Dr Roy Smith is currently Subject Leader for Global Studies and Course Leader for NTU’s MA in International Development. He is a member of the Advisory Council for the development education NGO Think Global and also a Council member of the Pacific Islands Society of UK and Ireland. He has a particular research interest in small island developing states. This began with his Doctoral research that focused on the Nuclear-Free and Independent Pacific Movement. Dr Smith has subsequently conducted research and written on a diverse array of islands ranging from the Republic of the Marshal Islands, Kiribati and Tuvalu in the Pacific to Unst in the Shetland islands. He is currently undertaking a collaborative project looking at the impacts of climate change on low-lying atoll states with a focus on the tourism sector in the Indian and Pacific oceans.
How did you end up doing the work you do?
I returned to full-time education via an access course as a mature student in the mid-1980s. At that time I was active in the anti-nuclear movement and was interested in finding out more about international security issues. Initially this was a fairly narrow ‘guns and bombs’ approach to strategic studies. As I progressed to postgraduate study, at the University of Southampton, security studies was evolving and broadening as a discipline to encompass environmentalism and identity politics. Although I had approached my study on nuclear issues in the Pacific region from a traditional strategic studies standpoint this quickly developed into a much broader postcolonial study. When I joined NTU this coincided with the launch of a BA (Hons) in International Relations. I taught on and led this course for many years until it was relocated to the School of Social Sciences with a focus more narrowly aligned to international politics. Whilst still maintaining an interest in inter-state relations I now recognize that this state-centric approach is both insufficient and often inappropriate to understand and explain the drivers and impacts of processes of globalisation.
Could you tell me a bit about your current research and teaching interests?
I currently lead an MA in International Development and two final year undergraduate modules entitled ‘Small Islands, Big Issues’ and ‘Conflict and Contemporary Violence’. The MA considers how ‘development’ has been variously understood and approached. This involves looking at the major international institutions such as the World Bank, IMF and WTO. The UN is also considered in the context of the former millennium development goals and ongoing sustainable development goals. Within this broader context themes such as resource depletion and sustainability are discussed. The debate on the efficacy of overseas development assistance is also considered. The Small Islands module is closest to my personal research agenda and allows me to develop a whole module that is research-informed and led.
In what ways does postcolonial studies/the postcolonial speak to these interests?
Having a focus on international development issues clearly involves the postcolonial, plus some ongoing colonial issues. The question of ‘who gets what, when, where and how?’ can often only be adequately explained and understood with reference to how longer-term power relationships have evolved and are being maintained and challenged.
What are the key insights that your field has to offer scholars in other disciplines who work on issues associated with the postcolonial?
Global Studies and Development Studies both relate to and intertwine with the postcolonial. They look at structures and processes that have emerged over time and are constantly evolving. They are broad enough to consider the macro context of political, socio-economic, cultural and environmental structures – whilst also being able to focus down to the level of the individual and their personal circumstances (which in some cases may also extend to non-human species and eco-habitats).
What would you cite as important to ongoing debates in postcolonial studies?
Marshall Salins’ book Stone Age Economics appeared in the early 1970s but remains a classic text with much to say about so-called ‘development’ in the 21st century.
Ron Fricke’s film Baraka (1992) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZSfFHxyYJJA demonstrates that despite some common, homogenising global processes and experiences there remains tremendous diversity across the planet.
More recently Wim Wenders’ Salt of the Earth (2014) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3674140/ documents the work of Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado over a forty year career living among and recording ‘remote’ communities around the world. As with Baraka this film reminds us of the great diversity and complexity of human existence.
Thinking of an ‘experience’ that I can relate to postcolonial studies reminded me of fieldwork research conducted in the Pacific region on the low-lying atoll states of Kiribati and Tuvalu. Both of these territories are at risk of large scale inundation as a result of climate change and associated sea-level rise and storm surges, to the point where it is predicted they could become uninhabitable within only a few years. Walking along a very narrow strip of land with the lagoon on one side and a vast expanse of ocean on the other I was very aware of both the vulnerability of these communities and also the fact that they have very little, if any, agency and control over the processes that are leading to their projected demise. That said there was also a very strong sense of communal identity and a desire to preserve this, even in the face of loss of physical territory. In terms of activist work I still maintain a strong sense of trying to highlight injustices and potential ways in which these might be addressed. There may appear to be a significant difference between my original research agenda investigating the nuclear dimension of Cold War Superpower rivalry and more recent postcolonial concerns with environmental issues and identity politics. In fact there is a common theme as I continue to focus upon communities that may appear geographically ‘remote’ yet are significantly impacted by the interests and motivations of the so-called ‘developed’ states and the capitalist, mass consumerist tendencies of the majority of their citizens.
Interviewed by Sarah Pett, July 2015