What can and should an “outsider” say?

In the aftermath of the election in Ethiopia – elections that resulted in a landslide victory for the ruling EPRDF party – outsiders such as the UK Government or Human Rights Watch are being told, on the one hand, by the EPRDF, to keep their uninformed opinions to themselves, and, on the other, by the opposition parties, and no doubt by citizens in the developed world, to say what they think about the elections/electoral process.

Owen Barder has an interesting post on this, setting out why he says little about Ethiopian politics. In brief, his view is that Ethiopians’ views rather than his should be listened to and that to give more weight to outsiders views is “unconsciously racist”, and that his time is more appropriately spent helping to fix the policies and practices of his own country’s government.

I agree with much of what Owen says in relation to this. First, the idea that citizens of developed countries have a particular responsibility to try to get their own governments to act in ways that are better in terms of development – to address issues that are, in Owen’s words, “properly mine to help fix”. Second, that the ability of outsiders (eg. me, with much worse Amharic than Owen!) to understand Ethiopian politics is limited and therefore our views should not be given very much weight. And I would add, outsiders should not be seeking to impose inappropriate context-insensitive normative models about how things should be.

However I do think that the phrase “properly mine to help fix” (or my “particular responsibility” phrase above) should be unpacked as states and sovereignty are socially and politically constructed. That is, they are not natural givens and one might argue in some instances, and to some extent, that other principles/norms – for instance in relation to human rights, or justice or accountability – trump that of sovereignty (as in the notion of the responsibility to protect, or the universal declaration of human rights).

I also wonder what Owen would make of statements on the electoral process put out by the EU Election Observation Mission or the UK Government. Are they unconsciously racist? Is reading them unconsciously racist? If a Government that provides aid to country X is concerned to ensure and to assure its own citizens that that aid is not supporting a repressive regime, is it reasonable – or unconsciously racist – of that Government to make an assessment of the political system in country X and the impact of aid on that political system (and of the the impact of that political system on the effectiveness of aid)?

And what of calls by groups within Ethiopia for outsiders to be more vocal in their criticisms? Are those calls unconsciously racist, even if those calls are made by Ethiopians who understand the politics very well?

It seems to me that that things are – and should be – more complicated than a simple “outsiders should shut up, should not be listened to, and should concentrate on problems that are properly theirs to fix”.

Globalisation after all does blur the borders between inside and outside. Should people from developing countries who are affected by UK policies on migration, or climate change, shut up too, or are they stakeholders with a legitimate interest/right in saying what they think and seeking cross-border accountability?

Globalisation goes beyond the borders. So too should and do concerns with rights, justice and accountabilities. The challenge is to find the appropriate balance between putting into practice that principle – of global social justice – and the principle of country-ownership/non-interference/not talking about stuff that is not ”properly yours” to talk about or fix.

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