Please throw ‘Western’ and ‘the West’ into the colonial dustbin

Please throw ‘Western’ and ‘the West’ into the colonial dustbin

Texts aiming at decolonising academia and development thinking regularly use notions like ‘Western’ and ‘the West’, such as in speaking about ‘western education’, ‘western democracy’, or ‘western ideas of the state’. However, there can be a contradiction here between the aim to decolonise while at the same time using conceptual oppositions (such as the West vs Africa) that are themselves very much a colonial fabrication. Let me explain.

It can of course be very appropriate to identify something as ‘Western’. For instance NATO, the World Bank, WTO (despite being headed by a Nigerian lady now), and many so-called ‘donors’ are clearly dominated by North-Atlantic powers. One could probably add to this list the Catholic Church, many Protestant sects, the Hollywood Film industry, and other cultural actors. But the idea of formal education in schools, of electoral democracy, of political parties, of civil society, or of the nation-state, in what sense exactly can we call those ‘Western’? These may first have appeared in Europe (not all of them! see below) but that does not make them Western as such – just like the motorcar and television are not Western. It is certainly too much honour to Europe to credit it with inventing the institutional innovations and ideas associated with modernisation, as if there was and is no agency elsewhere on the globe.

Here we also see the major ideological pitfall of using ‘Western’ and ‘the West’ without clear and appropriate specification, in that it repeats the vicious colonial fabrication that Europe has a special place in world history. A key to this colonial fabrication was to create the very conceptual opposition between Europe and the rest – thinking in terms of this great divide was essential for constructing the colonial hegemonic mindset, for its racism, and for the policies of indirect rule. How can one hope to fight heritages of colonial thinking by repeating the basic framing of the world in terms of the culturalistic ‘othering’ that colonialist themselves introduced?

Of course, it was a great move of Négritude intellectuals in the mid-twentieth century to invert the valuation of the colonial dichotomy in terms of, for instance, reason versus emotion. It was revolutionary at that moment in France, but the price paid for simply inverting and not rejecting the colonial racial opposition itself was that it did not place reason also on the African side. We are trapped into prefixed colonial boxes if we do not radically reject the fundamental oppositions of colonial discourse, such as repeating the ‘othering’ between Africa and the West, and using the even more vicious concept of ‘race’.

There is also ample historical and political reason to avoid the stereotype of ‘the West’ (and of ‘Africa’). The stereotype suggests that modernisation was given to the world by Europe. But detailed historical research shows much more complicated and multidirectional global processes in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Benedict Anderson, in his famous Imagined Communities, showed that the nation-state in fact emerged in Latin America first (Anderson 1983). Mary Kaldor, in her article ‘The Idea of Global Civil Society’ (Kaldor 2003) showed that the modern idea of civil society (as distinct from the state, the family sphere and the economic sphere) developed in Eastern Europe and in Latin America first. As for Africa, one could argue with Taiwo (2010) that European colonialism in many cases undermined, rather than introduced modernisation processes. The modern developmental state, school-based education, globalisation etcetera were in many cases embraced in Africa.

Just an example: the schools system in the Gold Coast emerged already in 1831 when the “Cape Coast Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge” (also known as the “Bible Band”) took the initiative to request teaching materials from Britain, resulting in the arrival of the first Methodist teacher/preacher in 1834 as well as in a rapidly expanding network of schools almost totally run by African teachers (Adick 2020). Another example of the leading role of African agency in pushing for modern institutions in Africa is the Fanti Confederation that formulated a constitution in 1871 for a self-governing Fanti polity. This constitution was in many respects more progressive than almost all constitutions found in Europe at the time, including elected office holders, mandatory education for boys and girls in the age of 8 to 14, and economic modernisation.

In short: if we label modern ideas and institutions as ‘Western’ then we deny a lot of African agency – from the Fanti Confederation to today’s activists for fair elections, human rights, and a quality education system. Decolonising and emancipating African societies may be pushed forward more effectively by demands of an economic (e.g. non-exploitation) and political (e.g. a permanent seat in the UN Security Council) kind than by focussing mainly on cultural issues, especially if these are framed in terms of basically colonial conceptual oppositions like ‘the West’ and ‘Africa’. In terms of cultural innovation (music, arts, literature etc. etc.) Africa is already a global power of great influence, and if facilitated economically and politically there is more to come. The key cultural issue is not trying to be African according to any preconceived notion of it, but of unlocking agency of Africans.


Adick, C. (2020) An African contribution to the constitutional right to modern schooling 150 years ago. In: International Review of Education.

Anderson, B. (1983) Imagined Communities. London: Verso

Kaldor, M. (2003) The Idea of Global Civil Society. In: International Affairs. Vol. 79. Pp. 583-593

Taiwo, O. (2010) How Colonialism Preempted Modernity in Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Pieter Boele van Hensbroek

University of Groningen