Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Recognising Hope: US Global Development Discourse and the Promise of Despair

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Recognising Hope: US Global Development Discourse and the Promise of Despair

Article excerpt


Practices of global development have been critiqued for reproducing a notion of the suffering poor as bare life; passive, despairing and devoid of both hope and potentiality. In contrast, this article treats the experience of hope not as external to the governance of underdeveloped life but as a biopolitical technology central to its formation. Reading US President Obama's call to recognise underdeveloped life as inherently hopeful and potential, this article analyses the biopolitics of development at the moment when the separation between lives on the basis of its capacity for hope is explicitly banished. Emerging from this reading is a troubling paradox, one in which hope and despair enter a zone of indistinction. Encouraged to embody this indistinction, it is argued, is a bare and hopeful form of neoliberal life, a potential yet not sovereign being. Hopeful, but without the capacity to conceive of or to act towards a different future.


Agamben, bare life, biopolitics, potentiality, development, Obama


Known as Obama-mania, the election of Barack Obama in 2008 evoked expectations of an empathie transnational solidarity (Pedwell, 2012: 282), heralding, according to one commentator, a world freed from the legacy of US exceptionalism (Stephanson, 2009). Nowhere was this hope more evident than across Africa (Lyman and Robinette, 2009), where Obama's biography--a personal history employed in his 2009 speech at the Ghanaian parliament to retell the legacy of colonialism and exploitation long suffered by Africa (Hernandez-Guerra, 2012: 99, 102-103)--was taken as evidence of radical change. Many among the global poor perceived Obama as a true representative, as having the 'blood of an African in him' (Zimmerman, 2009). Given these expectations, the real promise represented by the Obama administration's attention to global development was arguably not limited to an operative reformation of USAID, such as that promised by the 2010 US Global Development Policy, but nothing short than the final abandonment of the postcolonial relations and exclusions that has continued to condition the production of underdevelopment (McEwan, 2009). (1) This article takes this promise--and its use of hope (2) --as its object of study, analysing its proclaimed abandonment of a central figure of modernist development discourse and biopolitics, namely a perception of underdeveloped life as suffering in passivity and despair, reduced to what Giorgio Agamben has described as bare life (1998). According to Agamben, this figure, 'known to afford no hope' (2000: 31), now finds as one of its 'most telling' expressions 'the "imploring eyes" of the Rwandan child, whose photograph is shown to make money' (1998: 133-134). An image that Agamben claims that 'humanitarian organizations, in perfect symmetry with state power, need' (1998).

Throughout his presidency, Obama continuously urged the global development community to cease its dependence on this figure and instead recognise the struggle and drive concealed by it; what Obama famously has referred to as the 'audacious capacity to hope' (2006), the vibrant 'talent and energy and hope' (2009a) he claims is inherent in human life, including the global poor. Billions of people now recognised by Obama to embody the potential to change the world 'from the bottom-up' (2009a). As such, hope is arguably removed from the historical hold the concept of the gift has maintained on discourses of development, to a grammar of recognition. Obama's insistence thus echoes a long standing critique formulated against the global development apparatus--according to which underdeveloped life is objectified 'as a passive recipient of the gift [...], unable to make a contribution to visions of the future' (Zehfuss, 2012: 869)--as well as against Agamben's 'nihilistic view of history' (Nielson, 2004: 68), which hold the concept of bare life to be complicit in rendering the agency and political potential of excluded life invisible. …

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