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20 Jul 2023

Reparations in the Ruins of Development

In this blogpost, Arathi Sriprakash re-examines ‘development’ through the lens of reparation. This lens requires us to reject assumptions that development is a necessary ‘solution’ and instead seek means of redress for the injustices which development both has failed to address and has actively created. Sriprakash argues for reparations in the ruins of development as a world-making agenda and asks how a collective understanding of reparations for global justice might be formulated.


As Wolfgang Sachs declared thirty years ago, development is ‘a ruin in the intellectual landscape’. In the field of education, the project of development has become captured by market-oriented and technocratic approaches, making and then chasing narrowly-conceived targets, operating as an ‘industry’ involving intergovernmental actors, private and corporate agencies, states and non-governmental organisations. This approach depoliticizes both education and development – an approach that protects rather than challenges the hierarchic ordering of the world – specifically by ignoring the material and ideological connections between colonial domination, capitalist exploitation and development itself.

It is perhaps most troubling that education development policy and programming is able to so easily turn away from the structural injustices – both past and present – that are at the heart of unequal schooling: state violence, enduring histories of colonial and racial dispossession, political economies of exploitation. The willful erasures of such forms of domination arguably means that despite a stated investment in ‘progress’, or claimed intentions to make more equitable educational futures, the global development project has been active in the maintenance of injustice (Sriprakash et al. 2020).

The industry of development arguably cannot be ‘fixed’ within its own terms, but can we envisage a different project of ‘repair’ within its ruins? This requires us to reject assumptions that development is a necessary ‘solution’ and instead seek means of redress for the injustices which development both has failed to address and has actively created.

Following this line of thinking, how we might engage in constructing guiding ideas for global justice in education through the lens of reparations? Reparations offers an action-oriented approach that is attentive to attending to past and present structural injustice. This is to imagine a form of repair that does not fall into the reformist trap of existing development thinking (if we can just implement it better, development would work!). Nor does it presume a ‘return’ to an assumed ideal type of development: the constitutive hierarchies of the post war development project have never been ideal and are thus not worth sustaining. Instead, reparation and repair offers a kind of praxis through which new norms, relations and institutions can be made in place of the development industry (Aslam 2022). A framework of reparations, in this view, offers future-looking reconstructive ideas for global justice; a view that needs to be collectively imagined and urgently so, given the ruins around us.


Reparations: towards a reconstructive agenda?

There has been growing interest in re-examining ‘development’ through the lens of reparation. For example, the thinktank ODI (formerly the Overseas Development Institute) recently hosted a dialogue with scholars Carmen Leon-Himmelstine and Gurminder Bhambra on the idea of ‘justice-centred’ models of development, exploring the ways in which ‘aid’ might be ‘redefined as reparations rather than charity’ (ODI, 2022). In their discussion, the long activist histories of calling for reparative models of justice were highlighted to demonstrate the overdue need for the field of international development to ‘break with the logics of the colonial project that preceded it’ (ibid, 2022). As Jason Hickel describes, the challenge of reparations is that ‘it completely upends the usual narrative of development. It suggests that poverty in the global south is not a natural phenomenon, but has been actively created. And it casts western countries in the role not of benefactors, but of plunderers’ (Hickel 2015). This idea is echoed in the work of Priya Lukka who writes that ‘reparations mean questioning why people are living in poverty and rejecting political decisions that underscore our acceptance of its causes’ (Lukka 2020). To build a justice-centred approach, then, the project of global development needs to be recognized as (a) being thoroughly entangled with colonial racial capitalism, and, therefore, (b) an injustice that requires active redress.


Reparations have the capacity to build something new, of remaking the world (Táíwò 2022). As I have argued elsewhere, reparative thinking has profound significance for addressing injustices in education too, not least to reckon with education’s role in sustaining the violence and harms of colonial racial capitalism (Sriprakash 2022). The radical constructive potential of reparative agendas is echoed too in kihana miraya ross’ (2021) reflections on ‘educational reparations’. Here ross argues that systemic anti-Blackness can only be addressed by ‘reimagining the Black educational landscape in its entirety’. How, then, might we consider the potential for reparations to address development’s complicity with colonial racial capitalism and to build something just instead?


To be sure, reparations can be conceptualized in many different and often interlocking ways: material, epistemic, symbolic, and so on. While claims for reparation might validly involve direct compensation to individuals for specific harms or past injustices visited upon them, the discussions here instead take a structural and future-facing approach to repair. That is, I suggest that reparations in the ruins of development would seek a world-making agenda no longer structured around colonial racial capitalism. This requires a robust and collective recognition of past and present injustices of global development, rejecting the blind assertions of the ‘good intentions’ of the industry, and instead asking what is owed to repair those injustices and create just futures.


Materially, a reparative agenda would require interventions in the political economy: untethering our imagination of the future from the perpetuation of colonial racial capitalism. Collective recognition of development’s past and present harms would lay the foundations for setting out collective obligations of redress. This would involve a complete departure from the industry’s business as usual, upturning the proliferation of initiatives that accumulate and concentrate wealth and instead face fully towards a redistributive agenda for global justice.


A reparative approach would fundamentally shift research, policy and practice in global education – taking seriously principles of racial justice that have been otherwise erased from the development industry (Sriprakash et al. 2020). A move in this direction has been recently outlined by Krystal Strong, Sharon Walker and colleagues who envisage the ‘abolitionist horizons’ for education that are inspired by the 13 guiding principles of the Movement for Black Lives (Strong et al., 2023). On the reconstructive, reparative potential of this approach, they reflect, ‘The 13 guiding principles offer a collective set of values that attempt to undo the effects of anti-Black racism by rebuilding community through movement’ (ibid. p.17, emphasis added).


Could such a radical re-imagining of global justice occur within the global development industry? The histories of social justice movements would, arguably, suggest not. But, there are perhaps openings for building greater recognition of development’s ruins and, crucially, for recognising the constructive potential of reparations as world-making project to redress these. The how is as important as the what here. How might a collective understanding of reparations for global justice be formulated, working with and across the deep divisions carved into the world?


Here, perhaps the work of Julia Paulson (2023) on ‘reparative pedagogies’ is both helpful and, cautiously, hopeful. Through the idea of reparative pedagogies, Paulson foregrounds the processual and relational nature of reparative justice – it is neither an idea nor an outcome that is fixed but rather it is given meaning in dialogic relation with others. That is, material reparations are brought to life through praxis and modes of collective recognition. On the reparative approaches of social movements, Paulson reflects that an ‘attention to healing, care and protection from the daily lived experience of harm [is] both an outcome of and crucial part of the processes of repair…’ (Paulson 2023). Reparative pedagogies, she suggests, might involve processes that support dignity, truth-telling, multiplicity, responsibility and creativity in the working-through of past and present injustice. The power and hope here is the recognition that ‘Reparative pedagogies can and do proceed without waiting for formalized programmes of reparation…’. Looked at in this way, reparative futures out of the ruins of development are already being created. Will we listen, participate, create and take responsibility?


About the author:

Arathi Sriprakash is Professor of Education at the University of Bristol and NORRAG Senior Fellow. She is currently undertaking research on reparations in the field of education.



Paulson, J. (2023). Reparative pedagogies, in Y. Hutchison, A.A. Cortez Ochoa, J. Paulson and L. Tikly (Eds.) Decolonizing Education for Sustainable Futures. Bristol University Press.

ross, k. (2021). Anti-Blackness in education and the possibilities of redress: Toward educational reparations. Amerikastudien/American Studies, 66 (1), 229-233

Sachs, W. (Ed.) (1992). The development dictionary. A guide to knowledge as power. London: Zed Books.

Sriprakash, A. (2022). Reparations: theorising just futures of education, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education. DOI: 10.1080/01596306.2022.2144141

Sriprakash, A., Tikly, L., & Walker, S. (2020). The erasures of racism in education and international development: Re-reading the ‘global learning crisis’. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 50(5), 676-692.

Strong, K., Walker, S., Wallace, D., Sriprakash, A., Tikly, L., & Soudien, C. (2023). Learning from the Movement for Black Lives: Horizons of Racial Justice for Comparative and International Education. Comparative Education Review, 67(S1).

Táíwò, O. (2022). Reconsidering reparations. Philosophy of Race. Oxford: Oxford University Press


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