By Hannah Appel (UCLA)

This entry in our “De-Provincializing Development” series examines SDG #17: Partnerships for the Goals, which aims to “strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.”

The arrangement of the international order defined by the doctrine of nation-state sovereignty in its current form offers no plausible means for achieving true decolonization.
– Tendayi Achiume (2019, 49)

Despite the fanfare of First World inclusion in this iteration of the Sustainable Development Goals (“we’re all developing countries now”), Goal 17 (“Partnerships for the Goals”) is still remarkably unidirectional in its vision of financial and technical partnerships. It asks developed countries to continue to finance development through long-term debt and technology transfer. Other mandates are less unidirectional but tread equally well-worn and underspecified ground—the promotion of an equitable World Trade Organization, the enhancement of global macroeconomic stability.

This formulation of “partnership” does not acknowledge the relational histories of impoverishment, climate catastrophe, racism, natural resource extraction, and other ongoing forms of dispossession that produced the need for Goals 1 through 16 in the first place. Malcolm X addressed this failure to acknowledge historical relationality during a 1964 TV interview: “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made. And they haven’t even pulled the knife out much less heal the wound. They won’t even admit the knife is there.” Enslavement, imperialism, settler colonialism, and capitalist accumulation and destruction are the historical and contemporary terrain through which morasses 1 through 16 were produced, yet they make no appearance in said “partnerships,” which remain in a framework of apparent benevolence between developed and developing. Anand Giridharadas (2019) has recently characterized the philanthropic strain of this benevolence—where Bill Gates or George Soros or the Rockefeller or Ford Foundations are called upon to fund social change—as analogous to approaching plantation owners in Alabama in the 1800s and asking them to lead the way toward racial justice. “It’s impossible,” Giridharadas says. “They can’t be the ones to do it.”

The Palestinian Trail of Fish by Alaa Albaba

The problem is that the “partnerships” in Goal 17 are imagined as relationships between distinct entities: implicitly, territorially bounded nation-states, some of which are rich and some of which are poor, but whose status as such is simply a fact of the present, to be redressed through development aid and perhaps debt restructuring. The histories of enslavement, colonialism, empire, structural adjustment, and, indeed, failed development programs themselves—the knives of which Malcolm X speaks—are the geography-spanning interconnections that produced these facts of the present. Consider, for example, the intergenerational white wealth transfer that enslavement and colonialism produced. The British government and the World Bank greeted Kenyan independence, for instance, with a bill of 29 million pounds owed to departing colonists, who were to be repaid for “their” lost land. The French government imposed an annual payment on Haiti from 1825 to 1947 as compensation for slave owners’ lost “property.” Goal 17 fails to acknowledge those histories and will, thus, fail. It is only in the blood and dirt of these ongoing interconnections that meaningfully transformative partnerships can be formed.

What might partnership mean in the wake of these histories? I point to some concrete suggestions below, but first I simply want to ask, how did we get here? How did we get from a transnational order of empire to a dangerously ahistorical view of global “partnerships” between ostensibly discrete and comparable nation-states?

As former colonies became sovereign states, development replaced colonialism as the official framework for relationships across the Global North and South. As I’ve argued elsewhere (Appel 2017), the statistical tools newly available in this moment—per capita income, GDP—were used to compare newly like sovereign states: suddenly, Senegal was “just like” France. Rather than demonstrating the disastrous relational effects of colonialism, these tools were employed to demonstrate global poverty in ostensibly discrete nation-states and to intervene, now in the name of economic growth. To former colonial powers and to the United States as an emergent imperial power, these metrics and the imagined order of discrete nation-states they represented elided racist colonial history, rendering licit the deep inequalities created by that system. In other words, “the national income view of global inequality did not force Western politicians to reconsider the colonial logic of domination fundamentally. Notions of supremacy, which used to be grounded in cultural considerations, found easy expression in the statistically based language of economic strength” (Speich 2011, 21). As the colonial era came to an end, many anticolonial activists and politicians—from Kwame Nkrumah to Amilcar Cabral—saw this danger coming. Even as they pressed for political equality, they also demanded acknowledgment of the knife—of ongoing economic and infrastructural interdependence (not to mention exploitation) that political independence alone would not address.

What are the partnerships that this analysis demands? First, this approach demands a conceptual retooling. Here, “decolonization becomes not about severing connections, but about the renegotiation or the rearranging of the nature of the connection and the allocation of power in the extant relationships” (Achiume 2019, 15; see also Bonilla 2015). Sovereignty here is both “autonomy from neocolonial interference” and “forged through relations of interdependency, obligation, and reciprocity among sovereigns and peoples” (Cattelino 2008, 17). Based on the ongoing thickness of largely exploitative political and economic relations across neocolonial geographies, Achiume (2019, 46) goes so far as to make a cosovereignty argument: “Third and First World peoples are de facto co-sovereigns of neocolonial empire . . . the claim is thus that historical and continuing Third World subjection to and exploitation by the First World meets the requisite threshold of coercion and coercively undergirded processes necessary to render Third World peoples part of a shared demos with their First World counterparts, holding equal stake in its direction.”

This is the conceptual retooling: decolonization as the renegotiation of connection; sovereignty as both autonomy from neocolonial interference and a form of healing, militant interdependency; the cosovereignty of First and Third World peoples in a shared demos. What then, is the logistical retooling? What are the demands? What are the worlds we—and remember, it’s we, because “they can’t be the ones to do it”—will cocreate? In fact, these visions and demands already exist. They are for reparations; migration as decolonization, or itself a form of reparations; legitimately public financial institutions; the restitution of artwork and other priceless plunder; and alternative governance visions altogether. The only effective partnerships will be those that not only start from the mutual acknowledgment of the knife, but those that (like the dreams and visions and demands linked here) step into a radical and unknowable future healing of the wound.


Share this article:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *