On Friday, November 13, the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University invited Dr. Robbie Shilliam to discuss decolonizing International Relations (IR) theory. Dr. Shilliam is a professor in the Department of International Relations at Johns Hopkins University. Currently, he is researching the political and intellectual complicities of colonialism and race in the global order. He is also the co-founder of the Colonial, Postcolonial, and Decolonial working group (CPD) at the British International Studies Association as well as a longstanding member of the Global Development section of the International Studies Association.
Dr. Shilliam’s discussion on decolonizing IR theory revolved around the story of a world set five years from now and still burdened by COVID-19. With the story of a girl named Michelle Delaney’s life, Dr. Shilliam recounted limits put on the African American community through redlining, denial of financial and civic services, and the potential creation of a COVID-19 tracker app. The app, called Symptomatic, “turns medical diagnosis into racialized risk management.” The technology of Symptomatic, along with an “apartheid app” called Transactional, which is aimed at prolonging one’s life even if that means the consequential shortening of the lives of others, are driven by the pursuit of racialized genocide.
In a world where the threat of COVID-19 is divided by zip code, one-COVID being the lowest risk, often found in white neighborhoods, and five-COVID being the highest risk, often found in black neighborhoods, redlining has found itself taking on a whole new form. “If you were one white, one wealth, you made and remade your own heredity, you could circle, zigzag, idle with your own freedom,” he stated as a contrast to the straight line of Michelle’s path.
After this, he introduced, into the story, the character of Tedros, as well as two other devices called Human Development Index (HDI) and Overview, both used by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). HDI was designed to counter the reduction of development to economic growth by bringing education and living standards into the equation, as well as by paying attention to various inequalities on a national level. Overview was a different indicator used by G18 elites in various countries to determine which states they should bilaterally invest in depending on COVID-19 infection rates. As Dr. Shilliam described, it is an international version of Symptomatic and Transactional. “The premise was that the richer the economy, the better it could deal with COVID’s arrival,” Dr. Shilliam explained.
He then went on to speak about how this was a consequence of public management, which, “in most domestic jurisdictions a billionaire class firmly occupied the seats of government.” Throughout the story, he speaks of people staying in “three-COVID” or “one-COVID” spots to trick the Transactional system and catapult themselves into a more opportune position in society than their five-COVID spot would allow. This was a truly chilling dystopian story told by Dr. Shilliam, which was set only five years into the future but still relevant to the current global issue of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the question and answer portion of the event, a student asked Dr. Shilliam how likely is the dystopia he described in his story. Dr. Shilliam responded that this story was not actually about five years into the future, but instead it was about “identifying and amplifying some of the tendencies in the present.” This would then prompt students to think about how we navigate these tendencies, he further stated.
Another student asked Dr. Shilliam how he believes we should end the narrative of Africa as a “poor, helpless, powerless” place under colonization while still respecting the trauma that colonization has caused. The latter responded with a story about a time when he was in a Brazilian favela. He said, “So many people in Brazil see favelas as the problem, where it is actually the ways that people have to live in favelas, the way in which they have to creatively survive, might provide the rest of humanity with the tools they need to survive fascism.” Evidently, the fundamental challenges of the development industry were echoed in his story.
“The places we see as problems usually hold the solutions, not for themselves but for humanity… and there is a nasty power consistently trying to say that these people are the problem or the victims,” Dr. Shilliam pointed out. Abolishing this idea and abolishing the reproduction of racist structures through modern technology, as seen Dr. Shilliam’s story, are central to decolonizing IR theory. Shilliam ended his talk with the advice to “never turn up empty, never turn up without having done some work already” when addressing these issues in one’s own community.