues that are otherwise ignored: for instance, Blaxill and Beelen found that, in the UK since 1945, women MPs have consistently been more likely to raise issues such as family policy, education and care. Men tend to be less aware of – or sympathetic to – areas of everyday life that are generally the purview of women. Yet many such female-dominated areas of life are critical development markers: healthcare, the welfare and education of children, nutrition and the environment are just a few areas that women are, generally, responsible for. Thus, their contributions would significantly progress development in these areas.


The education of children is perhaps the most consequential development target – providing children with a strong foundation will give them the best chances for their futures, as well as equipping their societies with educated adults, ready to take development further. Women are, statistically, the primary carers of children, and therefore the experts when forging child-centred development policy. They are more likely to invest in education – for instance, Clots-Figueras’ 2007 study of India between 1967 and 2001 found that a 10% increase in female political representation resulted in a 6% increase in primary education. Women are also more likely to understand the hurdles facing universal education. For example, many efforts to educate girls are frustrated by other duties demanding their time, or by the difficulties they face physically travelling to school. Women, as primary caregivers, have an intimate understanding of these hurdles, and are therefore better able to combat them.  

Reproductive Health

Reproductive health is another vital developmental issue significantly improved by the political input of women. A classic symptom of a developing society is a high birth rate, due to poor sex education, minimal contraceptive supply, no access to abortion services, and, often, antiquated expectations that women submit to their husbands. With access to sexual health resources and birth control, however, infant mortality drops – as does maternal mortality. Resources, including food and water, are less strained, because there are physically less people to provide for. Crucially, giving women control over their fertility allows them to participate in areas of society, such as further education and employment, that would otherwise have been inaccessible due to their pregnancies and infant children. This is clearly an essential developmental goal, but one that is best achieved by women: many men in both developed and developing nations treat female sexual health with an outdated sense of repulsion, and attempt to avoid the subject altogether, to the detriment of the services. Meanwhile, women, as the potential child-bearers themselves, keenly feel their importance, meaning that the services receive more attention and investment.

Environmental Conscience

Environmental standards are somewhat controversial: internationally, we are painfully aware of the dangers posed by fossil fuels and mass industrialisation, but to place environmental standards on developing societies restricts their potential economic growth. Since the 1993 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, it has been generally acknowledged that it is women in developing societies who possess the expertise and experience, and therefore who we should look to for solutions. Women, when maintaining a household, are subsistence farmers, gardeners, water-collectors, and cooks, spending 3-6 hours on household work everyday (compared to a male average of 30 minutes). They are very familiar with their local environment, natural resources, and fuel consumption, granting them a superior understanding of the environmental pressures and needs of the community, as well as a more vested interest in genuine environmental improvement. Their expertise is increasingly incorporated into policy initiatives: NGOs such as Friends of the Earth advocate the leadership of local women in grassroot, ‘bottom-up’ developmental initiatives.

‘Female political enfranchisement’ is almost as unquantifiable as it is difficult to achieve. Due to uncompromising cultural expectations, officially granting female suffrage will not necessarily make voting accessible, and women’s inclusion in political chambers will not always be tantamount to genuine power, nor will it necessarily encourage full gender equality beyond politics. ‘Female empowerment’ cannot suddenly be thrust on society through one piece of enfranchising legislation. Nonetheless, anyone with a vested interest in development should whole-heartedly pursue female political empowerment: the two are inextricable. Women have, throughout time, been perceived as subordinate members of society, forced into roles as home-keepers and care-givers. This history of suppression has the expedient advantage, however, of endowing women with a wealth of personal and ancestral expertise in social development issues. Genuine, well-rounded, sustainable development is simply impossible without listening to their experience and wisdom.