Seeking the Foundations of Just Cross-Cultural Dialogue in African Political Thought

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How can Kant help us to think about African political thought? And how does a researcher make sure that they do their work ethically and in line with their values. Gemma Bird explains how her own academic journey took her from micro-aid projects in Tanzania to arguing that the literature on human rights would be stronger if it properly engaged with African sources.

The publication of Foundations of Just Cross-Cultural Dialogue in Kant and African Political Thought represents the end point of 7 years of research, firstly as a PhD project and then transferring the work into the book. When I first applied for a PhD this was not the project I imagined. I wrote a proposal to look at micro-aid projects in Tanzania, intending to approach the study of the African continent through a development lens. On the first day of the PhD programme, however, I realised that this was not an approach I felt comfortable taking. I was uncomfortable (although I am not sure I fully realised why at that point) that the politics of the African continent was understood and shaped by a Western lens in academia and that a development narrative, in the way I had initially planned to implement it, would further this idea of a continent needing external support. I felt that a project like the one I had first envisaged would sit very firmly within a colonized canon.

From aid to human rights

At the same time, I had become very interested in the value and foundations of human rights, and the question of whose rights they were and who was simply having them imposed upon them. Similarly, I was interested then, and am now, in whose voices get organised into, and more importantly whose voices get organised out of, discussions of international political theory: who is celebrated and who is marginalised. It was my intuition that not only Human Rights, but international normative principles more broadly that have been developed within a Western context, are imposed by those in power ignoring the value and necessity for just and fair cross-cultural dialogue in the development of these idealised statements. That the voices of certain groups were not being listened to or heard in these discussions. That Human Rights may not, in fact, take into account the values and principles of all human communities.

Of course, Human Rights are often presented as being universal. Yet their formation is associated with a particular group of states and a particular set of power structures and hierarchies. This leads us to question on what basis international principles can or could be established justly and fairly, and whether or not this is in fact ever possible. The intention behind this book was to offer one potential answer to the question of how they could be established justly, by engaging with scholarship often ignored by a particular vision of the canon of Western political thought: African political thought.

Engaging with African sources

Drawing on the Kantian conception of autonomy as the starting point for enquiry the book engages with the work of a range of African scholarship to enquire as to whether they share a foundational point of origin. A starting point that could then, if respected, provide a just foundation for the dialogues needed for establishing universally relevant international principles. Whether, like a Kantian approach to liberty, scholars of different schools of thought demonstrate a foundational desire for self-law giving through their writing about culture, domination, politics and colonialism. If this is the case, the book argues, then an argument can be made that just and fair cross-cultural dialogues founded on a principle of self-law giving is necessary for the creation of international norms and principles.

In asking this question the book engages with the work of the Négritude movement (the scholarship of Léopold Sédar Senghor, Aimé Césaire, Léon Damas and Alioune Diop), as well as with the writings and speeches of the Pan-African movement and the Socialism of Julius Nyerere, Kwame Nkrumah and Samora Machel. The final chapter asks whether these foundational ideas are also present in contemporary scholarship, in questions of multiculturalism and universalism, as well as in the Cosmopolitan ideas of Kwame Anthony Appiah. Engaging with the work of these authors, and the challenges they pose to ideas of oppression, domination and colonial hierarchies, is fundamental for developing a complete understanding of revolutionary thought. Yet beyond this their writing also poses compelling questions about what underpins their ideas of oppression and domination, and on the contrary their understanding of what freedom and liberty should look like. Having explored the foundations on which these different approaches build the book advocates for a sense of weak universalism, one that doesn’t pay too little, or too great attention to cultural difference and that doesn’t expect approaches to action or activity to look the same in different cultural settings.

Why bother?

So why does this matter? Well, in an ever more transient and multi-cultural world the need for an underpinning universal morality to guide discussions of humanitarianism, border passage and intervention holds an ever growing relevance, yet an equal requirement to respect the very relevant differences that exist between the ethical decision making processes and practices of cultural groups also holds prevalence. A weak universalism that is able to recognise both is, as a result, particularly important. Specifically, one that does not preference powerful voices whilst marginalising others, one that in a field like international political thought is not tempted to prioritise the western canon over voices that have previously been silenced and ignored.

Underpinning all of my work, be it this project or my current focus on refugee journeys is a focus on engaging with voices that have previously been, or are currently being, marginalised by international politics, and the importance and value of including them in our understanding of International Relations and international political thought. In engaging with a range of African scholarship from the 1940s to the present day I hope that I have been able to do that, if even only in a small way.


Gemma Bird is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Liverpool

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