Revisiting the North-South view of the world

Revisiting the North-South view of the world
Copyright Daisy Harrison-Broninski 2020

This is a new translation for The Civil Society Review by Paola Matha, from François Polet’s 2016 French-language article in Alternatives Sud, a quarterly publication by Centre Tricontinental (CETRI).

Editor’s note: Although originally published in 2016, this essay by François Polet is still relevant to current debates on international development. Do geographical designations still make sense in today’s globalised world? Polet argues that they do, because power asymmetries within the international system have not disappeared. The essay is thought-provoking and informative, building a strong case for reviving the Global North-South framework. Polet also invites reflection on the influence of international civil society groups, and the geopolitics of epidemics.

Although Western diplomats have often deemed it obsolete, the framework of North-South has not lost its pertinence in the political and academic realms of the Global South. The growth of emerging nations along with current global risks have not erased injustices stemming from colonisation. Moreover, the socio-historical gaps between the Global North and the Global South feed into divergent assessments of the causes and solutions of the major global imbalances.

In a world threatened by systemic risks of all kinds, where the accelerated growth of emerging nations and the stagnation of Western countries is shifting the balance in the global economy, reasoning in terms of North-South relations is considered obsolete. At a time when Indians are opening and closing steelworks throughout Europe, where the “Chinese are buying out France”[1], imitated by the Qatari, or vice versa, this concept of a global order divided between the wealthy and dominating North and the destitute and dominated South has purportedly lost its legitimacy. More seriously, pressing global challenges require us to recognise interdependence at all levels, whether it be economic, energy or health policy, all of which influence other countries more than ever before. Thinking in terms of North-South would thus be counter-productive, because it would generate discord when what matters most is to reinforce cooperation among the peoples and governments of the Global North and the Global South in order to preserve global harmony.

The recurring burials of the Global South

The North-South divide – along with its equivalent dichotomies “Third World/First World”, “developed/developing countries” – was found guilty of obsolescence many times over the last decades. “The so-called Third World… a misleading term is [sic] there ever was one” (Babb, 2009). But let us reopen the case.

In the early 1980s, the American Secretary of State Alexander Haig made clear the Reagan Administration’s shift concerning the “North-South dialogue”, which had officially begun ten years prior. The contempt for this concept was a reflection of Western hostility, more or less declared, towards a Global South that was becoming increasingly politically organised (NAM, G-77, OPEC…) and more combative within the United Nations. The United States retaliated by simultaneously stopping investment in the most militant UN bodies, destabilising the southern countries affiliated with the Soviet bloc and imposing a liberal reform of international development agencies. At the same time in France, the rising humanitarian movement denounced the “Third-World” ideology and the idea that “the West is responsible for the impoverishment of the Third-World” (Szczepanski-Huillery, 2005).

Ten years later the columnist Barbara Crossette proclaimed on The New York Times’ pages that “The “Third World” is Dead” (1994). Meanwhile, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit was taking place in Bogor, Indonesia. Going against the African-Asian solidarity project, started in 1955 in the nearby city of Bandung, the leaders of the Asian “Tigers” turned their back to the rest of the continent to negotiate “an area of free-trade and economic liberalisation” with Bill Clinton. After the North-South dialogue is replaced by neoliberal standardisation, the end of the Cold War [2] and the different economic trajectories between good and bad disciples of globalisation are used to justify the relegation of the idea of a “Global South”. Just like the French diplomat interviewed by the American journalist*, commentators found out that Burkina Faso and Singapore definitely do not have anything in common.

The acceleration of economic and financial globalisation – which will relentlessly blend the Global South into the great global market – is accompanied by the legal implications of the post-Cold War “new global order” announced by George H.W. Bush in 1990. This emerging consensus on international law and universal democratic values seems at odds with great ideological conflicts. The ambition to extend the principles of the Rule of Law and good governance to the world entails a legal levelling that is blind on specific societal features, on the development gap and on state sovereignty. “The colonial past and the discrepancies between the two groups of countries also appear to have been moved to the background relative to the urgency of identifying the specific problems and responsibilities of each country…” (Gallié, 2008).

‘There now exists a dualism, a Latin-Americanisation in the entire world. The wealthy and the poor are as numerous in New York as they are in São Paulo.’

It must be taken into account that challenging the idea of the North-South divide is not only the prerogative of neoliberals who agree with Francis Fukuyama’s (“The end of history”) or Thomas Friedman’s (“the Earth is flat”) theses. Important actors in the rising alter-globalisation movements see international law as a privileged front to impose progressive norms to “global” multinational corporations and to all states. Developments such as the closing gap between peripheral and core economies, the fast growth and decentralisation of capitalism, the emergence of Chinese “sub-imperialism” in Africa, or Brazilian “sub-imperialism” in South America, indicate, in the eyes of Marxist intellectuals and militants, the creation of a transnational capitalist class, embodied by the “Davos man”, whose common interests go beyond state frontiers (Funk, 2015). The globalisation of class struggle against this global ultra-bourgeoisie prompts to overcome the differences between the regions of the world.

Meanwhile, the progressive impoverishment in societies of the Global North contributes to the blurring the North-South divide. Today, there are not only some features of the North in the South, such as the financial ascent of the middle and upper classes profiting from liberalisation, but some features of the South are also visible in the North, where the losers of globalisation keep growing in number with the increasing decentralisation and erosion of social security. Thus, Alain Touraine reckons that “there is no more confrontation between the First and Third-World”, but that now exists a “dualism, a Latin-Americanisation in the entire world. The wealthy and the poor are as numerous in New York as they are in São Paulo. There is a world of rich people, a world of less rich people, a world of poor people and a world of very poor people (…)” (quoted in Savio, 2007). The hardships of Southern Europe under structural adjustment policies since 2010 have reinforced the idea that there is a “levelling” of the Global North towards the Global South.

The 2000s saw two growing trends: the rise in the economic and diplomatic power of emerging countries and the breakthrough of the paradigm of “global problems with cooperative solutions” (Rogalsky, 2013). Hence, some have felt the need to abandon the old North-South worldview. The first trend feeds into the shifting economic and political relations on the North-South and South-South axes, leading to the growing influence of a handful of big developing nations, particularly China, India and Brazil, which bring the Western supremacy on world affairs to a close. The creation of the G-20, the status of China as the first world creditor, and the fact that global economic growth has rested on the dynamism of developing countries since the 2008 financial crisis are some of the manifestations of Westerners’ loss of the political leverages that allowed them to decide “among themselves” on the development trajectory of global capitalism.

At the same time, the climate, financial, safety, and health crises pose the urgent question of the international management of global interdependence, which is now entangled with the idea of “global risks”. The realisation of both the danger and its intrinsically global nature makes indeed the climate crisis the global issue par excellence. The most enthusiastic promoters of global climate governance see in this matter an opportunity to build an “international society better organised to protect the common good”, constrained by the common and undeniable danger to overcome national selfishness, putting aside past divergences.

A matter of perspective

Without casting doubt on the structural evolution of the global system, which grounded the aforementioned views, it is important to keep in mind that they remain mere interpretations of reality. On the one hand, they underline particular aspects of undergoing transformations, too often understating the elements of continuity within the international system. On the other hand, they provide determined interpretations of these transformations. Although we should not replace a flawed statement (“The North-South is no more”) with another (“the North-South is everything”), the political and socio-economic trends outlined above should be put into perspective.

First and foremost, the question of socio-economic convergence should be addressed. The growing importance of the Global South in the global economy, particularly of the emerging countries, is undeniable. However, whether they can be regarded as “catching up” with the countries of the Global North highly depends on the unit of measurement – absolute or proportional – that we adopt. If we consider national GDP, indeed China became the major global economy in 2014 [3], whereas Brazil overtook in only three years Canada, Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom to reach 6th place, just behind France, in 2011. But if we relate this wealth to the size of the population, the Asian giant ranked 74th, behind Gabon, in 2015, while the per-capita income in Brazil was less than a third compared to the four countries that it had recently surpassed (IMF, 2015). Like in cycling, a long-field frame flattens the distances and can give viewers the impression that the peloton is about to catch a breakaway which maintains, nonetheless, its decisive lead.

The same reasoning applies to the Global South’s weight in global trade or foreign investment. The share of developed nations in exports went from 67% to 52% between 1995 and 2012. As a result, some argue that the South has “caught up with the North” in international trade. However, when related to the population, this means that the average resident in the South does not even own a 7th of the export share of his counterpart in the North. True, the “Southern” peloton is catching up with the Northern breakaway, but the initial head start is so big that, except for a few ones doped up on chemicals or finance, reaching the fastest riders will still take decades.

Furthermore, a close-up on the “South” peloton would show China “pulling” it for a good part (and even pulling the breakaway…here we see the limits of the cycling metaphor). In 2008, a year when the economies of the Global North entered a crisis, the share of developing countries in global economic growth amounted to 70%. However, if we exclude China from this group the figure falls to 40%. Moreover, a large proportion of this 40% accounts for exports to China, which have surpassed the exports towards G7 countries. The economic drive of the Global South is thus concentrated, in a “disproportionate and overwhelming” manner, in a single country (OECD, 2010).

‘Great inequalities between ‘developed’ countries and the rest of the world have been growing wider since the beginning of the industrial era’

A crucial consequence of the strengthening of economic relations between China and the other countries of the South is that it tends to bring the latter’s economic focus back to the primary sector, due both to competition in the industrial sector (especially in textiles) and to the increased Chinese demand for raw materials. As a result, the countries who are exporters of these raw materials face higher production costs, a phenomenon known as Dutch disease. By joining the core of the global economy, China pushes other developing countries back to the periphery and to their role of supplier of raw materials inherited from the colonial era. Exports from Chile, the wealthiest country in Latin America, depended by more than 60% on copper in 2013 (Funk, 2015). Such a dependency engenders economic vulnerabilities. In the same way as the 1970s recession in the West provoked a devastating crisis in developing countries, the decline in China’s growth rates since 2012 has depressing effects on its African and Latin American suppliers, which we are only beginning to realise.

The idea of a “Latin-Americanisation” of the Global North also deserves to be put in perspective. Indeed, social disparities are experiencing a worrying increase in the more affluent nations, but European societies in particular remain radically egalitarian in comparison to the rest of the world. The comparison of the Gini coefficient shows that the hundred most unequal countries in the world are all developing countries, with the exception of the United States, while the thirty most egalitarian countries are mostly European or part of the CIS. The proportion of the GDP allocated to social public expenditures is another indicator of the immense North-South gap in terms of social structure: 29% in the European Union and 19% in the United States, against 10% in Chile; 3.6% in Thailand and 1.4% in Bangladesh (OECD, 2014; EU, 2013; ADB, 2013). As for the share in global formal employment,  this was 85% for the rich nations in 2009, against 40% in Latin America and less than 20% in Asia and Africa (OECD, 2009).

The idea that the countries of the Global South are catching up economically deserves therefore to be put into perspective – we too often neglect how far back the latter started out. It is rather a question, as stated by Guillaume Duval, of “beginning to correct great inequalities between developed countries and the other ones that have been growing wider since the beginning of the industrial era” (2006). To think that the imbalances between the Global North and the Global South are now over is to make the same mistake of those who believed a century ago that the first conquests of workers and the socialist parties entering parliaments meant the end of social struggles and of the idea of social class.

‘We must not neglect the difference between the might and the role of a nation, between supremacy and influence, between the economic and the political’

We must equally contextualise the idea that the increased economic influence of the Global South equals a growth of its political weight in international relations. This vision is most likely linked to the “unwarranted authority of the accountant” who, to paraphrase Debray, neglects “the details that make the difference between the might and the role of a nation, between supremacy and influence, between the economic and the political” (2014). The French mediologist rightly stressed the political and cultural factors that ground the power of the West: unprecedented cohesion, the ability to present its interests as those of humanity in general, training the elite of the planet, moulding human sensitivities and leading scientific and technical innovation. In all these realms, the Global South is slower to catch up than its GDP is.

Two North-South asymmetries beyond economics deserve closer attention. First of all, the difference with regards to security. Quantitatively speaking, the United States alone still account for a third of the world’s military expenses, and the figure more than doubles by adding the European Union. Qualitatively speaking, on the other hand, the Global North dominates technological advancements and the global security architecture, with NATO at its core. Secondly, the Global North is hegemonic within international governance institutions – in the UN Security Council, the IMF, the World Bank, the G8/G20. Of course, this predominance is contended from within (through the formation of coalitions among emerging nations and the – relative – expansion of their influence through favourable reforms); as well as from without (through the creation of regional financial institutions such as the Bank of the South or the Asian Bank). However, it is still far from disappearing. Here again, we must not confuse the signs of a partial rebalancing of international relations with the disappearance of historical asymmetries, especially because these geopolitical shifts could “only lead to the reproduction of inequalities and the effects of the North-South domination, with the only difference that a few emerging countries of the Global South would join the exclusive club of the dominant powers” (Zacharie, 2016).

Fighting the international asymmetries

Although it has lost the significance it had in the heyday of the North-South dialogue, when the rich countries had to concede many important political victories, “the notion of Global South, or at least of a shared identity among the countries we associate with this term, is often reclaimed by the individuals, groups and countries themselves” (Gervais-Lambony and Landy, 2007). The North-South divide has faded more in the minds of The New York Times columnists than in those of the leaders and academics of Latin America, Africa or Asia. After ebbing in the 1980s, Third-Worldism backwashed in the late-1990s, until its resurgence in the 2000s through collective political movements associating themselves with the Global South label. This choice is not only semantic; it expresses a vital aspect of the collective identity and collective bargaining will of the countries involved (Najam, 2015).

These political alliances “of the South” no longer advance alternative development models, nor subversive geopolitical principles, as they used to do between the 1950s and the 1970s under the aegis of the G77, the Non-Aligned Movement or the Tricontinental Conference. Yet, they still stem from shared frustrations over the “asymmetries of international order” (Fernando Enrique Cardoso, former Brazilian president). They still aim to collectively defend certain principles – “special” treatment, “differentiated” responsibilities, policy space – and to adopt common stances within the WTO, UNCTAD or climate negotiations (CETRI, 2007).

Within the WTO, the coordination of different groups of countries of the Global South – G90 (made of ACP states, LDCs and the African Group wishing to strengthen the principle of “special and differentiated treatment” for poor countries); G33 (countries promoting a “special safeguard mechanism” for their agricultural sectors); and G20 (countries which demand to stop the internal subsidies to the European and American agricultures) – has thwarted the Western plans to move forward on the “Singapore issues” [4] at the 2003 Cancun Summit. The WTO, traditionally dominated by developed countries, has never truly recovered from this setback [5].

After being marginalised for twenty years by the WTO-IMF-World Bank triad, UNCTAD regained its role as an important forum for international development policymaking following the crisis of the Washington Consensus. UNCTAD’s double peculiarity is that it is dominated by developing countries and that it has advanced, since its birth in 1964, an alternative development doctrine that moves away from liberalism and highlights the asymmetries within the economic and commercial system as hindering development. The idea of a “political leeway”, or policy space, allowing developing countries to preserve a degree of independence with respect to WTO rules, has brought back North-South tensions within development debates. A dynamic network of international research centres feeds into this alternative thinking on trade, development and the environment “from the South”. Its main nodes are the Third World Network [6], the South Centre [7] and the Focus on the Global South think thank [8].

Finally, negotiations on environmental politics, above all on climate, have been without a doubt the most delicate subjects of confrontation between developed and developing countries since the 1992 Rio Summit. Things have not changed with the most recent climate summit in Paris (Roger, 2015). In the words of a former G77 negotiator at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), the leaders of the Global South elaborated their negotiation strategy based explicitly on the discussion of two main objectives. First, “to ensure that the South has an adequate environmental space for its future development”; then to “modify global economic relations so as to ensure that the South gets the resources, technology and market access to pursue a development process that is both environmentally sustainable and fast enough to meet its needs and aspirations” (Najam, 2015). After the dialogue on a “new international economic order” winded out, the climate agenda thus provided developing countries with new leverages to influence international relations, which they still collectively view as inequitable.

Socio-historical gaps

Notions of “interdependence”, “shared interests” and “global commons” have now acquired a central position in official political statements and are progressively gaining prominence in international law. They were historically located within UN agencies and the major international NGOs. Most Western states, particularly [Northern] European ones, have for some years (more or less sincerely) ascribed their diplomacy to this framework [9]. But despite the global framing and the rhetoric on common interests, the way in which these global issues are defined, conceptualised and assigned priority, including how they are integrated into the global economy, cannot be dissociated from the historical trajectories of states and societies (Gabas and Hugon, 2001). Additionally, “although societies worldwide share more and more common risks (…), that does not mean we should stop thinking that these common risks stem from the relations of domination and exploitation that in turn ground and shape different forms of expression between societies” (Pirotte, 2016).

Effectively, the vast majority of developing countries share some significant traits which over-determine their approach to global issues. In particular, on the one side their economies are heavily dependent on the extraction and processing of raw materials; on the other side, for most of their populations, conspicuous consumption remains a dream that is never or poorly fulfilled. These overwhelming socio-economic realities structurally affect international positionings, whereby issues that are pressing for the West are not as urgent for Asian, African or Latin American governments. To explain the gap between the ongoing sweeping economic changes and the modest breakthrough of universal republican values in emerging countries, Guy Hermet astutely reminds us that it is “the revolution of everyday life and not that of rights which is most important for the residents of emerging countries” (Hermet, 2008).

The resulting attitude towards the “environment-development” equation in developing countries is clearly different from that of our post-industrial societies. This is not only due to their political class being imprisoned in a development-centric paradigm, contrary to the claims of those among us who passionately embrace the causes of far-away indigenous communities. No, the preservation of the environment cannot be as easily translated into a national priority when material security for the masses is yet to be assured or has been attained only too recently [10]. And the new environmental pressures are all the more costly to integrate into policymaking, as they are widely perceived as byproducts of the Global North’s industrial development. One of the consequences is the reluctance of the big forested nations of the South towards the “common management” of forests. They see forests as productive capital – hence as assets for economic and social development that are tied to their territory and subject to the logics of state sovereignty – rather than as ecosystems sustaining the ecological balance to the benefit of all humanity (Karsenty and Pirad, 2007).

The “national sovereignty – global integration” equation is another important element of difference in attitudes towards global issues. The countries of the Global South are generally less willing to transfer part of their sovereignty to supranational authorities or to enter binding international regimes. This is not simply a matter of national selfishness, but rather a product of history, or more specifically of a historical gap between the collective Western experience with national sovereignty and the incomplete process of nation building in the Global South. It is easier to concede parts of one’s political autonomy when the latter is long-established and respected. This is even more the case when the country in question is confident of its own individual or collective weight in the decision-making processes shaping major international agreements.

A manifestation of this is the Global South’s distrust of the UN-made concept of the “responsibility to protect” [11]. This does not mean that governments of the South are all potential tyrannies fearing international sanctions. Rather, they perceive Western countries as bearing a disproportionate influence in the activation of this principle. Experiences in Libya and Ivory Coast have reinforced this opinion. More generally, in terms of human rights diplomacy, the defensiveness of developing countries towards references to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not concern so much “the evaluation of its proclaimed values” but rather “the assessment of the conditions of its promulgation”. The significance of the charter is namely undermined by its underlying assumptions of domination (Badie, 2002).

A new framework of Western supremacy

Many of the reluctances of the Global South towards the idea of global stakes are due to the fact that the West maintains a disproportionate place in their conceptualisation – how some threats are designated as the most urgent (which opens space for reflection over the influences of civil society-led campaigns); but also in their operationalisation – which global governance instruments are deemed the most technically appropriate and socially acceptable. The fact that a few emerging countries have rapidly increased their economic and diplomatic weight over the last years does not invalidate François Constantin’s reflection, upon which “in a profoundly unequal world, the discourse on global collective goods seems like a new tool for the most powerful nations (…) to impose new norms of conduct on the rest of the world, in the name of the superior interests of “Humanity” or “Future Generations”” (2002).

The same is true for the “global health” paradigm, which has been structured largely through the debates between Anglo-American universities, public agencies, foundations and humanitarian NGOs, at a time in which epidemics in poorer countries have become a security threat for the US government. The consequent application of international health strategies in the Global South hence reflects “the will, actively carried out or tacitly conveyed by the institutions of the Global North, to monitor, prevent and respond to health risks that could harm the world populations, first and foremost their own” (Atlani Duault and Vidal, 2013). Thus, coalitions of stakeholders are set up, merrily bypassing national state institutions and overlooking local diseases with no “global” spreading potential.

The same biases can be detected in the natural resource management models prescribed by major international agreements on the protection of biodiversity. These paradigms are imposed on countries of the Global South, but they mainly reflect the preoccupations of Western environmental representatives, who are themselves subject to changing paradigms (conservation, protection, sustainable development, participation, eco-tourism, etc.). Moreover, only an increasingly advanced expertise can lawfully define and implement the models of biosphere management and evaluation, and to identify and establish the rules for the legitimate usage of natural resources in protected areas (Promel et al., 2009). This kind of expertise has always been an almost exclusive prerogative of the countries in the Global North, which also see access to genetic resources located in the tropical forests of developing countries as a major economic interest (CETRI, 2013).

Finally, isn’t the most persistent asymmetry between the North and the South precisely the former’s renewed ability to produce universalist approaches which advance (or protect) both their interests and sensibility, so as to pursue its power strategy by controlling the narrative on humanity’s best interests? From this perspective, the rhetoric of the great global challenges, far from lessening the North-South imbalances, constitutes their ultimate expression. Within the scope of climate, human rights, trade or aid diplomacy, States do not give up their power ambitions, but rather seek to impose global norms which are technically and culturally more accessible to them than to outsiders, thus reinforcing their position of power. The undeniable need to reinforce international cooperation mechanisms does not attenuate this balance of power, but rather provides it with a new framework.

*The French diplomat was Jean-Bernard Mérimée, quoted by Barbara Crossette in her article in The New York Times, which is referenced at the beginning of the paragraph [Editor’s note].

**Some revisions were made to this translation on the advice of the original author. Thanks to François Polet for his guidance.

Paola Matha is currently finishing her undergraduate studies in law at the University of East Anglia and plans to go into journalism and advocacy. She is passionate about human rights issues, development and global peace and security. Find her Linkedin here.

Thank-you to Centre Tricontinental for giving permission for this translation. The original article, ‘Réhabiliter une lecture Nord-Sud du monde’ was written in French by François Polet and published both in print and online in April 2016, as part of Volume XXIII, No.2 of CETRI’s quarterly publication Alternatives Sud.


[1] Title of an episode of the TV programme “En Quête d’Actualité”, aired on 3 February 2016 on the French channel D8.
[2] The Cold War context was also at the origin of the term “Third World”, coined in 1952 by Alfred Sauvy, to highlight the existence of a third sphere alongside the capitalist First World and the soviet Second World. While the conflict between the latter monopolised the attention, the Third World, “ignored, exploited and despised as a Third-Estate, also wishes to be something” (L’Observateur, 1952).
[3] This refers to purchasing power parity. China remained second in terms of nominal value, with a GDP 40% lower than that of the United States (Meyer, 2015).
[4] These are investments, competition, transparency and trade facilitation.
[5] In 2002, a debate internal to the no-global movement, about reforming the WTO, revealed the existence of “North-South” tensions within the movement. For the NGO Oxfam, international trade, as long as it was equitable, could uplift people from poverty in poor countries. Such a stance was unacceptable for the think tank Focus on the Global South and other alter-globalists of the South, such as Vandana Shiva, as it validated the export-based development model which was at the root of the problem. More generally, recurring misunderstandings between alter-globalists of the North and of the South are often based on the latter’s “antagonistic” strategic vision of the North-South relations, which regards neoliberal globalisation as a project of reassertion of Western interests in peripheral regions, as well as of world marketisation.
[6] Penang, Malaysia –
[7] Geneva –
[8] Bangkok –
[9] The 2009 white paper on British development cooperation – Eliminating world Poverty: building our common future – was entirely devoted to showing that the British and the rest of the world shared common interests in the domains of economy (“their growth pulls ours”), security (“the fragility of their States jeopardise our security”) and global warming (“source of refugees and costs”).
[10] The loss of traction of the environmental discourse in countries of the North in times of economic crisis provides an illustration of this point.
[11] The principle of “responsibility to protect”, adopted in 2005, legitimises the international community’s military intervention in the national territories of States that manifestly fail to protect their populations from crimes against humanity.


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The Women Strike and the Youth Revolts: in conversation with a Polish pro-choice activist

The Women Strike and the Youth Revolts: in conversation with a Polish pro-choice activist
Protest against abortion restriction in Kraków, October 2020

Tom Lesniara talks to Aleksandra Sidoruk, a member of Łódzkie Dziewuchy Dziewuchom, to hear from the frontlines of the historic protests in Poland.

On 22nd of October, The Polish Constitutional Tribunal ruled that a statutory provision which allowed women to access abortions in cases of foetal abnormality was unconstitutional. The Tribunal Judge Justyn Piskorski later justified the decision by saying:

Human life is of value in any phase of development, and as a value at the source of which are constitutional laws, it should be protected by the legislators.

Quoted from Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, October 22 2020

The controversial ruling caused outrage in the country: for many, abortion laws in Poland were already too strict before the verdict. Hundreds of thousands of Poles have taken to the streets in what become the most significant public protest since the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Despite the protests leading to a delay in implementing the ruling, there are already right-wing campaigns to pass a new bill that would prohibit abortion in cases of pregnancy due to rape or incest. 

Many 21st-century social developments and standards in Western Europe – such as increased LGBTQ+ rights, civil unions of straight and gay couples, the right to adopt, more liberal immigration policies, freedom of faith or abortion rights – are things Polish officials don’t even want to discuss. To make it worse, around half of the nearly 38-million people in the country don’t want them to either. The current governing party is Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice) – a conservative, far-right party with close connections to the Catholic Church. With recently re-elected President Andrzej Duda receiving official support from PiS and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki being a member of PiS, the party has almost complete control over the Polish political landscape. Their biggest rival is Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform) – a party that also identifies as conservative, yet leans slightly towards the centre of the political spectrum. There is a mention of legalising same-sex civil unions in their manifesto for example, but abortion law is not referenced at all in the document. Left wing parties currently have limited support. In the last election to the Sejm (the lower chamber of Parliament), Lewica (The Left), which is an alliance of a few liberal parties, only managed to get 12.56% of the popular vote.

I caught up with Aleksandra Sidoruk, an International Relations student from Łódź, an industrial city in the central area of the country. When she’s not attending classes in diplomacy or foreign policy, she’s an activist. Aleksandra works together with the Łódź Girls for Girls (pol. Łódzkie Dziewuchy Dziewuchom), a feminist group. The foundation campaigns for the right to safe abortion and sex education in school, contraception, and LGBTQ+ rights. She attends marches on a regular basis, spreads awareness on safe protesting and is involved in her local division’s social media activity. Aleksandra is also planning on becoming a member of the Green Party. 

When we talk, I spot a red lightning bolt painted on Aleksandra’s cheek. Next to the slogan WYPIERDALAĆ ( written in all caps, in this context meaning “get the fuck out”), the red lightening bolt is the main symbol of the feminist movement.

Protesters dress as handmaids from The Handmaid's Tale
Photo by Aleksandra Sidoruk 2020

Aleksandra and I are both students; it’s a shame we have to meet in such challenging circumstances. I have never studied in my home country, but I don’t blame the older generation for Poland’s far right policies. A lot of young people, including Polish millennials and Gen-Z, share the views of their parents or grandparents. Another far-right political party Konfederacja (Confederation) consists mostly of young people and has a very strong social media presence. They’re responsible for aggressive counter-protests. 

“A lot of my friends actively support the cause,” Aleksandra tells me. “So do my parents and other family members. Because of the pandemic they are not attending protests. I am the only “crazy” one in the family to go out to the streets. When it comes to my classmates – because most of us have classes via Microsoft Teams – you can change your avatar to the lighting bolt in support of the cause but I’ve only seen a couple of people do that. I know there are people who react to things I post, saying they admire me and what I do, as well as those who have very far-right opinions.”

Protesting for the right to abortion in a country like Poland is hard enough as it is. Now, with the ongoing second wave of coronavirus, Girls for Girls are doing their best to keep everyone safe. “I’ve never been that kind of person, to worry about such things,” said Aleksandra when asked whether she’s scared of catching the coronavirus. “The only thing I have at the back of my mind is that I am still in close contact with my parents. I always think about that when I’m attending a protest. They understand why I am doing this.

“When I’m heading to a protest I’m (of course) thinking about the virus. Some people are trying to attend the protests while not wearing a facemask, but we don’t let them. We can’t let them put anyone at risk. Not wearing a mask, shouting, singing while being really close to each other… recently in  Łódź, we had 20,000 people protesting, you know.”

Aleksandra is right. The protests are attended by masses. In Warsaw, there have been about 100,000 protesters per day, on average. In other cities such as  Kraków,  Łódź,  Wrocław or Gdansk, the numbers can vary from 10,000 up to 80,000 people per day. The recent Black Lives Matter protests in the United States, however, have proven that even large gatherings with tens of thousands of participants don’t have to contribute to an increase in COVID-19 cases if carried out safely. 

Protesters walk past lanterns at night
Photo by Aleksandra Sidoruk 2020

“There are doctors and health professionals who work endlessly, day and night, to fight the virus and keep us safe. At first, I was unsure about their reaction and how they would take it, since we are increasing the risk in a way. It’s really amazing, though, to see them clapping and waving their little posters from behind the hospital windows,” said Aleksandra, describing the health professionals’ support as crucial and personally very important to her.

Following recent events, Jarosław Kaczyński – the leader of the governing party PiS and a brother of former Polish President Lech  Kaczyński – addressed the nation directly in a video posted on the party’s official social media channels. Kaczyński expressed his disapproval of the protests and called them a direct attack on the Church. In the speech, he also referred to the Catholic Church as “the only moral system commonly known in Poland”, later saying that “the rejection of it is pure nihilism.” Since then, there have been several reports of Konfederacja supporters, who mostly are very young, trying to sabotage the protests in order to “protect the churches”.

“We get messages from people who added themselves to Facebook groups of potential attackers. They are really doing those things – pretending they’re supporting our protest and then attacking. Personally, I’ve not been a victim of an attack like this, but my friends have been in Warsaw. They said that some man just attacked a random woman with pepper spray, and I think he actually kicked someone as well.

“Here, in Łódź, we meet them when we’re walking by the church, that’s what they ‘protect’. They are not trying to attack us. The only exception I can recall was when one of our protesters had a rainbow flag with her and the counter-protester took it away from her and tried to push her, but there were some people that didn’t let that happen.” 

As for now, the protests are still going on. Recently, there have been reports of plain clothes anti-terrorism units using violence against peaceful protestors in Warsaw. To help the feminist movement in Poland, you can follow the national feminist foundation Dziewuchy Dziewuchom on social media, help spread awareness or make a donation on their official website.

Correction: The previous version of this article stated that President Andrzej Duda is currently a member of PiS. According to political convention, upon election the President resigns any party membership. Therefore, President Duda has not been a member of PiS since his election in 2015. President Duda received official support from PiS during his election and re-election campaigns in 2015 and 2020.

Tomasz Lesniara is a 2nd year Media and Communication student at City of Glasgow College. You can read more of his work, and about him, on his website.

You can follow Aleksandra Sidoruk on Instagram with the handle @olasidoruk.


This Remembrance Day, it’s time for a new English pacifism

This Remembrance Day, it’s time for a new English pacifism
Copyright Daisy Harrison-Broninski 2020

The Civil Society Review editor, Bertie Harrison-Broninski, takes us through the moral dilemmas of poppy-wearing.

In Britain, it is commonplace to wear a red poppy in November as an act of war ‘remembrance’. Some, however, object to the Poppy Appeal and The British Legion, believing their messaging to be overly jingoistic. Many believe these organisations implicitly support war as righteous, rather than treating it as avoidable tragedy. Some choose to wear a white rather than red poppy, to symbolise an internationalist form of remembrance that is committed to peace.

People have asked me why I wear a white poppy: the truth is that I’ve found that a little harder to answer this year, despite the above.

It’s been a year in which I, like many others, have been deeply inspired by the protests around the world for democracy, human rights, self-determination, the environment, and the abolition of prejudicial institutions and systems.

I’ve witnessed how the language of pacifism becomes easily weaponised by reactionaries to suppress such movements; critics of Black Lives Matter and the Hong Kong protests, for example, have used the rhetoric of nonviolence to whitewash their opposition to activists’ demands. Despite studies demonstrating the American BLM protests were largely nonviolent, Republicans have continued to use this line to denounce them.

There are colonial overtones to this. Historically, Christian and Quaker missionaries in British colonies often verbally condemned British violence against indigenous peoples, while still viewing their own religion as a means to ‘pacify’ supposedly aggressive native populations. In doing so, they continued to benefit from and exploit British violence while harming cultures and people that were foreign to them. The intersecting histories of Christianity and imperialism have normalised the idea of pacifism as hypocritical, condescending, a means of keeping people in line, while stigmatising it as a principled opposition to militarism.

The history of the white poppy in England is mired in similar discussions. The British No More War Movement, which first proposed a white poppy for peace, collapsed in the 1930s after it refused to support leftists in the Spanish Civil War against the Fascist General Franco. After communists and anarchists left the movement, what was left of it merged into The Peace Pledge Union, who produce white poppies today.

The Peace Pledge Union has historic ties to Anglicanism, and has remained fairly Anglocentric despite its stated disdain for treating veterans or war victims of one country as different to another. The absolutist pacifism shown towards the fascists in Spain in the ‘30s continued as the PPU attracted further criticism for supporting appeasement towards Hitler.

This stuff is complicated: the PPU did admirable work supporting refugees and conscientious objectors during these wars. Their criticism of British bombing in Germany speaks to a clear moral truth: German civilians, including children, did not deserve to be slaughtered from above, caught in the cross-fire of a conflict between higher powers.

Yet George Orwell raised an interesting point in his famous denunciation of the PPU and other pacifist movements in 1941:

Since pacifists have more freedom of action in countries where traces of democracy survive, pacifism can act more effectively against democracy than for it. Objectively, the pacifist is pro-Nazi.

‘Adelphi’, October 1941

We cannot hold everyone to the same standards: context matters. It would be totally inappropriate for an English protestant to judge Jews in Nazi Germany for enacting violence against their oppressors. Though perhaps less extreme, Orwell’s statement rings true for critics of Black Lives Matter who denounce the protests on the basis of occasional violence. You cannot maintain a moral high ground through lofty rhetoric of nonviolence (especially if you are white), you are simply siding with white supremacy.

So what does this mean for conscientious Brits today, who want to partake in remembrance while dodging these moral hurdles? This question has dashed through my mind when people have asked about my white poppy wearing this month.

For those who believe that Britain grossly under-remembers our own history of state violence, warmongering and colonialism, not wearing a poppy at all feels like a cop-out. Wearing poppies incites conversations about our history and our political behaviours, conversations that the cultural left is rightly pushing for the public to engage in more often.

Too often however, the red poppy seems to support the censorship of these conversations: a seeming statement of support for the actions of our government. This becomes problematic in a contemporary as well as historical context too: Britain is still heavily implicated in global arms dealing, and supportive of nuclear proliferation.

The solution must be a cultural rebranding of anti-war thinking away from Anglo-Christian pacifist idealism, and towards a commitment to justice. The central notion must be that people fighting for their own lives or human rights are opposing violence, and that people with more privilege are not in a position to play moral judge and jury. To condemn people fighting persecution is to engage in that persecution: we must understand that just like colonial missionaries, supposed pacifism can be an act of violence, culturally and materially. We have to stop equating state militarism with protest or even revolution: they are clearly very different.

I don’t know whether it would be possible to rebrand the white poppy so that people associate it with these views, even if the Peace Pledge Union wanted to. Perhaps English radicals need yet another colour of poppy. Until then however, I will tell people that I wear a white poppy not just as an act of protest: but also as an act of solidarity with protest, all around the world.

Bertie Harrison-Broninski is the general editor of The Civil Society Review, and a trustee for Oxford Omnia. He also edits Freezine, and is studying for an MA in Investigative Journalism at City, University of London. Follow him on twitter here.


The fashion movement inspiring a new vision of Africa’s future

The fashion movement inspiring a new vision of Africa’s future
Illustration copyright Daisy Harrison-Broninski 2020. Inspired by photographs published in Internazionale in January 2020.

Translated for The Civil Society Review by William Holmes, from Andrea de Georgio’s original Italian article in Internazionale.

Editor’s note: This Italian article spotlights an emerging entrepreneurial reality in West African, particularly Burkinabé, society. Young fashion designers are negotiating a new, decolonised identity through garments, and rewriting the rules of the industry. We were particularly interested in the paradox of wax, a fabric that is highly popular in the region but is produced and sold by foreign companies.

From Parisian catwalks to the New York, London and Milan fashion weeks, every elite fashion event has pulled out at least one “African” item of clothing in the last few years. The “made in Africa” fashion fever has spread across the West, above all thanks to wax being able to migrate from its continent’s borders. “Cerato” cotton is a term that has found its way into the English language and is used in thousands of designs and flashy colours. With designers and consumers pushing its spread into the United States and Europe, this material has recently reached new peaks of popularity. 

Wax is widely used in West and Central Africa but is produced in the Netherlands. It is also the springboard for a new generation of stylists who are looking, with difficulty, to bring back more natural, local and refined materials from their own countries’ textile traditions. Popular examples of these trends range from the “Faso Dan Fani”, bazin, batik, bogolan fabrics to the indigo, kita, kente and kôkô dônda fabrics.

A fledgling artistic trend, which is in confrontation with the weight of the (neo)colonial past and is inspired by Pan-African Futurism, is the driving force of creativity in a continent that is searching for its own original identity.

“Our vision of tomorrow”

On the Avenue du Général Lamizana, jammed between a panini café and a deli in the heart of the capital of Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou, is T Bonty’s showroom. T Bonty is one of the trendiest businesses in Burkina Faso. The creator of the brand, Fatou Traoré, 28, is alone in the shop, busy organising clothes after the fashion show that took place the night before. “Nothing special – just a little improvised event in a friend’s house”, explains the stylist modestly, as she delicately places clothes on the mannequins in the shop window.

In West Africa, carried by the growing regional market, fashion boutiques are popping up everywhere, with fashion training schools, dedicated events and young talented stylists like Fatou. “Unlike previous generations who were trained and established in the West, we are reviving local materials, styles and manufacturing techniques that come from different African traditions. We are returning to our roots to express our personal vision of fashion and of the society of tomorrow”.

Fatou’s look is original: it combines an eyebrow piercing and a headscarf, braids, high-waisted trousers and a brightly coloured top. As she is tidying up her workshop, she shows off some items from her latest collection: shoes, bags and shirts embellished with wax, and traditional garments transformed into eccentric and trendy patterns, stitched with parts of jeans and imported materials. She confesses that she has always had a love-hate relationship with printed cotton in her creative process. “We are all victims of the wax paradox.” The Burkinabé stylist’s ironic remark refers to a heated debate in the world of African fashion, as the authenticity of the wax fabric has been questioned for years. 

Wax and communication

Today, wax is undoubtedly a key part of daily life for millions of Africans. Men and women use it in a variety of different ways. Some use wax to make backpacks to carry their children, whilst skilful local tailors use it to sew tailored dresses and suits cheaply. Special designs are printed for weddings (offered as part of the dowry), baptisms, national holidays, sports events, political anniversaries, election campaigns and to raise social awareness. Women at the market come up with names for every new pattern, based on the shapes and on the stylised images printed on pagne (fabrics, both made of wax or not). For instance, “If you go out, I’m also going out”, “My husband’s got game”, “My rival is watching” and so on. Over the years, these garments have become a form of not only public, but also private, intimate and codified communication. 

From a sociological point of view, wax is “100% African”. However, it is Chinese and Dutch producers that profit the most from its trade, selling “le véritable Wax Hollandais” and forgeries all over the continent.

The frontrunner in the sector, Vlisco, which was founded in 1846, produces 64 million metres of fabric annually in Helmond in the Netherlands. It exports 90% of this to West Africa, for around 300 million euros (in 2014). This region, which is the largest consumer of wax in the world, first discovered pagne in 1836, when Ashanti soldiers (sent by the Dutch to fight in the Asian colonies) disembarked from their ships in what is today Ghana. Here, African businessmen started selling the batik, which had come from Indonesia, quickly profiting from such high demand that subsequently sent prices rocketing up to the same level as gold.

Bringing the “Faso Dan Fani” is an economic, cultural and political challenge to imperialism

Having got whiff of this success, a few years later the Dutch opened the first textiles businesses that specialised in the wax trade in Africa, producing an industrial variation of the batik worn on the Indonesian island of Java. 

Thomas Sankara, who in the 1980s as a young revolutionary President renamed the nation “the country of incorruptible men” (which is what Burkina Faso means), today would call wax a “colonial” product. In his famous speeches, he would repeat: “Imperialism is in the food that we eat and in the clothes that we wear”. In line with his campaign message – “Let’s produce and buy Burkinabé” – during the four years of his government (1983-87) before being assassinated, Sankara strongly encouraged weaving and the use of “Faso Dan Fani” (literally meaning “the woven fabric of the nation”) relaunching cotton – “Burkina’s white gold” – into the regional market. Sankara explained: “Bringing the “Faso Dan Fani” is an economic, cultural and political challenge to imperialism” and subsequently imposed the traditional fabric on all politicians and civil servants by decree. 

In accordance with Sankara’s ideals, the President Roch Kaboré and his ministers – who were democratically elected after Blaise Compaoré’s 27-year dictatorship had collapsed thanks to a popular uprising in October 2014 – along with young “sankarist” artists, like Fatou Traoré, started using the “Faso Dan Fani” again. They turned it back into a symbol of national pride, self-determination and independence of the Burkinabé people from foreign control.

Cynical realism

A few steps away from T Bonty’s workshop is the Avenue Kwame Nkrumah, the heart of the city’s nightlife. This little winding street, which is overlooked by hotels, cafés and restaurants, was attacked by an Al Qaeda-affiliated group from the Muslim Maghreb region on 15th January 2016. Today, Alex Zabsonré is sipping his bissap (a hibiscus tea) in the Italian café Cappuccino, the same place where thirty people were killed by the jihadist frenzy that evening. “I often come here. After it reopened it became the safest place in Ouaga” explains Alex with a certain cynical realism whilst looking at his reflection in the new armoured-glass windows that have been recently installed in the venue. 

He’s a thin guy with glasses wearing an ordinary outfit: he’s sporting a polo shirt, jeans and trainers, a bit like a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. He’s a successful entrepreneur at the age of 28, director of Alamod Magazine, the first online fashion news outlet in Burkina Faso. He is also the founder and artistic director of Ouaga fashion week. “Events like the second edition of Ouaga fashion week (organised in April with around twenty local stylists taking part, including Traoré) display that Africa is bursting with creative talent. High fashion is no longer a Western monopoly, but it has arrived here too”. 

The Dakar and Abidjan fashion weeks are nearby success stories that inspire Alex. Over the last few years both have succeeded in getting state funding, as well as important international sponsors. This is very different from the situation in Burkina Faso, where the sector is still in its early stages of growth. “Investors have shown interest in our market, but they are not confident enough to inject capital into it, although this would make us grow even more rapidly”, notes the young entrepreneur, who finances the Ouagadougou fashion week out of his own pocket, with the help of just a Dutch beer brand as the only sponsor. “If you look at the progress made in the last five years, you will realise the enormous economic potential that fashion has in West Africa today”, claims Alex.

The art of making people dream

Just like tourists, investors are discouraged from walking the streets of Ouagadougou by the lack of security and instability in the country. Patrols of armoured vehicles and heavily armed soldiers are still relentlessly patrolling the Avenue Kwame Nkrumah day and night. In fact, in recent times the region has become the new frontline for global jihadism, as groups linked to Al Qaeda and to the Islamic State in the great Sahara control the area.

Alex has a clear idea about the role that fashion must take on and, more generally, culture as a whole: “We must not allow extremism to kill our dreams. We cannot stop living, quite the opposite! We must show that they do not make us afraid, that we are stronger than them.” On this point, the young man adds brightly: “Africa is the continent with the most young people in the world. Therefore, I am asking my generation to stand up and fight, and to contribute to the development of our countries with dynamism and entrepreneurship. In order to succeed, however, we need to have the audacity to test ourselves. Only by doing this will we show that young Africans have something to say and give to the entire world.”
Alex finishes his bissap and, before leaving, comments with a smile: “What really is fashion, if not the art of making people dream?”.

Thank-you to Internazionale for giving permission for this translation. The original article, ‘La moda accende il sogno dell’Africa di domani’ was written in Italian by Andrea de Georgio and published online on the 10th January 2020. It can be read here.

Will Holmes is a modern languages undergraduate at the university of Bristol and a future trainee solicitor. He loves languages, translation and writing and has a particular interest in technology and law developing around it. Find his twitter here, and his LinkedIn here.


WAR on racism in Australia: discussing Black Lives Matter with Aboriginal activist Boe Spearim

WAR on racism in Australia: discussing Black Lives Matter with Aboriginal activist Boe Spearim
Protesters sit on the road outside South Brisbane police station, holding ground until the Aboriginal flag is flown by the station. Photo by Lilly McKenzie, 06/07/2020

In our first piece for In Conversation, Lilly McKenzie takes us to the streets of Brisbane to offer a different perspective on Black Lives Matter.

Walking through the Brisbane Cental Business District (CBD), you hear the roar of the crowd before you see them, stragglers walking alongside you. Spilling out from King George Square is a group that’s over 30,000 strong – the biggest protest the city has seen in years. This one looks different in other ways too, with protesters in masks standing apart rather than crammed together, and scattered medic stalls handing out masks and hand sanitiser to anyone who hasn’t brought their own. 

These stalls were an important inclusion to organising group ‘Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance’, not accidentally known as ‘WAR’. WAR founder and Gomeroi, Kooma, Murawarri activist Bogaine ‘Boe’ Spearim felt it was important to hold the march on June 6th, during waning coronavirus restrictions, stating that “as Aboriginal people we’re very outraged about what happened to George Floyd…Over here in Longbeach jail [in December 2015] an Aboriginal young man by the name of David Dungay Jr’s last words were ‘I can’t breathe’ and you know he said that about eleven or twelve times.”

Boe continued to tell me that “Lots of Aboriginal people, earlier on in that week before we started the rally, we were upset and frustrated that mass media in Australia, but then also the public here in Australia, they weren’t sort of gravitating to what was happening here with Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people regarding Black deaths in custody or police brutality.”

Since the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody report was released in 1991, there have been at least 437 Indigenous deaths in custody.

In 1991 the Australian government’s Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody report was released, investigating the reasons for the high numbers of Indigenous deaths during arrest, pursuit or while in custody. Since this report and its recommendations were released, there have been at least 437 Indigenous deaths in custody. You can view their stories in Walkley award-winning database ‘Deaths Inside’ by Indigenous journalist for the Guardian Lorena Allam.

“It was an urgent thing to sort of say hey, wait a minute, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people we stand in solidarity with Black folks in the United States because we know what happens…Hold up for a minute, we don’t want you to not share what’s happening in the United States to George Floyd or other Black folks, but could you also share what’s happening to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this country as well?”

This isn’t the first time Australia’s Indigenous communities have stood with people of colour from around the world, and found solace in shared issues – in fact, it is in WAR’s very foundation, as Boe told me:

“In 2014 myself and two other young Aboriginal people went to Canada. We drove from the West Coast to the East Coast, stopping off at different Indigenous communities that were either land defenders, or that were blockading mining companies, or had tent cities set up in protest of mistreatment of Native folks – like police brutality but then also missing and murdered Indigenous women.

…we can support and also build on each other’s campaigns, see other narratives, and draw comparisons from our different experiences as Indigenous peoples.

“That also informed me on a personal level as well as focusing my political understanding on Indigenous folks globally as to how we can support and also build on each other’s campaigns, see other narratives, and draw comparisons from our different experiences as Indigenous peoples. And that really was a really powerful shift and inspiration in starting Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance after that as well. The three mob that I went with plus my partner now, we were the (I guess you could say) founding members of WAR. So those things were very informative and very inspiring to me as well.”

The crowd in Brisbane marched through the city streets, stopping at intersections to dance, chant, and make speeches. Walking across the William Jolley Bridge to South Brisbane the crowd paused on the busway as Boe addressed the crowd, inspiring them to help stop Black and Indigenous deaths in custody:

“If we can empower people to film coppers, or if we can empower people to you know, if there’s more of them and less coppers, to intervene and save that person, even if it means getting physical, we may save a life.”

WAR organised protests across the country on June 6th 2020, their members working with local Indigenous groups in each area, like the Brisbane Blacks, and the Brisbane Aboriginal Sovereign Embassy (BASE), formed at Musgrave Park.

Yet for Boe this follows nearly a decade in activism work: “I got involved [with activism] through the Brisbane Aboriginal Sovereign Embassy in Musgrave Park when the embassy was set up in 2012, after the 40th anniversary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra.

The elders and the mob there said go back to your own area where you live, your city or your town, and start an Aboriginal tent embassy.

“The elders and the mob there said go back to your own area where you live, your city or your town, and start an Aboriginal tent embassy. So what happened was the founders of the Brisbane Aboriginal Sovereign Embassy attended the 40th anniversary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra, they came back to start an embassy – one of those people was my older brother, and the first night it was set up he said come in for the night bro, have some mad yarns around the fire and stuff.

“And I’ve gone in and sure enough, sat around the fire and had some great conversations about issues that have always affected Aboriginal people, but I guess really resonated with me and with my generation – and so I was going to stay one night but I ended up staying three or four nights. That was my introduction to activism and my being politicised I guess in some way.”

The Brisbane Tent Embassy has been described by the Brisbane City Council described as a place for ceremonies and feasts, as well as ‘conflict resolution’.

The Tent Embassy in Canberra was set up in 1972 opposite Parliament House, protesting the contemporary government’s approach to Indigenous land rights. Over time the embassy developed, fighting for sovereignty, and moved around Canberra before becoming permanent in its original location in 1992. The Brisbane Tent Embassy was formed in Musgrave Park, an area that has always been culturally significant to Indigenous people, and where the Musgrave Park Cultural centre was established in 1998, described by the Brisbane City Council described as a place for ceremonies and feasts, as well as ‘conflict resolution’.

The protest on June 6th was the beginning of an increase in actions to stop Black deaths in custody. On Wednesday the 17th of June a protest was held in King George Square in Brisbane city before marching to Parliament house – on the second day of parliament sitting – to pressure the state government to take action regarding Indigenous deaths in custody.

The crowd outside the Kangaroo Point hotel-come-detention-centre chant in solidarity with the 120 men inside who watch from their balconies.
The crowd outside the Kangaroo Point hotel-come-detention-centre chant in solidarity with the 120 men inside who watch from their balconies. Photo by Lilly McKenzie, 13/06/2020.

When the crowd got to parliament house, they turned, marching down to the entrance of the riverside expressway before holding ground. Uncle Wayne ‘Coco’ Wharton, Brisbane Aboriginal Sovereign Embassy (BASE) member, Indigenous activist and coordinator of the day’s march, addressed the wall of police officers. He called for the Police Minister to come down and talk to him about the officer who allegedly assaulted his daughter, Ruby Wharton, on Saturday the 13th of June.

Ruby, a young Black activist from the Gold Coast, is involved with coordinating Black Lives Matter protests and was taking part in a separate protest; the Kangaroo Point Blockade. This blockade is outside a hotel where asylum seekers are being kept, and they aim to stop the transfer and deportation of 120 men that have been in detention for seven years.

Protesters surrounded the paddy wagon, sitting on the road to prevent the police from driving away…

On Saturday the 13th of June a peaceful rally was held, and hours later Brisbane City Council Member Jonathan ‘Jono’ Sri, Greens Councillor for the Gabba Ward – who is one of the organisers of the blockade – was arrested while leaving the event. Protesters surrounded the paddy wagon, sitting on the road to prevent the police from driving away, many with their phones out filming the police, and Ruby was allegedly assaulted by a police officer for continuing to film. 

Uncle Coco named Jerry Moffat, the officer who allegedly assaulted Ruby, holding up a photo of him on his phone, and called on any of the police to take a report from him. The police began to move the crowd on, pulling gloves on before they did, and when Uncle Coco stood his ground, he was arrested. 

The march continued with Ruby at the helm, redirecting the crowd across the CBD before standing ground outside the Brisbane Watch House, calling for Uncle Coco’s release. Uncle Coco was released without charge that night, after lawyer Debbie Kilroy became involved.

Black Lives Matter protests have been continuing in Brisbane and around Australia – including outside local correctional facilities – fighting to make their voices heard. The Kangaroo Point Blockade is indefinitely ongoing.

Lilly McKenzie is a freelance journalist and a 2018 Mid-Year Walkley Award finalist. She is currently focused on covering minority issues, human rights, and politics in her home city of Brisbane, Australia.

Boe Spearim’s podcast, ‘Frontier War Stories‘, can be found here, and his latest article for ‘The Guardian’ can be found here.


Don’t misread Orwell: 1984 supports Black Lives Matter

Don’t misread Orwell: 1984 supports Black Lives Matter
Copyright Daisy Harrison-Broninski 2020

Russell Square is a bustling and leafy area in the middle of London. It is home to many great institutions that in their own way represent British history, including the School of Oriental and African Studies, a university founded to train colonial administrators, and the British Museum, a beautiful collection of artefacts collected from around the world. Between these two institutions steeped in controversial colonial history sits Senate House, the striking building that Orwell modelled the exterior of his Ministry of Truth upon in his famous novel 1984. Its white art deco façade seems to rise endlessly into the sky, making it one of London’s most striking, and arguably austere, buildings. The proximity of these institutions to a building that plays such a key role in Orwell’s most famous work is prescient in times when 1984 is being invoked to criticise Black Lives Matter’s attempt to get the UK to recognise the legacy of colonialism, most notably in the toppling of slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol. In particular, the following quote from 1984 has been used by many on social media to criticize this act:

…every statue and street building have been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.

Those who have shared this as if it denounces the felling of statues like Colston’s have misunderstood 1984 and George Orwell. Orwell’s point is better illustrated by the fact that the statue stood for 125 years in the first place. The spaces we inhabit act as tributes to historical individuals whose true impact and role in history is often erased by foregrounding more favourable characteristics. Colston’s statue did not engage with his role in the slave trade, instead describing him as ‘virtuous and wise’. Where Orwell’s statues are “renamed” ours are recategorised so that Colston, and many others, are remembered by their virtue rather than their violence. 

This discussion has never been just about Edward Colston, or even statues. It is about why our society is so protective over the dominant, but incorrect or obscuring, narratives of history. The characters in Orwell’s two most famous fictional works, Animal Farm and 1984, are served narratives that reinforce dominating power structures through false tellings of history. This is what Orwell stood against: the protagonists of both Animal Farm and 1984 were not the people supporting the status quo but were instead subversive thinkers, in the case of Winston Smith of 1984, and revolutionaries, in the case of the animals of Animal farm.  

Winston Smith, the protagonist of 1984, rebelled by collecting parts of the cultural legacy cut out from the dominant narrative. The nursery rhyme line “Oranges and Lemons, ring the bells of St Clement’s” led to him learning about a history which wasn’t endorsed by the near-omnipotent Big Brother, from a small antiques shop in the proletariat area of the city. This simple fragment of history led him on a fateful journey to a showdown with authority in the infamous torture chamber Room 101. The experience of learning about history through fragments collected outside of the mainstream will be familiar to anyone who takes an interest in British colonial history, which is noticeably absent from the national curriculum and more jingoistic popular histories of Britain.  

Orwell was critical of the status quo and was no shrinking wallflower when it came to challenging power. His work is so often used to invoke the USSR and communist dictatorship, however, it is also evocative of some episodes in the history of the British Empire. A particularly famous example is the burning of documents relating to the detention of over a million Kikuyus in settlement camps in Kenya during the 1950s as a response to the threat of a small nationalist insurgency known as Mau Mau. This has left historians unable to see the incarceration from the perspective of the British government and prevented the extent of the atrocities from becoming widely known to the public until the mid-noughties. Only in 2011 did the government admit that they had continued to keep 200,000 documents secret from the public for over five decades, some of which showed that the government had covered up the systematic abuse in the internment camps. 

This nuance is lost on many. In the Daily Express Leo Mckinstrey writes

For most of us 1984 was a warning.
For radical agitators it was a blueprint.

McKinstry is right of course in saying that Orwell meant 1984 as a warning, but he is wrong that it is the ‘radical agitators’ of the left using it as a blueprint. It is not Black Lives Matter who present a threat to history; many have been very clear about their desire for a broader history curriculum and for more context to be given to British history. The people who are using 1984 as a guide are some of the politicians running our country. Our prime minister, Boris Johnson, a man famous for lying, has recently claimed ignorance over footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign that forced a major government U-turn and had have his own words quoted back to him by the leader of the opposition to remind him of his original policy about COVID-19 and care home safety. This is not to mention his unconditional support for Dominic Cummings whose trip to Durham was painted as a reasonable decision by government ministers while most of the country was shocked by the audacity with which they revised the meaning of the lockdown conditions.  

This has been a persistent problem since Johnson became leader of his party: during the 2019 General Election an independent fact checker found that 88% of Conservative Party adverts contained lies, while the Tories rebranded their twitter as ‘Fact Check UK’, a fake fact-checking service. This enduring problem with truth from our current government recently led to an anonymous civil servant tweeting the following from a civil service twitter account:

Arrogant and offensive.
Can you imagine working with these truth twisters?

If social media existed in the universe of 1984 then Winston Smith, who was a civil servant tasked with rewriting history, would most likely have written something similar from his desk in the Ministry of Truth, given the chance. 

What many who are invoking Orwell seem to have missed is that those with power are the ones that control the narrative of history. The very nature of protest suggests that people feel they do not have enough power to influence the course of, and telling of, history. Orwell would not be surprised that his work would be used to smear protesters that Donald Trump has called ‘Anti-fascists’. He recognised that becoming part of the cultural canon was part of reinforcing the narrative of those in power; he is afterall the man who wrote that “who controls the past controls the future, who controls the present controls the past”. The crowning irony is, of course, that Orwell was a self-professed anti-fascist who went to Spain to fight alongside anarchists against the fascist armies of General Franco. This was the cognitive dissonance that Orwell sought to capture in the word doublespeak. A term in the fictional language of 1984 termed Newspeak which was designed to reduce the possibility of subversive thoughts. People are concerned that history is being re-written in front of our eyes. This is a valid concern. The phrase ‘history is written by the victors’ has always been true. However, in this epoch there are new challenges ranging from politicians who are no longer held to account for their pathologically clumsy lying such as Johnson and Trump, to the social media echo chambers that have seen fake news so successfully spread. One thing is for certain: against this backdrop it is unlikely that Black Lives Matter is the movement that will lead us into the world of 1984.

Jake Smaje works in data governance for a large INGO in the WASH sector and is the trustee of United Social Ventures, a livelihood charity in Uganda, having previously worked in a range of roles in the charity sector in Rwanda, Kenya and Bangladesh. Since completing his BA in History at the University of Leeds in 2016 with a specialism in African History, he’s held a continued interest in the political economy of the Global South.


Becoming racialised, becoming coronavirus: experiences of racialised subjects during a pandemic

Becoming racialised, becoming coronavirus: experiences of racialised subjects during a pandemic
Copyright Daisy Harrison-Broninski 2020

By Shivangi Kaushik

All articles in In Depth have been subject to double-blind academic peer-reviews.

The word ‘subject’ has been intentionally used in the title of this article to frame “racialisation” as an essentialising act of power. Racialisation1 here is not only seen as an exercise in othering or exclusion, but also as a means of imagining people in a particular way. An imagining which is so daunting that it becomes difficult, almost impossible, to break out of or challenge: it is an act of power because only a few people can imagine while the rest are imagined, apropos without their choice. 

Pandemics have the potential to unleash a series of concomitant events/occurrences which challenge the existing status quo and threaten to topple the existing power relations in a country. As in other countries, India’s urban centres have borne the major brunt of the pandemic. As the number of COVID-19 positive cases increased with every passing second, cities such as Delhi and Mumbai became the epicentres or “hotspots”, which again amplified the cry for self-isolation and physical distancing, thereby strictly and legally prohibiting all forms of gathering, including religious ones. In these cities, this pandemic has exposed the fact that some sections of Indian society who have always been at the periphery of the socio-historical discourse of the country, are once again at the receiving end of the worst forms of exclusion and racialisation. Even though Arundhati Roy remarked that the pandemic actually provides a means or a “portal” to overhaul the existing hierarchies and rebuild a more egalitarian order, in a hypothetical post-pandemic lifeworld, the hierarchy, inequality and exclusion which is a structural feature of Indian society will seemingly continue to penetrate every aspect of life, especially for those in the periphery. 

As the elite and the middle class snuggled inside their homes with expensive wine and comfortable work-from-home schedules for the lockdown period of twenty-one days, the major urban centres of India (for instance the National Capital Region of Delhi) began the process of gradually extruding several million informal migrant workers. As the pandemic strengthened its tentacle in the country, the rich and the privileged sought to oust these informal labourers by pushing them back to the villages from where they had initially started their journey to the city in order to earn their livelihoods. The sudden exposure of the extreme vulnerabilities that haunt the precarious existence of informal labour gives us a unique opportunity to explore how the Anthropocene leads to the creation of a pathological society impacted by moral breakdown at the societal level. In Durkheimian terms, anomie would be the right word to denote the present circumstances where the pandemic has evidently challenged social conventions and norms as well as the social institutions (the state for instance) which govern these conventions. 

The social milieu feels more like an anomie because of the fact that even though every aspect continued to unfold and become documented right in front of our eyes through social media and news channels, people could only appal their helplessness in the entire situation and do nothing apart from discerning their privilege. Even as medical and scientific endeavours break down due to their impotency in the face of COVID 19, not only the economic proletariat, but also those who do not possess an ‘Indian face’, experience the darkest sides of this pandemic. 

The importance of an Indian face

The people that I am talking about are the countless migrant students, workers and residents from the distinct ethnolinguistic communities and different states of what is known as Northeast2 India, the easternmost peripheral geographical territory of India, which share their borders with China, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal and Bhutan. People from this region who identify as belonging to ethnic communities like that of Zou, Rongmei, Angamis, Hmars or Dimasas have physical features that resemble the people of the aforementioned neighbouring countries of India. The overwhelming focus on caste-based social discrimination both outside India and within India has always overshadowed the potential to even start a discourse of racial discrimination in the Indian context. 

Throughout the world, there has been a conspicuous trend to racially discriminate against citizens of countries such as China, South Korea, Thailand, and other South-Eastern countries. People who have a certain set of physical features have been homogenised as carrying the ‘China virus’ (even by the President of one of the most powerful nations) and are targeted in their daily lives.

It is important to note and read closely the aforementioned sentence. A close analysis of the phrase will tell us how an entire country has been equated to a life threatening pandemic. This affects people irrespective of their distinct ethnic identity or where they hail from: whether they are immigrants or second generation American citizens is not taken into account. Equating people with a pandemic is particularly worrying owing to the fact that these migrants are taken to be criminals where each of them is seen as  responsible for “spreading” the virus. They can be ‘tried’ for just sneezing in a public space, for something beyond their control. If racialisation had an anatomy, then this criminalisation and homogenisation could be called the building ‘bones’. Stereotypes and prejudices could be seen as the fluid or blood in this case, which could supply the fuel to keep racism alive. Exclusion would be the oxygen to keep this anatomy alive. 

If ‘race’ is taken to be the founding basis or the criterion through which racism and racialisation are articulated, then the very existence of racism as a systematic apparatus has to be questioned. Anthropologists like Claude Levi Strauss (1985: 6) have refuted the idea of race, pointing out that “if we attempt to trace racial differences back to their origins, we condemn ourselves to ignorance; and the subject of our debate becomes the diversity of not races but cultures”. Levi Strauss points towards the fact that tracing an individual’s race is a futile exercise, as there has been so much intermixing between the different races that it is difficult to pinpoint who belongs to which race.  It was individuals like Gobineau who advocated the use of scientific racism to hierarchise the different races to establish the superiority of the white race in terms of both physical and intellectual terms. Moreover, it is important to take note that this was during the pinnacle of the colonial era, where scientific racism was used to justify the dominance of the white race or colonizers. The Sara Baartman (Ahmed 2002: 57-58) episode where a black woman was exhibited to the white onlookers is a reminder of the power that racialisation exerts over a group of people not only owing to the way they look but also owing to the fact that they being dominated becomes essential to establishing the domination or superiority of another more powerful group. 

Who are chinkies or the coronavirus in India?

At the outset of this article, I talked about the migrants from Northeast India facing racial discrimination in India. Owing to the lack of better schools, colleges and employment opportunities in the different states of Northeast India, a lot of students and workers migrate to cities such as Delhi and Bengaluru in search of higher education and employment opportunities, especially in the retail sector. Here it is important to note that the migrants that I am talking about are not only distinct via their physical features but also have a  set of linguistic and cultural features which distinguish their rituals, cultural features and language and diverse dialects from the rest of the country. In a way, it can also be said that when India attained independence, the eight states of Northeast India (namely: Manipur, Mizoram, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Nagaland, Tripura and Meghalaya) had a problematic annexation with the state. This also meant that there have been innumerable struggles going on in the different states of the region which throughout history has been met with brutal state repression. 

I work with migrant students from different ethnolinguistic communities, and for my research I have been racially abused as “coronavirus”. During Holi (the Indian festival of colour), some of the female students were targeted and water balloons were thrown at their private parts. After being attacked with water balloons, one of the students heard the remark, “Are randy tera chut dikh raha hain” (You whore, I can see your vagina). Sometime back in the month of March, a journalist from a reputed Indian national daily had come to North campus, University of Delhi, to interview some of the students who were the “victims” of these racist attacks. I was also present in this meeting. The reporter kept asking them to narrate in detail what happened to them in each of these attacks. Moreover, she also urged them to give a full face interview which they declined owing to security/anonymity reasons before, after a long deliberation, they settled to giving interviews where their faces were blurred and their voices doctored. 

It was then I realised that for the reporter (despite being one of the rare journalists who at least took an interest in covering these incidents), the evident racialisation and the accompanying essence of being called a chinky or a momo in Delhi made these students’ experiences appealing. It made me question why their daily life experiences of going to a church, temple or mosque or of the numerous festivals organised by the various students’ associations, were never highlighted in mainstream newspapers or news journals. It is clear that they are not imagined as having anything beyond a racial identity. Why and how does the denigration of migrants from the region by people from other parts of the country appeal to journalists, writers and academics from outside NER? This was highlighted by Sara Ahmed (2007: 51) that racial projection (e.g. labelling someone a chinky) is not only a visual response triggered in us when we look at someone who has a different set of physical features. Racial projection also happens when a person is racialised to an extent that they are unable to be recognised in any way other than being a ‘chinky’ and this imagining becomes difficult to be challenged or changed. 

Spitting as an act of racialisation

Apart from being racially abused as momos or chinkies, the latest gun in the arsenal for racial discrimination is being called coronavirus

India has been under a lockdown period for the past three months since it was first declared on the 24th of March, 2020 owing to the spread of COVID-19 in the country. One of the residents from Manipur in a locality called Vijar Nagar near Delhi University was spat on by a resident who was passing by on his two wheeler vehicle and who is from a different ethnic and racial background than the woman from Manipur herself. After a lot of condemnation from the students, the police finally filed an FIR3 and arrested the perpetrator. A couple of weeks after the incident, on the 6th of April, 2020, there was an incident in Mumbai where another student from Northeast India was spat on by a passer-by. It is important to note that the migrants from the Northeast have always been homogenised and called  ‘chinky’ or ‘momo’ on the streets of Indian cities. However, being spat on and then being compared to a life-threatening virus is as new as the coronavirus itself. If one sociologically analyses the act of spitting per se, unravelling its various layers and its different context-specific usages, then it can also be interpreted as an act where the one who spits intentionally wants to infect the migrant worker or student from Northeast India who is being spat on, not only to show his disgust at her belonging to a particular racial or ethnic background but also to transfer the virus and the disease to her. Then the whole act of spitting as an act of denigrating someone fulfils its function thereby marking out a racialised body in the process. Thus spitting in itself is an act of power because only the residents and not the migrants can engage in this act of constituting a racialised subject. So how does one become a racialised subject to be spat on? 

To understand the above, there is a need to deconstruct the term ‘Northeasterner’ (since this term denotes more than just a geographical and territorial exonym) and to understand how one is constituted as a racialised subject in urban India. From what I can understand, racist attacks like calling people ‘coronavirus’ are the manifestations of a lack of intention or the absence of a genuine attempt to understand which ethnic community, religion and state they hail from. They are likened to the people of China (where COVID-19 originated) because there is a conspicuous overlooking of the different identities with which to identify themselves. For the people outside of NER, it is only their physical features which become the reference point to identify them. This ability to overlook or to collapse all forms of identities and the choice to imagine them only in a straitjacket fashion is an exercise in power which people from Delhi as well as migrants from other parts of India can have. Thus it can be said that racial projection works in one way and that is where the power to imagine them lies. 

Peripheral spaces of difference

When someone is racialised to a certain extent and is viewed only as a ‘chinky’ or as a Chinese, indirectly they strip that person of their agency (for a lack of a better word) and politics and always view them as mere “victims” of racial abuse. However, from my fieldwork, there are certain institutions which can be called positive “deviations”, as Durkheim would say. For instance, some of the colleges in Delhi University have Northeast cells (NE cell) or Northeast societies which were made compulsory by the Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD) after the death of Nido Taniam in the year 2014. These NE cells have played a very important role in organising panel discussions and Northeast festivals which create a lot of awareness about the various socio-political issues, cultures, attires and food habits of the different ethnic groups in Delhi. I went to a lot of these festivals and I could see that many students who were not from the region attended, and expressed an interest in knowing more about the different states, the different ethnic groups, and the different languages of the region. Moreover, when the first racist attacks of abusing students as coronavirus occurred in the college canteen of Kirorimal college, it was the KMC NE Cell which encouraged the student to come forward and file an official complaint with the principal of the college. This kicked off a huge online storm with the NE cells of many colleges across DU who came out in support of the college. It also encouraged a lot of students across DU to come out and talk about their experiences of racism in their respective colleges. 

These small spaces I have termed as peripheral differences because they seek to challenge the racial stereotyping and the peripheral position that the students from the region are pushed to within academic spaces. These spaces also help the students to question this peripheral position and provide them with the required support to do so. Moreover, the ethnic students’ associations and the community church with the help of intricate networks do help them to ‘cope’ with racial discrimination in the city, always reminding them to stick/return to their “ethnic roots”. 

These spaces of peripheral difference are not taken into account while talking about racism in India, not even by the respected and the much followed M.P. Bezbaruah committee report. I am afraid that these well intentioned documents may end up reinforcing the racist stereotypes and assumptions by addressing all of the students from the region simply as Northeasterners and not taking into account the ethnic specificities.  Duncan Mc Duie-Ra4 talked about how their inability to “mingle” in a city like Delhi owing to their physical features, aggravates racial discrimination in the country. However, the question here is whether they even wish to mingle, or instead seek to continue being a Christian Khasi or a Thadou speaking Kuki in Delhi. 

Owing to COVID-19, there has been a mass migration of the migrant students and workers from the NER back to the region. The ones remaining not only have to physically distance themselves to protect themselves from COVID-19, but they also have to fight racist attacks. This brings me to an observation that within urban spaces like Delhi, it is not always about othering or being excluded, but of imagining people in a particular way, and during the times of COVID-19, this is how they are imagined. The task to break out of this form of imagination henceforth becomes extremely daunting. Unfortunately, this power to imagine them lies with the ones who possess an ‘Indian face’: a uni-directional exercise of power.  The problem I feel is that these peoples are never imagined as unique individuals who have a distinct ethnic, religious, sexual and gender identity. As Ahmed (2002:47) says, the one who is racialised is never asked how they would want themselves to be imagined or ‘known’. Delhi in times of COVID-19 becomes the city where they are imagined as victims of racial abuse and nothing more than that. This facilitates them to be compared to and scapegoated as the citizens of a country which was the epicentre of a pandemic that brought the entire world to its knees. 

Thus, racialisation and the comparison of an entire people having a unique set of physical features to a pandemic has been an exercise in power, a phenomenon that has its entrenched roots in India’s colonial history as well, especially in the way racialised bodies were ordered and exploited. The problem is that it continues to be a reality even today, and now these migrant students, workers and residents are at the receiving end. As a lot of migrant students and workers prepare to make their way back home from Delhi to the different states of Northeast India to grapple with COVID-19, they are also haunted by and faced with the tragedies of an uncertain future. Leaving the greener pastures is never easy, especially where migrants have made ‘home’ and most importantly attained their livelihood. However, it seems that the greener pastures have been uprooted and burnt ablaze with the embers of racialisation. 

Shivangi Kaushik is a 2nd year DPhil student at the Department of International Development, University of Oxford. 


1.  Racialisation and racial discrimination as shown by Ahmed (2002) and Banton (1969) are different concepts. The former refers to assigning someone with a particular set of attributes and characteristics on the basis of a person’s physical features, which the person may have not identified with before. Racial discrimination is the actual practice of excluding a person from an educational institution, institute of employment or denying her accommodation because of her appearance. Thus racialisation is responsible for the formation of racial subjectivities. Ahmed, S. (2002). Racialized Bodies. In M. Evans, & E. Lee (Eds.), Real Bodies: A Sociological Introduction (pp. 46-64). New York: Palgrave.
2. Northeast India is the easternmost region of India. The region comprises of eight states: Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Manipur, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura.
3.  “First Information Report (FIR) is a written document prepared by the police when they receive information about the commission of a cognizable offence. It is a report of information that reaches the police first in point of time and that is why it is called the First Information Report. It is generally a complaint lodged with the police by the victim of a cognizable offence or by someone on his/her behalf”. Source: Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. (n.d.). First Information Report and You. Retrieved from  McDuie-Ra, D. (2012). Northeast Migrants in Delhi: Race, Refuge and Retail. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.


Philanthropy is no get-out clause for immorality

Philanthropy is no get-out clause for immorality
Illustration by Daisy Harrison-Broninski, 2020

The current zeitgeist over statues in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests should serve as a warning to contemporary ‘philanthropists’, says Jake Smaje.

At the time of writing (the 8th June, 2020), the first sentence of the infamous Edward Colston’s Wikipedia page reads, “Edward Colston was an English merchant, slave trader, Tory member of Parliament, and philanthropist”. This combination of slave trader and philanthropist seems like a strange oxymoron that has become a polarising factor in the debates about his legacy after his statue was dropped into the Bristol quay during recent Black Lives Matter protests. The ability to be both an important part of a system of oppression and remembered for your benevolence leads to questions concerning the role of philanthropy within society, and the potential motivations behind it. 

Where charity aims to alleviate a problem, philanthropy is an action that seeks to address the causes of the problem. It has a long history, but for most invokes benevolent and powerful business leaders – in the modern day, people such as Warren Buffet, George Soros and Bill Gates. All three are arguably now as famous for their philanthropy as their business ventures. However, their business is not without controversy and has human costs, costs which are often not addressed by their philanthropy. Infamously, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation attempts to maximize return on its endowment, an approach which does not address the ethical considerations of investments. This leads to glaring inconsistencies, such as the Foundation having a $2.2 million investment in a company that profits from running private prisons in the US, some of which hold migrants. The source of wealth is inextricably linked to the cause it is spent on. Despite some inconsistencies in the sources of his foundations funds I don’t doubt that Bill Gates wants to change the world. I may disagree with the philosophy and methods of his, Soros or Buffet’s philanthropy, but I believe in their intentions to have an impact. 

There is, however, another type of philanthropist…

There is, however, another type of philanthropist, the type who consciously uses philanthropy to offset the immoral source of their wealth. A contemporary example is the Sackler family, whose company Purdue Pharma has been sued for their role in promoting opioid treatments that have led to the opioid epidemic in the United States. The family’s company continued to aggressively market opioids, such as Oxycontine, after admitting in court that they had misrepresented its addictive qualities. However, their name is still memorialised in institutions throughout the world, such as the Sackler library at the University of Oxford. While many institutions, such as The National Portrait Gallery and The Tate galleries, will not accept donations from the family, others will allow them to whitewash their name through association to famous and prestigious institutions. Academic libraries seem to be a fashionable choice for dubious philanthropy, another example being The University of Leeds naming their recently completed library the Laidlaw Library after the tax exile and donor Irvine Laidlaw. This association of one’s name with an institution is a way of creating a legacy, intertwining your name with its prestigious history.

Another way to ‘philanthropise’ your brand is to attach your name to a particular event. Jeff Bezos donated $100,000,000 to US food banks in response to the COVID-19 crisis, a seemingly eye wateringly large amount of money. It becomes a tiny sum when you consider that his estimated net worth increased by $32 billion between January and May of this year as a direct result of COVID-19 increasing the value of Amazon. He profited from COVID-19 and people’s isolation while getting reputational credit for a donation that, while huge, is small against the scale of the misery and fear that has recently spread across the globe. This is to say nothing of Amazon’s tax avoidance, lack of workplace safety, union busting and unfair trading practises against small businesses. Does $100,000,000 coming from the CEO of a corporation which has benefitted from a global crisis to the tune of $32,000,000,000 really allow them to purchase the term philanthropist? 

More than a just hobby of the wealthy, philanthropy becomes a branding exercise curated by PR executives. 

If you are part of the world’s ultra-wealthy class, philanthropy becomes an important tool in maintaining your personal brand. If you pay for a prestigious building at a top university, associate your name with the relief of an ongoing crisis or create an organisation which combines your name with some words that signify your virtue, such as The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, then you can become a philanthropist lauded for your generosity with little investigation into how and why you became so powerful and wealthy in the first place. More than a just hobby of the wealthy, philanthropy becomes a branding exercise curated by PR executives. 

It seems that what is missing is a step that addresses motivation, that signifies an actual desire to change the world. If the Sackler family wanted to improve the livelihoods of people across the world they could withdraw OxyContin or recommend new guidance on its prescription, Laidlaw could pay his taxes and Jeff Bezos could change the business practises of Amazon. Instead, they memorialize their philanthropy in high profile spaces, while continuing damaging business practises elsewhere in their empires. Soros, Buffet and Gates should not be absolved of criticism, but their philanthropy is of an altogether different nature, and is often invested in social and technological innovations designed to address the root causes of problems. Alleged ‘philanthropy’ such as the Sacklers’, Laidlaw’s, or, historically, Colston’s, is instead just an act of PR set across a backdrop of immoral profiteering. 

The current tearing-down of statues should serve as a warning to contemporary ‘philanthropists’

Philanthropy should not absolve immoral legacies from criticism. This encourages insubstantial acts of philanthropy as an exercise in branding. The current tearing-down of statues should serve as a warning to contemporary ‘philanthropists’ hoping to capitalise on this. The plaque on Colston’s statue commemorated his philanthropy reading, ‘’Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city AD 1895’’. For critics who feign worry about historical erasure as statues fall, I suggest a plaque should be placed above where Coulston rested at the bottom of the Bristol quay that reads ‘’Sunk here by the citizens of Bristol was one of Bristol’s wiliest sons, whose attempt at virtue failed to hide his atrocities AD 2020’’. This may just be the antidote needed to the dubious philanthropists of the future, and the present.

Jake Smaje works in data governance for a large INGO in the WASH sector and is the trustee of United Social Ventures, a livelihood charity in Uganda, having previously worked in a range of roles in the charity sector in Rwanda, Kenya and Bangladesh. Since completing his BA in History at the University of Leeds in 2016 with a specialism in African History, he’s held a continued interest in the political economy of the Global South.


Remembering Apartheid: Civil Rebellion in Black-and-White Photography

Remembering Apartheid: Civil Rebellion in Black-and-White Photography
'Homeless Couple, Cape Town'. 1976 © Steve Bloom

In Review editor Antoinette Nguyen reviews the photography exhibition ‘Steve Bloom: Beneath the Surface – South Africa in the seventies’ at The Beaney, Canterbury 

Three amazingly vivid, oversized, strikingly melancholic portraits greet me upon entering this exhibit at The Beaney museum in Canterbury, England in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the end of apartheid in South Africa. They are remarkably clear, each wrinkle and crease of the faces of an old woman, crying child, and middle-aged man captured in the black-and-white photography of Steve Bloom. The clarity of this initial triptych of photos immediately felt like a stronghold, a defense, a rebellion.

Bloom photographed apartheid-era South Africa in order to capture this critical moment in history. They were taken in the mid-1970s, when South Africa was entrenched in the apartheid system of enforced racial segregation, which deprived people who were not classified as ‘white’ of their basic human rights. Most of the photos were taken in 1976, the year in which the first major cracks in the apartheid system emerged in the form of the Soweto Uprising: a series of protests in which Black school-children took to the streets to oppose a disempowering education system taught in Afrikaans, the colonial settler language. The authorities struck back violently, killing and injuring many of these children. These acts snowballed into larger realisations, changing attitudes, and shifting tides: white complacency would no longer be tolerated and Black communities would no longer remain quiet.

Bloom’s work is poignant, moving, and raw. It reveals the instability of a country facing enormous change; his work caught the mood of the time – the essence of the moment that South Africa began to experience powerful, irreversible rebellion. 

The starkly white room makes the black-and-white photographs pop. As I walked through the exhibition, I was struck with striking expressions of grief, misery, illness, but also of resilience, pride, and endurance. Fifty of his prints are neatly organized about the room; each painstakingly detailed in their depiction of subject. Each photo serves as a microcosm of civil protest; the figures and their expressions are bold, despite the individuals’ disenfranchised and marginalized status. 

Homeless women, Cape Town
1976 © Steve Bloom

One in particular in the leftmost corner of the room caught my eye. It is an image of two women, titled Homeless women, Cape Town. The focus is on the woman in the front, she happily sticks her tongue out, almost mocking the photographer, but not quite so malicious. Her smiling eyes are exuberant, every wrinkle and mole on display create an external masterpiece of inner strength. These women have been punished for being nonwhite – they have literally been cast into the streets, forced to live without homes and stripped of their human rights which should, as defined by the United Nations, be granted regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion. The tongue is an act of defiance, her happiness a subversion of what apartheid was invented to do – oppress and render inferior all nonwhite people. The woman behind has her eyes trained on her friend with a questioning look on her face. She questions her friend’s ability to effortfully maneuver her facial features into an expression of joy, when there is so little joy to be had. However, they sit together still, close enough to present to viewers their solidarity. Their solidarity, their small rebellion, is captured permanently here, memorialized, and blown up into prints where their faces are larger than life. Their being shown 25 years later gives life to these women’s pride and resilience. 

Khalifah performance, symbolic of the power of flesh over steel through faith
1976 © Steve Bloom

This image was placed across from another one, which shows quite a different picture. It is two men this time; however, these two men could not be more different from one another. One is Black, the other white. One is on display, the other curiously, imperiously watching. The image is titled Khalifah performance, symbolic of the power of flesh over steel through faith. The man wears sunglasses, a symbol of modernity that prompts the viewer to think about these photos in their living present – that racial inequality is still rampant, despite the end of apartheid in 1994. The white man on the right of the photo looks upon the other man as an object, pointing his right index finger at him in a microcosmic act of colonialism. The title is significant because it speaks of resistance, ‘the power of flesh over steel through faith,’ it recognizes the ongoing protests and rampant unrest in the fight for greater equality. The contrast between seeing only the white man’s profile and the Black man’s frontal form is significant. The Black man, the man on display, reigns the photo’s subject. He faces the camera head-on, arms and body clenched, ready for action. Just as the Soweto Uprising begins, and his kin are ready to fight back against apartheid, so is he. Bloom has successfully captured the essence of civil rebellion, and the key moments right before the riot – the intake of breath before the strike.

The exhibition will run from Saturday 19th October to Sunday 19th January 2020 at The Beaney Museum in Canterbury, England. The exhibition is free, and you can find the details here

Antoinette Nguyen is a visiting student at the University of Oxford with a concentration in Human Sciences and English Literature, also attending the University of Rochester as an incoming medical student in New York, U.S.A. She serves as Deputy Director of Education for Oxford Omnia, and is section editor of In Review. She has previously interned for SOVA, an NGO that promotes women’s health and education in Odisha, India, and for the Nhan Hoa Federal Health Center, in California, U.S.A.

Our thanks to Steve Bloom for the publication of his photography.