What do we really know about societies in the South? Is knowledge about the South not shaped by the domination of the thinking of the North? This is what Jacques Ould Aoudia thinks, who published an essay on our views on the South.

In your publication, you uphold the idea that we have a biased understanding of the organization and dynamics of societies in the South.

Yes, the thinking which the North has projected on the South since we have been talking about “development”, meaning since 1945, remains permeated by the spirit of domination. Understanding societies in the South as defective and pathological replicas of those in the North leads us to see these societies in the South through their lack of democracy, roads, hospitals, etc. This deeply distorts our understanding of how societies in the South function.

These societies consequently hold onto their mystery: Why do people in the South not desperately do what they are asked to do, for their greater good? The path towards modernity, development, enrichment, health, education or even democracy just seems so obvious!


Do you think that we can say that development thinking has failed and therefore the resulting development policies?

“Development” has failed in terms of the way in which it is devised in the North and applied in the South. The “good pupils” – generally speaking, African, Arab and Latin American countries – which have followed the dominant prescriptions, have not emerged. Yet on the other hand, the countries which have pulled themselves out of “underdevelopment” – mainly East Asian countries – have done so by taking an endogenous approach, by drawing on external input, but while maintaining control over their path, including their mistakes. In this sense, China has been the champion of both mistakes (Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution…) and of spectacular recoveries.

You say that societies in the South are developing based on their own specific characteristics. What are they?

One of the major distinctions between societies in the South and societies in the North lies in the fact that in the South, personal ties still figure prominently, whereas in the North, they have been replaced by impersonal rights. Impersonal rights do clearly lead to more effectiveness in the creation of wealth and power. This is what has allowed the North to dominate the world up until now.

This difference between “community-based societies” and “law-based societies” is, for example, key to understanding electoral processes, the creation of confidence (security, political stability, wealth creation) or solidarity mechanisms (unemployment, illness, old age) in the South. The formal institutions imported from the North (often with financial support from aid) have been taken over by social imaginaries that are very different from those which underpinned their creation in the North, hence why they are unable to fulfil their functions. In other words, beyond their formal similarity, a court, a bid invitation, a contract or an election do not function in the same way in North and in the South. You can find examples of these crucial issues in the book.

Yet you very much base yourself on research by thinkers in the North, such as K. Polanyi, G. Duby or M. Weber, to conduct your analysis of societies in the South.

I am aware of the difficulties of understanding the South with tools from the North (concepts, languages). The book explains this at length and seeks to circumvent this difficulty. My reference authors are from the North, but also from the South. I am thinking in particular of Panikkar, an Indian historian who in 1953 wrote a masterful history of Asia’s relations with Europe, but also of the research of Achille Mbembe and Felwine Sarr. I also insist that I seek my references in the literature (Mahfouz, Aswany, Mystry, Mo Yan, Pamuk, Laroui, Adichie, Miano…), which I do not consider as a minor source. But it is true, I am not sufficiently familiar with the thinkers from the South, notably those who are today writing in Asia, whereas the world is changing.

In this book, I have used a substantial amount of my research on the link between institutions and development. The failure of the transposition of “good governance” in South countries, which was the dominant doxa until recently, was an eye-opener for me: How is China, with such poor governance according to World Bank criteria, managing to achieve this extremely rapid emergence? The emergence was consequently to be found elsewhere than in the transposition in the South of institutions from the North.

In your opinion, the North needs to change the way in which it views the South, but also how it views itself. Why?

We are currently experiencing a dual emergence which is tipping the balance of the world. There is not only the emergence of countries in the South, which are taking a seat at the table where countries in the North used to write the rules of the global game alone, but also the emergence of billions of people who have gained a voice with education, urbanization and access to digital technologies. It is a huge anthropological break, as this emergence also seals that of the individual who, by trial and error, is starting to free himself of previous assignations. It is a long process which is being accelerated by digital technologies, and which will result in types of modernity that will not be the exact replica of what is established in the North.

But in the North, modernity is being called into question: “post-modernity”, “liquid modernity”, “late modernity”… the bases of societies in the North are being called into question, societies are disoriented, identity-related tensions are developing, multilateralism is deteriorating. The ecological challenges facing the South and North add to the difficulty. Major work is consequently beginning in the North: to reflect upon the mainsprings that drive “developed” societies, which have run out of vision. I hope that this book will make a modest contribution to this reflection.

“ The best we can do in the North is to support the desire for change of others and accept to work together ”
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What about donors and development actors? Should they continue to intervene and how?

Donors feel that the world is changing. The World Bank has no longer had a doctrine since the pitiful ousting of Paul Wolfowitz in 2007. It is continuing to apply its old doctrines through inertia. The European Union lacks vision and takes refuge in the hypertrophy of procedures.

Yet there is room for new forms of solidarity, based on the ecological challenges which concern the South and the North. But there is also room to support the changes decided by the South, with the understanding that there are limits to State-to-State cooperation, which should give a greater place to local authorities, NGOs…

When it boils down to it, the best we can do in the North is to support the desire for change of others and accept to work together. It is easier said than done! But we can work together to this end by being patient, as it will take a long time to iron out the creases of the past, and by accepting in advance to be shaken up by the ideas, energies and creativity of others. Let us count on young people from the North and South to speed up these necessary changes.


You can consult the author’s website www.jacques-ould-aoudia.net


The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.

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