Acts of Occlusion

By Korede Akinkunmi

Occlusion is a term that describes a technique of erasure. While erasure is a way to describe deletion, elimination, and even annihilation, occlusion, as a method of blocking or hiding, is a way erasure can be achieved. Here, I show how occlusion works specifically in International Development discourses to set the terms of morality, dominance, and legitimacy in relation to their beneficiaries.

Justine Greening, Secretary of State for International Development, takes a ‘selfie’ with the members of the Youth Panel who helped put Youth For Change together. cc-by-2.0.

The term occlusion was developed by anthropologist Ann Stoler, who defines it as “acts of obstruction – of categories, concepts, and ways of knowing” (Stoler, 2011: 10). I argue that international Development –another word for the global anti-poverty agenda – requires occluded assumptions, occluded histories, and occluded intent on the part of the benefactors, or the donor community to maintain its legitimacy. The grand anti-poverty agenda disseminated by the United Nations, International Monetary Foundation, and other blockbuster Development agencies actively participate in processes of occlusion. In short, International Development, in practice, requires specific acts of erasure and obstruction – acts of discard – to maintain the dominance and perceived benevolence of benefactors.

One tactic of occlusion is what Stoler calls colonial aphasia – the complete disregard of colonial history and its subsequent legacies – history, which works in favour of dominant world-ordering knowledge. As a technique of “political disorder and a troubled psychic space” (2011:125), colonial aphasia deliberately fails to acknowledge structural, historical features that inform contemporary settings.  For example, in her work on the scrap yards in Agbogbloshie in, Accra, Ghana, Grace Akese shows that though the site is over-researched in terms of its waste, the colonial land relations that characterize the area are completely ignored. As a result, when well-intentioned NGOs, journalists, international aid organizations aim to “correct” what they term “the world’s largest e-waste dump”, their work reinscribes dominant narratives about local wastefulness and poor management that allow powerful actors to continue to steal land, capitalizing on a trend that has been occurring for centuries (Akese, 2019; Little and Akese 2019). Researchers and aid organizations never ask why the scrap site is there and not somewhere else, and what other activities have been occurring in the area.

In Development discourse, colonial aphasia takes the form of neutralizing Development by implying a linear process in which an “underdeveloped” nation exists without a history of how this underdevelopment was achieved. By this logic, poverty in the Central African Republic, or Laos, or Chile, is purely the result of independent, sovereign, wayward planning. The aphasia in Development discourse fails to account for histories of extraction, subjugation, and conquest by most International Development participants that came to dictate the realities of populations considered “underdeveloped.”

For example, France maintains a trade balance with former French colonies such as Senegal where the country’s failure to modernize is attributed to corruption and other domestic disputes, as opposed to the glaring trade imbalance France maintained with them during their colonial occupation into post-independence (Change, 2005: 131). The success of France’s economy during the late nineteenth century and for the majority of the twentieth century can be attributed to the vast exports of crude oil, gold, cocoa, and other natural resources from their colonies, including Senegal. Yet, framing questions of how former colonies “fail to flourish” in the modern global economy after having many of their resources extracted by colonizing countries remains valid in the viewpoint of the Development community.

Another form of colonial aphasia, the erasing of history, occurs when developed nations that participate in International Development do not promote the same historical paths they took to reach their level of economic advancement, and even actively discourage them. An example of this is the anti-protectionist policies taken by developed countries. Protectionist policies are economic policies put in place by governments to restrict international trade in order to improve their own domestic economy. Protectionist policies are a key part of the infant-industries rationale used by developed countries. According to this doctrine, trade should be restricted to let new economies grow. The most notable user of the infant-industry rationale is the United States.

However, the active discouragement of protectionist policies for developing countries, and therefore the infant industry rationale, by countries such as the US or Great Britain is in direct contrast to their historical experience successfully using such policies. Key development players like the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) actively engage in anti-infant industry promotion (2005:136). The economic policies that have historically enabled countries to advance their economies are now considered moot. In “Kicking Away the Ladder: Development Strategy in Perspective” (2005), political economist Ha-Joon Chang argues that Development strategy has become “peculiarly ahistorical” (2005: 7) in this regard, forgetting and occluding their own histories. These erased histories result in new histories being told about how global powers came to be, which Niklas Luhmann calls “false lessons of empire” (Stoler 2011:10). For example, the United States was an ardent user of heavy protectionist policies up until the conclusion of the Second World War (Change 2005:5). Once their industrial supremacy was clear they became vibrant promotors of free trade despite their previous history of the opposite (Ibid). This case of erasure has enhanced US industrial dominance which maintains the global stratification of economic power. In Development practices and discourses, history becomes a fragmented lens, occluding structures of dominance as well as known practices and policies whose absence significantly maintain asymmetries in knowledge, and consequently, power.

Intent is another key occlusion in International Development practice. Peter Ove argues the sole intention of Development is to emphasize “practices that specifically address the improvement of others in relation to the improvement of the self” (Ove, 2013: 322). In other words, the intentions behind Developmentalism are not primarily altruistic, as the discourse suggests, but mostly self-serving. In The Anti-Politics Machine, Ferguson discusses how Development succeeds even when its specific initiatives fail because development provides cover for activities that would otherwise be less possible or impossible. While Ferguson is often thinking of material outcomes, this also holds for the creation of imagined communities and their moralities. By seeking to understand and improve the self through contrast with the other, Development conceals its self-aggrandizing intention. Specifically, by focusing on premises of underdevelopment such as equality, basic needs, and other ethical universalisms, International Developmentalism creates an “imagined community” (Anderson, 1983). In this community, which stretches across developed nations, issues of development such as poverty, war, and corruption reflect flaws in the ethics and morals of individuals and regions rather than the vertical stratification of power and resources, including the role of developed nations in that stratification. As such, occluding intent is a way to build up a sense of community for benefactors while simultaneously redefining the problems of beneficiaries.

Colonial aphasia and the occlusion of intent are just two tactics of erasure and discard in International Developmentalism. Damages occurred from occlusion are abundant but share the quality of dispossession. By occluding their intention, assumptions, and histories, Development planners continue historical trends whereby developed nations both continue to extract and benefit from nations in the Global South, foreclosing on developing nation’s social and economic sovereignty. Occlusion and discard enable Development’s extractive essence, hidden in the guise of aid. Without this key feature of the discourse, processes of primary resource extraction, oppressive “good” governance conditions, and the imposition of Development as a singular form of modernity would not be possible.


Korede Akinkunmi has an Honours BA from the University of Toronto in International Relations, Political Science and African Studies. Her research interests revolve around critical development theory. She will begin a Juris Doctor degree at the Lincoln Alexander School of Law at Ryerson University this fall.


Works Cited

Akese, Grace Abena. Electronic waste (e-waste) science and advocacy at Agbogbloshie: the making and effects of” The world’s largest e-waste dump”. Diss. Memorial University of Newfoundland, 2019.

Chang, Ha-Joon. “Introduction: How did the Rich Countries Really become Rich” in Kicking Away the Ladder: development strategy in a historical perspective, 2-15. London: Anthem,2005.

Chang, Ha-Joon. “Lessons for the Present” in Kicking Away the Ladder: development strategy in a historical perspective, 125-141. London: Anthem,2005.

Ferguson, James. The Anti-Politics Machine. Minneapolis: Minnesota, 1994.

Little, Peter C., and Grace Abena Akese. “Centering the Korle Lagoon: exploring blue political ecologies of E-Waste in Ghana.” Journal of Political Ecology 26.1 (2019): 448-465.

Ove, Peter. “Governmentality and the Analytics of Development” Perspectives on Global Development and Technology 12, (2013):310-331.

Stoler, Ann. “Colonial Aphasia: Race and Disabled Histories in France” Public Culture 23, no.1 (2011):121-157.