Month: July 2013

Book Review: Race, Racism and Development – Interrogating History, Discourse and Practice

Image of Cover of Race, Racism and Development book
Race, Racism and Development by Kalpana Wilson

Wilson, K. 2012: Race, Racism and Development – Interrogating History, Discourse and Practice. London: Zed Books. 296pp.  £19.99 paper.  ISBN: 978 1 848 135123 

Race and development are, when considered separately, complex and contentious concepts. Each has been and continues to be discussed, written about and re-defined extensively from a range of both complimentary and contradictory perspectives, theories and frameworks. They both, explicitly at least, occupy separate discursive, theoretical and practical spaces. Kalpana Wilson’s Race, Racism and Development – Interrogating History, Discourse and Practice is the first of its kind to extensively and critically explore the relationship between the two ideas.

Prior to Wilson’s book there have been very few attempts to conceptualise race within the context of development. In 2002 Third World Quarterly  published an article by Sarah White entitled Thinking Race, Thinking Development that sought to “challenge the dominant ‘colour-blind’ stance of development” (White, 2002, p. 407).  For a brief period of time between then and 2006 when a number of articles addressing the same topic appeared in a special edition of Progress in Development Studies it appeared that White’s challenge was gaining momentum. However, this was short lived and the relationship between race and development has received little attention since then. This book is in many ways a body of work written in response to and as a result of the silence on race in development.  If, as White states, that “talking about race in development is like breaking a taboo” (White, 2002, p. 407) then Wilson’s suggestion that the “book should be read as a provocation to further engagement, exploration and elaboration in relation to its themes” (p. 243), is both an attempt at breaking this taboo and call to action for others in the field to do the same.

The two part title of the book (i.e. the first part being ‘Race, Racism and Development’ and the second being its subtitle, Interrogating History, Discourse and Practice) is fitting given that Wilson’s introductory section sets out to introduce and define race, racism and development before moving on to eight chapters that serve as the interrogation.  Two things in particular make Wilson’s introductory section easy to read, even for those who may not be familiar with concepts of race and racism and how it relates to development.  Firstly she begins with a topic that many will be familiar with; the Kony 2012 social media campaign and through this accessible example Wilson is able to demonstrate the construction of race and racial hierarchy and how these interact with development. Secondly, Wilson, an LSE Fellow in Gender Theory, Globalisation and Development has taught the Race, Ethnicity and Development module of Birbeck’s MSc in Development Studies since 2004 and her publications give an indication of her interdisciplinary interests.  This means that despite the book’s recent publication date Wilson has approached the subject with a great deal of knowledge and a long standing history of teaching, exploring and engaging with the issues of race and development.  The evidence of this is in her ability to incorporate and critique a diverse range of sources including Darwin, W.E.B Dubios, Frantz Fanon, Edward Said, Amartya Sen, Arturo Escobar, Thomas Malthus; Social and Cultural Theorists Paul Gilroy and Stuart Hall; African-American feminist bell hooks; and a large number of Diasporan/Global South writers and academics. All of this information is presented in an easy to understand way ensuring that those who are new to any of the concepts are able to gain a sufficient level of understanding of the concept. This makes it a lot easier to engage with the more critical aspects of the book that appear in later chapters.

The foundation of Wilson’s argument builds on views expressed by previous writers on this topic i.e. that race is connected to development. By situating the nexus of this relationship within a specific timeframe; the late eighteenth century, which pre-dates modern development theory and presenting the two concepts as inextricably linked, the book lives up to its claim of wanting to provoke further discussion and engagement.  Whilst there is a sequential and chronological order to the chapter progression within the book, Wilson’s arguments are presented through three key themes which offers the possibility of reading through the book chapters thematically rather than sequentially.  However, this approach is only slightly hampered by the chapter titles which at times make it difficult to determine the thematic links but is mitigated by the introduction which does a good job of highlighting themes within chapters.

Chapter 1 and Chapter 6 both explore the race, racism and development relationship through what Wilson terms her second analytical framework; “the materiality of race” and its relation to “global structures of capital and the process of accumulation” (p. 5).  Of particular interest to academics and students who are interested in development history and its links to colonisation; Chapter 1 successfully overcomes the potential pitfalls of attempting to take on a topic too broad to be contained in one chapter by framing it through the lens of 1857 British colonial rule of India.  In this chapter Wilson makes a strong argument in support of her claim that it was as a result of the combination of the emergence of racial difference and hierarchy influenced by social Darwinism and the violent response by the British to the 1857 uprisings in India that led to the racialisation of people and the structures of capital. Relying on modern day phrases such as the ‘War on Terror’ to describe this historical event allows the reader to transition between this first chapter and the sixth that is dedicated to imperialism and racialised bodies in the 21st century.

Development continues to be caught in a theory/practice binary and Wilson acknowledges this almost as part of the reason why, in her view, she considers the book’s structure unconventional. However, because of her well defined analytical framework she is able to navigate through this dichotomy in a way that benefits the reader. For instance Chapters, 3, 4, 5 and 8, focus on race and racism within development policy with particular emphasis on population control (Chapter 3,); HIV/AIDs policy (Chapter 4); good governance and corruption (Chapter 5) and DfID’s neo-liberalism (Chapter 8) work very well as standalone sections for development practitioners who may not wish to read the more theoretical chapters of the book. Equally however these chapters provide ‘real world’, examples that would be of benefit to any degree course that seeks to demonstrate how race and racism has influenced development policy.

Given the dearth of literature on race and development it is all too easy to label Wilson’s book as groundbreaking simply because she has attempted to do what no-one else has done; i.e. to critically explore the relationship between these two challenging concepts. However, what marks this book as much needed addition to development research and practice can be  found in Chapter 2 and 7, both of which highlight Wilson’s second thematic framework;  “the tendency of discourses of development to appropriate and incorporate critical approaches” (p. 5).  Wilson challenges current thinking in relation to development buzzwords and catchphrases such as ‘agency’ and ‘gender and development’ and through exploration of “positive” representations of development “beneficiaries” by NGOs argues that both of these terms contribute to the racialisation and othering of women in the Global South. Whilst this line of thinking is not entirely new to the field, having first been raised by White (2006); Wilson expands on this theme and brings more examples to the debate. Likewise post-development thinking and other critical approaches to development are presented as either not having done enough to raise the level debate on racism within development or in part contributing to the existing racial hierarchy (Chapter 7).  For anyone who has read the limited material on race and development mentioned in the introduction of this review, Wilson’s critique of these should be a welcome addition. Wilson offers an alternative reading to articles that were once considered groundbreaking but have for too long gone unchallenged and perhaps even unread.  There is however one criticism; despite dedicating an entire chapter (Chapter 2) to visual representation of women in development the book does not include a single picture; instead Wilson points the reader to the relevant website or offers her own interpretation of the images 1

A slight concern, is that those who approach this book expecting definitive answers, may end up disappointed; Wilson’s style has an air of ‘thinking aloud’, especially since she constantly asks questions along the way.  However, Wilson openly admits that the book raises even more questions for her and there is merit in the ‘thinking aloud’ style.  The topic she has attempted to address is not only broad; it has been marked for too long by a silence and an unwillingness or inability to engage.  Had Wilson presented her book as the final word on race, racism and development it may have stifled further debate.  Instead by asking questions she provides a platform for student, academics and practitioners to debate further the themes of the book.  In so doing, Wilson remains true to her first analytical framework that considers race as an idea that is “reanimated and reconfigured through contemporary development discourse” (p. 243), because it means that for as long as development discourse continues to evolve there will be always be room to explore the ever changing conceptualisation of race in relation to development.


White, S., 2002. Thinking Race, Thinking Development. Third World Quarterly, 23(3), pp. 407-19.

White, S., 2006. The “Gender Lens”: A Racial Blinder. Progress in Development Studies, 6(I), pp. 55-67.

Wilson, K., 2011. ‘Race’, Gender and Neoliberalism: changing visual representations in development. Third World Quarterly, 32(2), pp. 315-331.


1 An earlier version of this chapter was published as a journal article and it did include a colour image of one of the campaigns referenced so it is unclear why images are omitted from the book. (Wilson, 2011)


NOTE:  The post below was first submitted in March 2013 as an assessed piece of work for one of the modules that make up the  MSc in Practising Sustainable Development  (ICT4D specialism) that I am currently undertaking on a part-time basis at Royal Holloway, University of London.  It is my first attempt at a book review so please do take this into consideration when reading it.