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Making a Difference/Making of Difference: A Conjunctural Analysis of Development Discourse in São Tomé and Príncipe
Transnational discourses that operate at various scales are especially porous to essentialized notions of difference and the unequal moral geographies they naturalize. Using a conjunctural analysis of development discourse in and about São Tomé and Príncipe (STP), this paper aims to trace the relationship between sociocultural constructions of difference and socioeconomic structures of exclusion in the global development project. STP is an independent archipelago situated off the coast of Central West Africa. Originally uninhabited, African slaves were brought to the island beginning 1485 to work on booming sugar, coffee and cocoa plantations. Since independence in 1975, STP has relied almost exclusively on foreign aid. My paper explores how essentialist development discourse about the islands informs the positionality and collective identity of people living in STP, and how this process impacts the country’s engagement with global economic networks. Using ethnographic evidence from a rural fishing village and from local and foreign development organisations, I show how development discourse constructs STP as a place that is perpetually marginal, and assigns essentialist traits to the islands and their people. In response, Santomeans have re-imagined their society as one that is isolated and insular from global processes, even though they have historically always been incorporated into global networks of capital, labour, culture, and commodities. I argue that this process whereby Santomeans imagine and reproduce their own alterity has an under-appreciated impact on their action and potentiality. I ask how the construction of marginality serves a shifting global political, economic, and social order.