“We Need Wholesale Decolonization”: A Conversation with Grieve Chelwa

October 25, 2021   •   By Bhakti Shringarpure

IT IS EASIER to imagine cultural and political decolonization than to think of the process in terms of money flows and economic structures. In order to understand the “defund” aspect of our triad of revolutionary action, I spoke to economist Grieve Chelwa. Born and brought up in Lusaka, Zambia, and schooled in South Africa, Chelwa is self-admittedly shaped by the suffocating forces of development economics and the policies implemented by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund that play a disproportionate role on the continent as a whole. Chelwa’s provocative recent article for the journal Economy and Society — “Does economics have an ‘Africa problem?’” — used quantitative methods to infer that the deliberate underrepresentation of African-based scholarship has led to a dismal state of affairs when it comes to economic understanding of the continent. 

When Chelwa and I spoke on Zoom, him in Lusaka and me in Nairobi, I found myself grasping complex concepts about money, funding, political economy, and development economics that are often written about in obfuscating ways. During our conversation, Chelwa was a patient teacher, except when he was openly irritable every time the IMF or Global North–funded Africanist researchers came up. His eyes lit up, however, when he spoke of the ways in which the left-criticism blog Africa Is a Country had opened a whole sphere of public intellectual work for him, a role he has now chosen to take seriously. Chelwa has recently been appointed an Inaugural Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute on Race and Political Economy at The New School, New York, where he will work on the topic of inclusive economic rights.

We spoke about his student days, why he stopped fantasizing about being a dashing economist in a suit and tie, and why it’s really not a stretch for Africans to conceive of abolishing the World Bank, IMF, and the World Trade Organization in one fell swoop.


BHAKTI SHRINGARPURE: You grew up in Lusaka, Zambia. Could you tell us a bit about whether coloniality interrupts life there? Did your growing up there contribute to your decision to study economics?

GRIEVE CHELWA: Certainly, coloniality does affect almost everything, right? I mean, the very fact that we’re having this exchange in English is already a manifestation of that. But let me start with the schooling system. Even though I was in primary school in the early ’90s, which was 30 years or so after independence or political decolonization, my curriculum was very British-heavy, or we can say, British-centric. So, coloniality was very much part of my life.

It is possible that I was drawn to economics because I was primed from an early age to appreciate empire and not so much to be critical of British colonialism. It is not surprising that one ends up starting with a discipline whose genesis was to justify colonial extraction. That’s why we have economics, especially its mainstream vintage. I was drawn to it because I wanted to have a good career and make lots of money. And it seemed to me that economists did that, right? They are in the service of empire, in the service of neocolonialism. I wasn’t drawn to it as a mechanism that would disrupt this continuum from the colonial era to the present. I was drawn to it precisely because an economist looks fancy, economists look like the kind of people who wear nice suits, you know, the World Bank types. They make a good living being on television and saying stuff that appears sensible. So, that’s what drew me to economics initially.

Oh, but I’m waiting for your “a-ha” moment …

It was a series of things; I cannot quite put my finger on it. But in hindsight, I had been slowly drifting toward this point. Even as an undergraduate at the University of Zambia, I was very much drawn to Marx. I was very much drawn to African socialist thinkers, African revolutionaries. I remember taking classes in other disciplines with professors who had socialist leanings and taught African revolutionary theory. There was Amílcar Cabral, Kwame Nkrumah, Samora Machel … And these characters, their ideas, and what they stood for was very attractive to me, even though I was learning in economics that their ideas on how to organize society are completely useless. That it’s complete bullshit, it’s just romantic, don’t buy into it. Economics is really the hard science that’s going to allow us to organize society in a way that’s efficient and that is going to deliver the most prosperity for everybody. I would go to economics class with a Che Guevara T-shirt on and I could see my economics professors getting very shocked by this kind of stuff.

I can’t recall what the tipping point was. I think it was with development. I began to critically interrogate ideas of development as they were espoused in economics. What is development? How does development come about? When I read those texts, history was absent. The history of colonialism was absent. The history of neocolonialism was absent. The history of sub-economic sabotage was absent. And soon, I became pretty disgusted. And there was no turning back from that moment on. 

Well, it’s funny that professors were shocked by the T-shirts. In the humanities, we all dress like that and pretend to be radical, but in reality, they are making sure we stay in line with certain literary canons and traditions, etc. Which university are you referring to here?

The University of Cape Town (UCT). In fact, the university has a kind of liberal tag, and even during apartheid, it was the only one questioning the apartheid regime. But in practice, in fact, they were denying positions to Black professors. There are famous cases like the Archie Mafeje affair from the 1960s, the Mahmood Mamdani affair from the 1990s. So UCT was actually a bedrock of conservatism, and the economics there was pretty conservative.

Questioning empire and questioning the racist underpinnings of the discipline was something I was engaging in, and a lot of different things happened around the same time. Discovering Africa Is a Country blog, for example, was pretty powerful for me. When I discovered Africa Is a Country, I became exposed to different disciplines. I’ve made a lot of progress in thinking about colonialism, postcolonialism, neocolonialism. I was able to tap into that literature when I began to write for them. And soon, I began to articulate these ideas and things I was feeling. Africa Is a Country gave me an avenue. I mean, it wasn’t going to happen in traditional economics spaces.

When we see the mainstream discourse about decolonial interventions, it is often focused on culture and education, or rather, there’s a disproportionate focus on culture and education. Do you agree with this? And do you believe that these interventions could be re-oriented if we approach them from an economic perspective?

That’s a difficult question. My own sense about the discipline of economics is that it originated to justify empire. And everything that has been written since then was pretty much to justify the last 400 or 500 years of history, right? Economics affects everything — exchange, wages, everything. We’re all laborers in the wage economy, and this is really economics. So, I think you’re right. One cannot have useful discussions or debates about decolonization that are really centered on the things that you mention without thinking quite critically about economics. The modern world is a product of a kind of economics that is predicated on extraction, exploitation, slavery. Modernity, as we know it, is predicated on this kind of economics, which has been sold to us as the only kind of economics. Although it is hidden in such a way that you can’t see that. Any project of useful decolonization (though I’ve gotten very confused over the years about what decolonization is exactly driving at these days) has to have economics to center it. Maybe centering in itself is colonial, but it has to have an aspect of economics in it.

What decolonization has become is definitely confusing and part of the reason why Greg [Pierrot] and I are having these conversations. We also felt that adding the terms “defund” and “abolish” was necessary. And after the murder of George Floyd, all this talk about defunding the police has been in the air. But it is clear that we don’t necessarily understand how exactly this works and even when you see the crazy police budgets, it is still hard to convince people that this defunding is necessary. So, I wonder if the framework of defunding is potentially more helpful or relatable in your case?

Well, we have to realize why some ideas or assumptions or certain disciplinary approaches are more widely practiced than others. Part of that is maybe history or education, but a part of it is just that they’re subsidized by tax dollars, by money. That, for example, is the experience of Sub-Saharan Africa. If you came to an African university in the ’60s or ’70s and took a course in economics, you were trained completely differently to how you’re trained today. The training back then was very Afrocentric, was very focused on actual African problems, and an actual diagnosis of why Africa is the way it is. Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972) was a major text on the syllabus. The work of the structuralists, dependency theories, or the idea that the development of the core is happening at the expense of the periphery — these were things that economists were taught then.

And then, all of a sudden, the World Bank-IMF approach to economics became very powerful. When I went to university, it was all about the market, right? The market is going to resolve all problems of production and distribution in society. How did that happen? It is just not the case at all that the pro-market guys won the argument on its merits. No. It is just that the pro-market guys were subsidized. Those ideas were subsidized by aid money, conditionality, those kinds of things. So, if those ideas would have been defunded, the right way of doing economics would’ve won out. A decolonized type of economics would have been present in universities. So, you’re right, I think defunding is a very important part of this entire debate because these sorts of colonial ideas are not just accidentally there. They’re there because, partly, they’re being subsidized to be there.

If you do research in Zambia, for example, and you apply for a research grant to study poverty — to study why the majority of Zambians are poor, say — you can imagine many hypotheses that could be drawn up for research. One of them might be, “Oh, the multinationals exploit Zambia” or “The previous colonial countries exploit Zambia” or “The IMF and World Bank just want to destroy Zambia.” I think those could be one hypothesis. One can also go out into the field, collect the data, and come back to say, “Oh, Zambians are to blame” or “Zambians are lazy and uneducated” or “Zambians are just stupid.” That latter type of hypothesis is more likely to be funded than the previous one. I mean, I should be able to take up whatever hypothesis I want to. I should get funding for it and disprove that hypothesis, but we only get certain types of hypotheses always being put forward. So, certain ideas, certain assumptions, certain disciplinary approaches are prominent today because they’re subsidized.

Walk us through your thoughts on the grand trifecta: World Bank, IMF, and the WTO (World Trade Organization)? A Nigerian woman will now be running the WTO, so there’s been some excitement about that.

All three are really bad organizations. I would happily abolish all of them. And if you were to talk to a Zambian or a citizen of the Global South who’s been at the receiving end of the IMF or World Bank policies, they will not find this idea completely ridiculous. Because it is only when the IMF became very powerful that their livelihoods were immiserated and their societies were upended. If I say this to somebody in the Global North, an economist in the Global North, somebody there, they would probably laugh at me. Let’s remember that we existed before the IMF. The IMF was only created in the late ’40s. And the world was completely horrible back then, but the point is to say it is possible to have a world without the IMF. What does the IMF really do?

I don’t know. You tell us.

It’s a really difficult question to answer. In theory, they’re supposed to come in and help countries that are in financial crisis, that was the initial objective. If Zambia is, say, in a balance of payment crisis, it means that Zambia is short on US dollars. Now, why are US dollars important? US dollars are tied to American interests, and it isn’t an accident that the rise of America as a global power coincides with the establishment of the IMF and the World Bank. Anyway, why does Zambia need US dollars? We need US dollars because we need to import things that we don’t produce locally — crude oil, for example. Now, the chaps selling us crude oil abroad only accept US dollars. They won’t accept Kenyan shillings. They won’t accept Zambian kwacha. Now, where do the US dollars come from? They come from the stuff that we export. Zambia exports copper. Kenya exports tea. So, they get US dollars and they put them in their bank account and they pay for the crude oil. But sometimes, you might have a shortfall. Just like in a household, you might fall sick and not be able to work or you might get fired or your wages might be cut down. Thus, sometimes, our export receipts decline as there is randomness in the global economy. So, in principle, the IMF is supposed to come in and give you a bridging loan, to help you during that moment of crisis.

This idea is quite laudable in itself — that when countries get into trouble, some global entity will help out. The problem is that this global body is not neutral. It’s political, and that becomes a problem. So, it might be possible that the decision to help countries is itself a political decision. “We don’t like that country, so we won’t help them.” And then the situation will get worse. Some have even argued that, sometimes, they create a crisis for a country by, say, imposing sanctions on them so that they’ll be short of dollars and then won’t even help them. The thing is that the creation of the IMF has actually made these instabilities worse and has made them political in orientation. This is the issue, but to have a global body that plays this role, that’s important. This is also why you see many Global South countries trying to create something that’s like the IMF, but this is difficult because the IMF’s tentacles run wild and fan out far, but that’s the general idea.

And what about the World Bank?

Honestly, we should get rid of all of them and build something new that respects those founding principles and takes them seriously. We live in a world where we’re all interrelated and sometimes our brothers and sisters go through hardship and we need to help. We do need a global body that can move money in moments of crisis from places that have an abundance to places that are in deficit. I think that’s plausible, and those are supposedly the founding principles of the IMF and the World Bank, except that they were crafted to achieve particular sorts of imperial ambitions. The West, and the US in particular, saw this as an opportunity to grow its power and influence in the world. And that is why up until now the role of the managing director of the IMF is reserved for Europeans, specifically Western Europeans. The role of president of the World Bank is reserved for Americans. Now, if these are bodies that were created to solve problems in the way that I just illustrated, why do you need to reserve these particular posts? Why not make them open? It’s a global body. Let’s leave it open.

Wow, that is pretty damning in itself. Sometimes, growing up in a postcolonial place — India, in my case — you find yourself being blamed for our fate. Our leaders are corrupt, our political and economic structures are weak, and so on. Why make this fuss with decolonization and blame colonialism? What is your response to such views — that Africa is to blame for its own dictators and their greed?

Well, those leaders are made by colonialism. Political decolonization was a necessary step, but in the end, it only made things worse because we only tackled one issue. What we needed at that moment was wholesale decolonization. Wholesale breaking down and building anew. For example, if you look at the constitution in Kenya, the legal statutes in Kenya, they’re pretty much a continuation of what the colonial days left behind, which placed a lot of power right in the hands of “leaders.” So, Uhuru Kenyatta is the creation of those forces. The whole point is to understand the present moment using the past. I imagine that’s the same case with India. India is a complicated place that the British just sort of mushed up together, right?


That was always going to create conditions of instability, right? You cannot understand the problems in India, the problems in Kenya, the problems in Zambia without some allusion to history and then, there’s neocolonialism too. So, you get self-determination, but the links are not cut — you are still embedded into this world economy where your role is to produce primary export commodities. India, for example, had a thriving textile industry that the British purposefully crushed during the colonial period. Now, imagine where that textile industry would be today. It is the textile industry in Britain that powered the so-called Industrial Revolution. These are the things that one has to decolonize. Folks say decolonize the curriculum or decolonize the university. I’m not so sure what all of it means, but the decolonizing is really important.

What do you think about “decolonizing” becoming more and more of a Global North framing, that maybe the Global South might not be so interested in this?

Regarding the Global South people who are not invested in these debates, that is possibly the most important reason why they should be thinking about these topics. It shows you that there are many people who don’t realize that they live lives that are circumscribed by coloniality and colonialism. But that wasn’t the case 30 or 40 years ago. When my father went to university in the ’70s, it was a different moment. It was a hopeful moment when people like Ngũgĩ were very popular. It has now changed because the idea of how to organize our society has been subsidized. And it became very powerful and popular and folks forgot, right? In many ways, the culture wars won. I would also add that there have always been debates about decolonization in the academy, in the disciplines, but this recent resurgence of interest came from the Global South.

From South Africa. You mean #FeesMustFall?

Exactly. So, it’s important to note that it came from there and, luckily, it got taken up. It was very much embraced by the Global North, which is also important because the universities there are very powerful, well funded. But the problems start when white people who have never experienced colonialism start taking it up. And you can learn a lot by reading and studying, but I’m always surprised if they start to center themselves in this conversation.

Yes, of course, all those trends are very problematic. Talking of questions of funding and defunding, when we think about the problems afflicting the African continent, should we say the main ones are development and debt?

Those are the main ones at the end of the day. Everything is about centering development. Obviously, there are debates about what that actually means, but the principal objective is to make sure that the billion or so Africans live lives that must be meaningful to them, to live lives that have dignity, right? Development is really at the core of this entire discussion. And debt is a mechanism that impedes this aspiration to development. The issue here is to attain development. When you asked me in the beginning why I wanted to be an economist, maybe this is why. I thought it was a powerful way of thinking about development and how to achieve development for my country. But that’s the problem. All the debates in economics, at least among African policy-makers, African economists, and African thinkers, are about development.

And what is pop developmentalism? This is a concept you’ve invented, I believe.

Yes, true, I did. You know, just as when somebody says pop music is real art so, similarly, pop development is sort of fake development. That’s what it is. It is being called development, but it’s not that. As I understand it, development should mean a wholesale transformation of societies. People beginning to live lives of dignity and to have full agency in their lives. They’re no longer having to beg. They’re no longer having to be humiliated. When you can do that, then you’ve succeeded at development. But it’s not that. The promises of development — like, “We’re going to deliver mosquito nets to villages. We’re going to deliver iodized salt to villages. We’re going to deliver de-worming tablets” — okay, these things are useful, but that’s humanitarian assistance. That stuff on its own is not going to fix the structural problems that have consigned those villages to poverty. This is what I consider pop development.

You have quite a few polemical papers and essays. One is about why Western economists get Africa wrong. Another one asks if economics has an Africa problem. Let me sort of put them all in one bag and ask you to tell me more.

Well, they’re not really polemical depending on which audience is reading them, and many of them came out of my conversation with economists in the Global South. But yeah, the stuff is obvious and quite abhorrent. Much of the discipline, especially its mainstream vintage that is practiced by leading economists (whatever that may mean, not sure how they arrived at being leading economists), much of this is problematic. But this work was seen as polemical in the Global North because maybe I was exposing them. Generally, those articles have been just trying to show that the Global North economists’ diagnosis of African problems is really problematic, really falls short, is really simplistic. That pop development stuff is an example, because I don’t know how they are even diagnosing the problem. I think the problem is that we’ve never had deworming tablets and that’s why we’re perpetually poor. It’s hilarious …

It’s upsetting.

And yes, it’s upsetting, but this stuff attracts a lot of funding. The problem with Africa is the lack of good governance. That is why we find ourselves in perpetual poverty. It’s because we don’t have good governance. The problem of Africa is lack of capacity and the need for building capacity.

I love how we have leaders like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump but then have these high-minded concepts like “good governance” and judge other places based on it. That’s just the world we live in, where we assume good governance in some places and bad governance in others.

It’s just assumed that if you are a white male from an Ivy League university, you can come to Zambia and, by merely landing at the International Airport, can begin to diagnose the problem because you’re so smart, white, and so on. You can just look around and see where the problem is. That’s just not right.

We have come up with a kind of Proust questionnaire for this final section. We will be asking these same questions of everyone we interview for the series. So, first, what would you DECOLONIZE?

Economics. Although it’ll be very hard to do.

What would you DEFUND?

I would defund research funding agencies or the international NGOs that fund a lot of Global North researchers on the African continent. Basically, funding agencies that subsidize Global North researchers to come to the Global South.

What would you ABOLISH?

The IMF, the International Monetary Fund.

There is a price on everything in our capitalist society. What must be FREE for all?

Health care.

We also want to know the soundtrack to your struggle. You can pick three songs.

First, Fela Kuti’s “International Thief Thief” from 1980. I teach this song to my students because it’s diagnosing our economic problems. In it, Fela is talking about multinational corporations, the World Bank, the IMF, and saying that these guys are just bloody thieves — they’re just here to rule.

Second, Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution.” I love the line in this song that says, “Finally the tables are starting to turn.” That’s hopeful but also sad because she sang it in 1988. And I don’t know if the tables have started to turn yet.

Finally, Mos Def’s “Umi Says.” I think he calls himself Yasiin Bey now. This is a personal favorite from an album called Black on Both Sides (1999). I think Umi is like your grandma, and his Umi has taught him to be the light in the world. And there’s a refrain where he sings, “I want my people to be free, to be free…” I really like this song.


Bhakti Shringarpure is associate professor jointly appointed in English and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Connecticut and editor-in-chief of Warscapes magazine. She is the co-founder of the Radical Books Collective.