Empires of ‘inclusion’?


In this blog post, Southern Responses’ Research Associate Dr Estella Carpi explores the implications of the concept and process of ‘inclusion’ in relation to South-South Cooperation – understood here as encompassing a wide range of initiatives developed by Southern state and non-state actors in support of individuals, communities and peoples across the global South. Estella’s critique of inclusion as a concept and practice sheds new light on the challenges that the ‘localisation of aid’ agenda needs to face to become more responsive in humanitarian contexts.

This blog was posted on the 30th of July, 2018.

Empires of ‘inclusion’?

By Dr Estella Carpi, Research Associate, Southern Responses to Displacement project.

Other echoes

inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?

Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,

around the corner. Through the first gate,

into our first world, shall we follow?

(T.S. Eliot, from “Burnt Norton”, 1941)


The inclusion of the needy.

The inclusion of the left-behind.

The inclusion of the disabled.

The inclusion of local societies.

The inclusion of local governments. And so forth.


We rightly shout out that exclusion is no longer conceivable in the present era, and yet in several respects, ours is actually the era of inclusions too.

However, we rarely address the fact that rethinking inclusion is as hard as eradicating exclusion.

Frequently used in human rights, humanitarian, and development reports, inclusion is an all-encompassing word, which entails positive intentions and actions. We seldom use expressions like “letting X emerge”, “letting X inform us” or “living along with X”. Instead, we tend to use “including X” to emphasize the positive – and therefore self-entitled – act of enclosing an outside within a centre.

The present 2030 Sustainable Development Goals agenda explicitly aims to emphasise the need to develop (non)governmental strategies of inclusion. Indeed, in today’s philanthropic field (broadly understood), inclusion is one of the most commonly used buzzwords. Upon closer analysis of its etymological roots, we quickly realise that “inclusion” presumes the existence of an established scenario, a scenario that dares to either include or exclude something or someone else. More specifically, “include” comes from the Latin “in + claudere”, meaning “enclosing”, “restricting”, “incorporating” something that would otherwise remain outside.

Wherever we look, we see “outsides” which are tackled in different ways.

Throughout the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, there has been clear evidence of the peoples and the states of the global South having a shared interest in developing forms of mutual collaborations – such longstanding commitments to mutual assistance mean that the exclusion/inclusion mechanisms that have traditionally characterised Northern-led humanitarian responses may operate and be addressed quite differently in and from the South (also see here).

For instance, as Dahi and Velasco recently pointed out, in the decades following World War II, between the 1950s and the late-1980s, South-South trade represented roughly 5-10% of all global trade, but by 2013 that share had risen to 54%. Over the same period, the direction of those exports shifted to other Southern countries. Global South-South financial flows have likewise risen remarkably. This shared interest in mutual collaboration in the Global South, presently championed by Northern actors (which purport to act as facilitators), is also reflected in the so-called “localization agenda” promoted by the international humanitarian apparatus, as endorsed during the 2016 Istanbul World Humanitarian Summit.

Confirming Dahi and Velasco’s findings, Dr Michael Amoah from the London School of Economics, at the “Africa Stories: Changing Perceptions” workshop2 contended that, in its current form, pan-Africanism implies a new material inter-relationality, a new shared political economy rather than an exclusive political ideology. Such political and economic transformations challenge the very nature of Northern-sponsored inclusion trends. Indeed, if we uncritically aim to ‘include,’ we may preserve the key features and relations that underpin the centre, as we incorporate aspects, realities, attitudes, ideas, and individuals, who would otherwise remain “outside”.

In turn, this leads to the question: outside what, more specifically?

Without a critical review of what it means to include we will continue to consider ourselves at the centre. It is against this backdrop, that the above-mentioned principles and proponents of South-South Cooperation emerge as a watchdog and an engine of Southern inter-relations, where only a win-win strategy for both Northern and Southern actors can pave the way for feasible political and economic goals and global stability.

Nowadays, the overall rhetoric of philanthropy is developed, contested, or complemented through the polarized narrative of inclusion-exclusion. In this context, “inclusion” is simply employed as the opposite of “isolation” and “marginalization.”

Importantly, while an official history and a geopolitics of power that exclude and include certainly exist, it remains problematic to assume, and presume, that ‘the excluded’ desire to be included in the centre that remains untouched.

In light of the above, I would argue that we need to reclaim a space that cannot be approached and discussed in terms of outsides and insides, but that, instead, acknowledges the presence and agency of different actors. And, in particular, that acknowledges that this presence and agency has existed long before Northern acknowledgment, interest and mobilisation.

Academic debates that merely re-consign agency to the vulnerable and the disenfranchised are tiring at a time when Southern agency is heralded as a human and an intellectual conquest of the Global North. Instead, a valuable point of departure may instead be acknowledging the existence of the polyphony (the multiplicity of sounds) and respecting what each side suggests: at times participating, at other times acting by oneself.

If this does not take place, the language of exclusion and inclusion risks perpetrating Northern perspectives, which sugarcoat the survival of an intact mainstream culture of development and assistance. Without change, the historical North, dominating imaginations and knowledge production, will remain unchallenged by Southern actors, as well as non-mainstream Northern actors.

Today, inclusion is increasingly spelled out as a desire rather than a mere need. Yet, not all peoples, entities, and spaces desire to be included. The fields of development and assistance provide a blatant example of how not all of the outsides want to be integrated into the centre. Similarly, not all of the outsides wait for the “knowledge factories of the Global North” to grant them the status of those who have been successfully “included” (which, of course, is also a status and position that can be withdrawn at will).

In this sense, the logic and language of inclusion risk being implemented a priori and, as such, may resonate with the imperialistic desire to continue creating and reinforcing Northern-centric realities. In the present years of global immorality towards the vulnerable, little matters if Northern-promoted inclusion is unethical and die-hard. However, introducing the logic and language of active co-existence – which demands that all actors be mutually informed, and which contemplates and acknowledges the multiplicity of sounds, voices and presences -, would at least be an unprecedented act of historical honesty. An act we still need to learn from.

It is in the context of such a multiplicity that the Southern Responses project approaches the concept of “South” as a critical point of departure rather than an exhaustive explanation of how human action has been developing thus far.


1 On the longer history of UNDP’s involvement in promoting South-South cooperation (SSC), and more detailed reflections on SSC in humanitarian settings, see Fiddian-Qasmiyeh’s chapter in the forthcoming Routledge Handbook of South-South Relations (edited by Southern Responses PI Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, and Patricia Daley).

2 The workshop took place on June 12, 2018 at the University College London.


For further reading on the ‘localisation of aid agenda’ please read:

The Localisation of Aid and Southern-led Responses to Displacement: Beyond instrumentalising local actors – In this blog Dr Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh examines a number of questions relating to recent action by international humanitarian actors responding to displacement and the new impetus to localise aid.   

Does Faith-Based Aid Provision always Localise Aid?In this blog post Dr Estella Carpi argues that there is a need to reflect on local contexts to ensure engagement with local faith communities do not rely on essentialising practices that assume certain groups speak on behalf of a homogenous ‘locale.  

Localising Response to Humanitarian Need – In October 2017, Dr Estella Carpi participated in the forum “Localising Response to Humanitarian Need. The Role of religious and Faith-Based Organisations”, in Colombo (Sri Lanka).  In her blog detailing the event Dr Estella Carpi reflects on the sometimes challenging and misunderstood role of localising response to humanitarian need.

Photo credit:  Garden in Beirut, (c) E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2018

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