Postcolonial Relief, Development and Peace

by Timothy Seidel

In 2020, MCC celebrates 100 years of relief, development and peace and one way we want to mark this anniversary is by sharing articles and stories from the archives of MCC’s Peace Office Newsletter, now known as Intersections, on this blog. Calling for change and for a more peaceful and just world has been foundational to MCC’s work for decades. MCC has published articles about economic justice, domestic violence, land claims, military spending, conscientious objection, peace theology, and many more.

While some of the postures MCC has taken over the years aren’t positions we may take today, the courage to think critically and speak publicly as a faith-based organization around issues that are easily politicized is something to celebrate as we look forward. May these glimpses into conversations of the past continue to inform our thinking and work into this next phase of relief, development and peace in the name of Christ.

This week, we want to share an article from 2011 which was originally titled ‘Postcolonialism and a Critical Approach to Development and Peacebuilding Theory and Practice’.

Anthropologist Talal Asad has argued that the liberal nation state is paradoxically required to define the genuinely religious in order to lay claim to the secular.1 Similarly, one might argue that self-described secular peacebuilding and development organizations are compelled to define themselves in opposition to religious groups and religious parties in areas of their operation. They must define the religious in order to carry out their work as secular organizations. It is precisely their secular status that compels them to delineate and circumscribe the religious. This engagement is a tenuous process that leads to homogenized and static definitions of people and groups. Perhaps most importantly, it grants secular institutions the power to name and delegitimize religious organizations. And this is integral to the dominant frameworks that development and peacebuilding have historically operated within.

I open with this to illustrate the point that utilizing tools from postcolonial theory that lead us to interrogate categories such as “religion” and “secular” as products of colonialist modernity begs the question of the colonialist legacy latent in contemporary development and peacebuilding theory and practice.

A healthy skepticism, then, of any rigid, binary oppositions that may be operative in development and peacebuilding (such as civilized-barbaric, developed-underdeveloped, or secular-religious distinctions) is warranted. To unsettle these distinctions not only opens productive lines of inquiry into possible forms of engagement in conflict situations that embrace the inherently contingent and fluid identities of the social fabric, but it also begins to recognize the locations from which the theory and practice of development and peacebuilding is produced. Indeed, acknowledging the existence of development and peacebuilding discourses, that they have a location, helps us avoid the tendency to universalize those discourses.2

As we interrogate these distinctions we come closer to understanding voices such as Ziauddin Sardar’s who point out: “The problem of Eurocentrism, and hence the problem of development, is thus the problem of knowledge. It is a problem of discovering other ways of knowing, being and doing. It is a problem of how to be human in ways other than those of Europe. It is also a problem of how the West could liberate its true self from its colonial history and moorings.”3

Unmasking the Eurocentric location of this discussion, Bruno Charbonneau argues, makes it easier “to see the hegemonic politics of peacebuilding” in its move “to establish the legitimate parameters of an epistemology for/of peace. It sets the limits to political debates and policy options ‘in a way that nearly always disguises the fact that [peace] is essentially contested.’”4

Cilantro (coriander) flowers are flourishing in a kitchen garden in Central Highlands, Afghanistan. (MCC photo/Paul Shetler Fast)

Looking at conflict resolution approaches that utilize “harmony models” that seek to eliminate conflict, Laura Nader has pointed out that these models can in fact be used ideologically as a powerful form of direct and indirect control. “Harmony may be used to suppress peoples by socializing them toward conformity in colonial contexts.”5 Nader makes the connection between the spread of harmony models as control or pacification techniques in colonial as well as missionary contexts.

There is a reminder here to constantly revisit and rethink the ways we inhabit a world shaped by colonial history. This resonates with Asad’s discussion of a “decentered pluralism” characterized by a “continuous readiness to deconstruct historical narratives constituting identities and their boundaries” in order to open up space for the full multiplicity of overlapping, rather than opposed, social identities.6 What then is the goal of our development and peacebuilding efforts? From where does it emerge, begin, and end? And who benefits? Such questions are critical if we are to avoid unreflective assimilation to humanitarian industries where development efforts are too often reduced to simply plugging more people into the global market, or our peacebuilding efforts unwittingly becoming a cover for more effective nation-state-building.

Attention to the potential for “relief,” “development” and “peace” to operate as totalizing ideologies that are themselves built on binary oppositions that represent the legacy of colonialist modernity is our challenge.

Perhaps this is one of the greatest contributions of postcolonial theory and theology: It does not allow us to gloss over the particularity of our witness as a Northern-based, church-related development and peacebuilding agency. Instead, it not only warns us that any such denial begins to move us down the path of a universalizing colonialism, it also reminds us of the potential of such a witness to interrupt seemingly common-sense distinctions and reveal—in those in-between spaces where rigid categories, distinctions, and identities are fluid and hybrid—radically open and unexpected possibilities for justice and peace.

Timothy Seidel was the Director of Peace and Justice Ministries with Mennonite Central Committee US when this article was first published.

Want to read more? See the rest of the Peace Office Newsletter discussing Anabaptism and Postcolonialism here.


  1. Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 17.
  2. By “discourse” I am thinking in  particular  of Stuart Hall’s description as “a particular way of representing ‘the West,’ ‘the Rest,’ and the relation between them. A discourse is a group of statements which provide a language for talking about—i.e. a way of representing—a particular kind of knowledge about a topic in a certain way” with power seen in creating and reinforcing Western dominance, not least by excluding the “Other” from the production   of the discourse; see “The West and the Rest: Dis- course and Power” in Race and Racialization: Essen- tial Readings, ed. Tania Das Gupta et al (Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press, 2007), 56.
  3. Ziauddin Sardar, “Development and the Locations of Eurocentrism,” in Critical Development Theory: Contributions to a New Paradigm, eds. Ronaldo Munck and Denis O’Hearn (London: Zed Books, 1999), 60.
  4. Bruno Charbonneau, “The Colonial Legacy of Peace(building): France, Europe, Africa” (Paper pre- sented at the ISA annual convention, New York City, NY, 15–18 February 2009).
  5. Laura Nader, “Harmony Models and the Con- struction of Law” in Conflict Resolution: Cross- Cultural Perspectives (41–59), K. Avruch, P.W. Black & J.A. Scimecca (eds.) (Greenwood, 1991), 45.
  6. Asad, Formations of the Secular, 177.

Banner image: A grove of Mahua trees (Madhuca longifolia) outside the village of Sandalki, Sandalki, India. (MCC Photo/Colin Vandenberg)

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