Localism: From Fashionable Discourse to Political Reconstruction

Localism: From Fashionable Discourse to Political Reconstruction

In 2001, Unicef estimated that, 60% of city dwellers in Africa live in slum conditions (Unicef, 2001), meaning, the “poorest quality housing, the most unsanitary conditions; a refuge for marginal activities including crime, ‘vice’ and drug abuse; a likely source for many epidemics that ravaged urban areas; a place apart from all that was decent and wholesome” (UN-Habitat, 2007). For M. Davis (2004), slums are ‘an inherent product of globalization, a side-effect of silicon capitalism’s capacity to increase productivity at the same time as it decreases employment’. African slums, as the main urban population container, arguably materialize the caricature of the plethora of political and socio-economic development challenges faced by the continent. In this article, I aim to explore the concept of “localism” and its pertinence in sustainable development discourse within the African context.

With the failure of mainstream reductionist top-down approaches to development, it is now theoretically and empirically accredited that local capacity should constitute a sine qua non conditionality for the success of development initiatives (Escobar, 1995; Chambers, 1983). This postmodern and postcolonial postulate of a locally owned development has detonated majestic pre-established western boundaries and unlocked a far-reaching realm of new untouched perspectives. As such, localism’s exotic streamer is being intensively hoisted in forefront of developmentalism’s exhausting and fetishist quest for “sustainability” (Peet & Hartwiick, 2009). As Briggs (2005) brilliantly puts it, this local-oriented philosophy in development has become “a mantra of sorts, representing one possible way of negotiating the so-called ‘development impasse’, or, indeed, the ‘death of development’” (2005, p.3). This far-reaching recognition is also enshrined in the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity (Convention on Biological Diversity, 1992) which requests to consider and respect Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) as an integral part of development agendas. Besides the ecological aspect, culture and language preservation constitutes another territoriality delineated in promoting what is local. Yet, for the knowledge-carriers, the language-speakers, the culture-preservers, that is, the embodied local development selves, more community-driven initiatives – mostly designed and funded by outsiders – have been enacted to establish them as the “primary” “shaper” of a genuinely transformative social fabric (Stiglitz, 2002)  .

Paradoxically, while the community is continuously erected, the state is asymmetrically disempowered through ongoing restrictive and reductive neoliberal policies auctioned by international institutions. D. Harvey’s thought-provoking book “The New Imperialism” (2003) rightfully castigates decades of aggressive neoliberal policies as one the main driver of the proliferation of poverty in developing countries. A brief overview of a postcolonial African political economy powerfully reveals that since the early 1970s, many states in the third world have been forced to suspend their subventions in agriculture related activities, reduce social contributions, and minimize their internal regulations in favor of programs such as the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAP’s) or privatization. The results have been massive exodus of populations from deprived rural areas to poorly-equipped urban cities where overwhelmed states had few solutions to offer.

The complex political economic web created by globalization has unquestionably entangled states’ maneuverability puzzles. Pieterse (2009) rightfully points out that in the context of globalization and regionalization, the state, as a “conventional agent of development, is being overtaken by the role of international institutions and market forces” (2009, p.1). Indeed developing countries with less competitive technologies and reduced capabilities struggle to adjust their economies in the continuum of hegemony and counter hegemony played by powerful transnational corporations. The very transformations of a remapped economic order have nurtured serious questions about the power, aptitude, and will of states to meet citizens’ needs. Redefining or reshaping African states’ role therefore appears as a fundamental cornerstone to entrench for sustainable development designs. (Dicken, 2011; Stiglitz, 2002)

Localism has become the subject of flourishing literature especially in the quest of new development trajectories, but still, only a few aspects of it are currently advocated in development agendas. As a political philosophy, localism proposes innovative solutions as the rescaling of the world economy and the unleashing of smaller-sale of business as opposed to a globalized capitalist system, producer of overwhelming social inequity and environmental injustice. It prioritizes local production and consumption of goods, local history, local culture and local identity. Localism also posits that an efficient development model would arise with states as active actors. While it is acknowledged that substantive efforts have been made to recognize the importance of a locally-owned development, the paradigm shift should go far beyond the now fashionable discourse of bottom up approach to reach such levels as political economy restructuration or society governance reorientation. For future African leaders, localism theories offer a new horizon to explore and invites at reinvestigating the epistemology and ontology in the cultural, historical, organizational heritage that can provide emulative, affordable and appropriate solutions.



Briggs, J. (2005). The Use of Indigenous Knowledge in Development: Problems and challenges, Progress in Development Studies, 5, pp. 99-114.

Card, P., & Mudd, J. (2006). The Role of Housing Stock Transfer Organizations in Neighborhood Regeneration: Exploring the Relationship between Regeneration, ‘New Localism’ and Social Networks. Housing Studies, 21(2), 253-267. doi:10.1080/02673030500484877

Chambers, R. (1983). Rural Development: Putting the Last First, Harlow: Longman

David Harvey (2003). The New Imperialism. (Oxford University Press,), ISBN 0-19-927808-Mike Davis (2004). Planet of Slums.

Dicken, P.( 2011). Global Shift: Mapping the Changing Contours of the World Economy, New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Escobar, A. (1995). Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Joseph Stiglitz (2002), Globalization and Its Discontents (New York: Norton: 0393051242)

Peet, R, and Hartwick, E. (2009). Theories of Development: contentions, arguments, alternatives. New York, NY: Routledge.

Pieterse (2009). Theory of development: deconstructions/ Reconstructions. (2nd ed.).

Unicef (2011). Children in an Urban World. Retrieved from http://www.unicef.org/sowc/files/SOWC_2012-Main_Report_EN_21Dec2011.pdf.

UN Habitat (2007). Retrieved from http://www.unhabitat.org/downloads/docs/Press_SG_visit_Kibera07/SG%2013.pdf


Emmanuelle Adjima

Emmanuelle Adjima Assy is a second year graduate student in International Development Studies at Ohio University. Her focus is on Environment and Sustainability. She hopes to pursue a PhD in Urban Sociology after her master’s degree. Besides the academic world, she likes swimming and outdoor activities.

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