Decolonizing Economics: African and Feminist Perspectives on Post-Growth Futures
Feminist decolonial discourse helps ensure that progress is more inclusive, just, and transformative for all.
An interview with Post Growth Fellow, Sonia Tesfaye.
Sonia is a researcher studying the asymmetrical dependencies that resulted from colonialism within the African context, and how to provide agency and alternative narratives from the continent’s lens. In this interview, she shares her insight into how decolonial and feminist perspectives from Africa can highlight crucial pathways to a future beyond capitalism and economic growth.
Post Growth Institute: “Life is an experience, not a performance,” as Felwine Sarr puts it. From a decolonial perspective, why is the notion of GDP (and other Western-imposed equations and evaluations) so limiting, and what are the implications for formerly colonized nations and communities?
Sonia Tesfaye: Perhaps I should start by explaining what drew me to decolonial thoughts and perspectives. I have always been keen to explore the different ontological and epistemological approaches that different societies embody to create and interpret knowledge. Every society has its own underpinning philosophy besides economic, and cultural references. Coming from Africa, where communal consciousness and social ties are key attributes of socialization, I always wanted to know the broader values of alternative realities and how we can leverage such lived experiences for the betterment of the world at large.
As Philosopher Felwine Sarr states in his book, Afrotopia, there is vitality in notions of communal value and economy deeply rooted in its ancient traditions and landscape. His assertion that “life is an experience, not a performance” encapsulates a decolonial perspective that challenges Western-centered paradigms, particularly on how we measure societal progress. For example: If we rely solely on GDP to primarily quantify the economic trajectory of a nation, it fails to capture the multifaceted dimensions of human wellbeing, cultural richness, and overall environmental sustainability. It tends to be a reductionist approach that privileges economic growth over different aspects of life. How can such a narrow approach showcase or comprehensively entail what human lived experiences truly are?
Sarr advocates for a more holistic understanding of wellbeing that incorporates cultural heritage, social cooperation, environmental stewardship, and community resilience.
A decolonial perspective reminds us that life is a complex tapestry of experiences, not a mirror of performance or economic gain.
On the issues of economic and cultural interaction, or rather “the cultural foundations of economic choices” that are essential to appreciate the “value” of things, he stressed that by relying on quantification, the economy is subjugated to methods based on predation and accumulation, rather than human integration in a social and supportive environment. An interesting example Sarr gives is the informal economy. If economies are considered to be less important — in part because they defy measurement — but they are central to African communities, providing livelihoods and financial support to millions of people outside the sphere of external development programs, the economy should include them as such. A focus entirely on GDP or GNP misses that entirely, and the associated macro level of society’s wellbeing is therefore skewed.
A decolonial perspective reminds us that life is a complex tapestry of experiences, not a mirror of performance or economic gain. A critical approach to Western-imposed metrics opens up space for formerly colonized nations and communities to redefine progress on their own terms and restore agency over their destinies. And I think agency is a key point. It is central to how we philosophize our livelihoods, and that has to be approached in an inclusive manner.
Beyond the critical aspects of Sarr’s works, I related with the sense of optimism that is reflected through possibilities. He urges “a renewal and self-discovery — an active utopia that requires a deep historical reflection on the continent’s vast mythological universe and ancient traditions, nourishes a cultural reinvention, and embraces green technologies for tackling climate change and demographic challenges”. This is essential to recognise that the world is not an island. We are more connected. We are one.
As Philosopher Achille Mbembe, put it in his recent book, The Earthly Community, “the ultimate utopia involves coming back to the Earth, the last name of a We that would embrace human beings as well as objects, viruses, plants, animals, oceans, machines, and all the forces and energies with which we must now learn to live in bio-symbiosis”. Thus, the ultimate question will be, how can we foster our wellbeing as humans to create a just, mutually benefiting space for all living species?
PGI: How can we create what Sarr calls “an economic sphere where the means are subjected to societal ends defined by the group” and that responds to the cultural and spiritual needs, as well as material ones?
ST: Addressing cultural, spiritual, and material needs requires a fundamental shift in how we approach the economy and development. This shift involves a departure from conventional, Western-centric economic models, and the integration of diverse values and perspectives. It is one thing to understand the gaps that are present, but quite another to make it tangible in terms of a specific model that fills some of these gaps.
We have to have a way to reimagine not just the ‘solution’ but also, at times, the problems.
Sarr has suggested different ways of approaching this shift. One is decolonizing economic growth by creating an economic sphere that truly serves society. This involves recognizing that economic systems are not universal, but rather shaped by specific cultural, historical, and social contexts; and engaging with indigenous knowledge, tradition, and practices that can provide insights. Another is developing economic frameworks that are holistic and comprehensive — beyond measuring just monetary gains, this could be done through incorporating socio-cultural dimensions, such as the concept of Gross National Happiness used in Bhutan. He emphasizes wellbeing indicators such as mental health, environmental conservation, and cultural preservation.
Sarr also mentions culture valuation, which means recognising the importance of cultural and spiritual aspects in economic activities. He also advocates for community-based enterprises and informal economies, education awareness, and collaborative networks. In general, it’s about creating a sphere that responds to cultural, spiritual, and material needs, and having that transcend into diversity, inclusivity, and sustainability.
We have to have a way to reimagine not just the ‘solution’ but, at times, also the problems.
PGI: Given that, according to Sarr, “well-being, progress, growth and equality are key concepts of western cosmology,” non-western cosmologies can contain approaches that reveal alternative, regenerative ways of life and economic systems. ‘Better futures’, in other words, need not be dreamed up — they already exist, if we know where to look…
ST: Exactly. Starr examines what kind of philosophy we rely on to produce knowledge, and also how we take in different knowledge. We need to find a way that is much more holistic while also celebrating individual approaches to cultural wisdom, sustainability, and harmonious existence.
Many non-Western cosmologies view different aspects of life and livelihood as interconnected, and this perspective encourages interdisciplinary approaches to problem-solving and decision-making.
Many Indigenous communities emphasize a deep connection with nature and advocate for responsible stewardship of the environment. (Of course, under this model, every nation could have their own way of understanding what the environment is, how they connect with and preserve it, and how they share aspects of resource accumulation.) Sarr states that community-centered models are another important element — valuing collective decision-making and community support systems can foster social cohesion and address issues of inequality and isolation. Consequently, interconnection is another one. Many non-Western cosmologies view different aspects of life and livelihood as interconnected, and this perspective challenges the compartmentalization of knowledge and encourages interdisciplinary approaches to problem-solving and decision-making.
These models can inform alternative economic systems that prioritize equitable distribution and environmental sustainability in general. Therefore, by drawing from these approaches, societies can diversify their perspectives and move away from the harmful limitations of a single, dominant worldview.
PGI: In her work, Sylvia Tamale reveals a masculinist bias in mainstream decolonial scholarship on Africa, itself influenced by patriarchal capitalism. How can feminist lenses pave the way for genuine decolonization?
ST: Feminist lenses play a crucial role in pathways to decolonization by challenging and transforming the deeply ingrained patriarchal and colonial structures that perpetuate inequality and marginalization.
I find Tamale’s work really inspiring, especially when it comes to new ways of approaching enduring challenges. She invites us to question what womanhood means, especially within the African context. She also dives into what patriarchy means for African feminism, and the search for, as Tamale states, “a counter-hegemonic feminist narrative for future generations that does not simply commit to the struggle for decolonization, but also recognizes the dynamics of gender within the struggle for new ways of being’’.
Tamale’s effort lies in contextualizing African feminisms within a rich historical framework of women’s activism on the African continent, which predates the era of colonialism. She states, ‘‘African women need to carefully and rigorously develop home-grown conceptualizations that capture the specific political-economies and cultural realities encountered, as well as their traditional worldviews.”
This resonates with me deeply. It is when we are able to look back, reflect, and understand our historical identities that are entangled with triumph, strength, and social capital that we can find meaning in our present form. As the Ethiopian saying goes ‘‘Yewehalawe kelay le yelem ye fitu’’, which loosely translates to ‘‘there is no future without the past’.
By showcasing the intersectional Afrofeminist decolonial analyses of legal pluralism, human rights and social justice, the African academy, family law and Pan-Africanism, Tamale presents new avenues of understanding African feminism. Within this framework, she argues for the necessity of embracing the Ubuntu philosophy, a concept also championed by Sarr. This philosophy is rooted in principles such as the interconnectedness of all things, the spiritual essence of humanity, the duality of collective and individual identity, the inclusive nature of family structures, the unity of mind, body, and spirit, and the profound value of interpersonal relationships.
Traditional power dynamics call for the centrality of power, which is exemplified by both the colonial and the patriarchal system. Applying principles of feminist theory and practice to decolonization efforts can therefore lead more to equitable decision-making and opportunities. These intersectional elements are important in understanding what feminism is for Africa, which is of course itself not homogeneous — every community and country would have its own diverse experiences.
In general, feminist perspectives often involve re-evaluating cultural norms, traditions, and practices. So in a decolonial context, this can mean reimagining cultural narratives to change oppressive gender norms, and restore the agency of marginalized groups.
Tamale’s work has helped me internalize these intricacies so as to address the complexities of power, gender, and identity that are often overlooked in mainstream narratives. Thus, I believe, by focusing on patriarchal capitalism and recognizing the diverse ways in which it operates, feminist decolonial discourse helps ensure that progress is more inclusive, just, and transformative for all members of society.
Inspired? Here are some things you can do next:
- Read Afrotopia by Felwine Sarr; Decolonization and Afro-Feminism: Perspectives From Africa and Beyond by Sylvia Tamale; and The Earthly Community by Achille Mbembe.
- Read Sonia’s research on The Livelihood of Rural-Urban Migrants in the Informal Sector: The Case of Street Vendors in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
- Sign up to the Post Growth Institute’s newsletter for monthly insight and inspiration about pathways to a future beyond patriarchal capitalism: