We hereby present to you the master thesis of Fiona Faye, submitted in 2021 to gain the degree ‘M.A. Global Political Economy and Development’, published in 2023, at the University of Kassel. We share the abstract, introduction and conclusion here but yan can find the whole work freely accessible at https://kobra.uni-kassel.de/handle/123456789/14645
The Thomas Sankara website’s team.

Painting of Thomas Sankara by the Beninese artist Youss Atacora, included with his kind permission

Thomas Sankara, one of the most celebrated African idols, was president of Burkina Faso from 1983 until his assassination in 1987. The politics he realized with his government were vanguard in more than one regard: The country’s feminist politics queried patriarchy by promoting equal rights and duties for women and men in several different domains; along with the country’s citizens, migrants could participate in policy-making and thereby shape politics; redistribution was made a political goal aspiring to overcome class differences; protectionist economic policies led the country to food sovereignty and many more impressive projects were realized at the time. In a nutshell, the overall goal of the revolution was the pursuit of an endogenous African way of a good and dignified life. Thinking Thomas Sankara’s vision and politics together with Post-Development theory, the author explores whether Burkina Faso at that time can be considered an alternative to “development” and then likewise a post-developmental state. As a novel concept, the latter is extensively discussed and operationalized by the author, before being applied on concrete different policy fields of the case study. The research strives after understanding the potential transformation Post-Development could achieve on a state level, while simultaneously cautioning against along-going risks.

For reading the main part, just follow this link: https://kobra.uni-kassel.de/handle/123456789/14645


Thomas Sankara is one of the most celebrated African idols. You will inevitably see his face in arts or hear his name when meeting politically interested people on the African continent and beyond.[1] Even more than thirty years after his death, he still inspires African youth and activism. The memory of his acts survived a period of 27 years after his assassination, although his successor erased any attempts to commemorate him or even to teach about him in Burkinabè schools (Ouedraogo 2017, pp. 8). Sankara managed to achieve what some African presidents have tried before him, after the formal independences, though with limited success: a radical break with colonialism. More than that, he brought about alternative ways, striving after a good life for all and a “new societal project, free from any form of exploitation and oppression” (Sankara 1987a, p. 199, translated by myself (tbm)). Different contemporary African social movements refer to his politics and life, most prominently the Balai Citoyen. This Burkinabè social movement spearheaded the popular uprising in Burkina Faso in 2014, which chased away Sankara’s successor, the dictator Blaise Compaoré (Soré 2018, p. 225).

The Post-Development texts considered “classical” originate from the second half of the 1980s and the beginning of the 90s, which leads Klapeer (2016) to interpret them as a response to the so-called lost “development” decade of the 80s (pp. 125) including the years of Sankara’s presidency (1983-87). Post-Development is the most radical critique of the practice, the discourse and the politics of “development”. According to Aram Ziai (2004a), we can speak of a Post-Development school, which unites different scholars with a range of slightly different approaches (p. 169). They have in common the radical rejection of the very idea of “development” instead of only seeking to reform it (Ziai 2001, p. 1). Consequently, Post-Development (PD) calls us to search for alternatives to “development” (Escobar 2011, p. 218).

Arturo Escobar (2011) highlights local grassroots movements as promising actors for creating such alternatives to “development” (ibid.). They are supposed to have the best conditions for realizing self-determination instead of imposed “development” (Ziai 2001, pp. 11; Ziai 2004a, p. 192). However, Julia Schöneberg (2016) underlines that “the mere fulfilment of this factor does not necessarily lead to structural contestations of development […]” (p. 205). As a corollary, if self-determination alone does not necessarily lead us to a post-developmental future, the need of a normative PD framework beyond mere self-determination arises. According to Schöneberg (2016), Post-Development theory is “generally dismissed as lacking practical potential” (p. 201). Are grassroots initiatives really the ones who are going to change the global system of hegemony, capitalism and “development”? She stresses that the search for practical alternatives to “development” should touch on various practical fields including politics, the economy, and knowledge (p. 206). This point of view encouraged me to follow up on my idea and explore potential areas where Post-Development could achieve transformation on a state level.  However, the aim of my master thesis is not to discuss if the nation-state is indeed the best way to organise a society, but rather to take into account that nation-states are a reality we live in, a reality which does not seem to be overcome easily at least in the short-term. So, let us explore together if PD could also flourish on the level of nation-states.

The failed-state literature as well as the literature on neopatrimonialism look at African states and only see dysfunctions (Niang 2018, p. 195). In contrast to that, my research expects to shed light on an inspiring practical experience of an African state, Burkina Faso under the presidency of Thomas Sankara. I assume it has the potential to offer many lessons for states with post-developmental ambitions in the global North and South. Through analysing revolutionary Burkina Faso[2] as a potential PD state, my thesis intends to address a striking research gap in Post-Development literature. Indeed, alternatives to “development” were rarely tried to be explored on a different level than the local, grass-roots level. Exceptions of analyses of states through Post-Development lenses are analyses of Ecuador and Bolivia whose constitutions integrated values from the respective indigenous communities, so-called elements of Sumak Kawsay, Buen Vivir, etc., in 2008/09 (Acosta 2016, p. 4). In view of the fact that there is so little research on states as alternatives to “development” yet, we deal with an under-explored field of research. Acosta underlines the importance of distinguishing between the official state propaganda on Buen Vivir and the implemented policies, which de facto often led to the expansion of capitalism and an intensification of state power (ibid.). This concern inspired me to combine an analysis of both the official discourse and the implemented policies of Burkina Faso under Thomas Sankara (1983-87). While some scholars consider Burkina Faso at the time an “African socialist[3] inspired alternative to neoliberalism” (Jackson 2018, p. 116), I assume it to be also an alternative to “development”. At that time, it must be mentioned that many labels have been put on Sankara’s policies, but he neither published written work on his political ideology or action plans (Botchway & Traore 2018, p. 31), nor did he label the politics and ideology of his government in terms of a particular category (p. 29)[4]. However, many scholars and activists use a new category, ‘Sankarism’ or ‘Sankaraism’, for highlighting the uniqueness of Sankara’s political philosophy and politics (Murrey 2018a, p. 10; Botchway & Traore 2018, p. 23). With this work, I do not aspire to assign a new label to Sankara’s political philosophy and economy, but rather to make sense out of it through Post-Development lenses. Thinking Thomas Sankara’s vision and politics and Post-Development together, my research question thus is to explore whether Burkina Faso under the presidency of Thomas Sankara can be considered an alternative to “development” and then likewise a post-developmental state. From a feminist PD perspective, my work hopes to provide an additional, modest contribution to overcome the widespread blind spot of gender relations within PD theory as diagnosed by Ziai (2007b, pp. 231). Moreover, a post-colonial political economy perspective on PD strives after taking processes of material impoverishment seriously, thereby taking critiques on PD into account (cf. Kiely 1999, p. 46).

The ensuing part of my thesis (ch. 2) lays the ground for the analysis by the introduction of relevant theoretical concepts, debates and my methodology. First of all, I shed light on my understandings of “development” “aid” and state-led (post-)development (ch. 2.1). Then, I discuss the ‘self-determination dilemma’ and normative boundaries in PD theory (ch. 2.2) and provide a PD literature review on the topic of the state (ch. 2.3). Starting from this literature review and in order to operationalize an alternative to “development” on a state-level, I have decided to take the normative orientations of a PD society as formulated by N’Dione et al. (1997) as a basis and further expand these (ch. 2.3). The methodology section covers the applied method of qualitative content analysis as well as my understanding of knowledge, thus including this thesis, as ‘situated knowledge’ drawing from an intersectional[5] feminist perspective (ch. 2.4). In chapter three follows the main analysis of both Sankara’s speeches as well as of his government’s actions. It is ordered according to the characteristics of a PD state as elaborated in chapter 2.3: national self-determination politics (ch. 3.1), popular self-determination politics (ch. 3.2), inclusion and redistribution politics (ch. 3.3). The last chapter condenses Sankara’s main arguments for the rejection of “development” (ch. 4.1), the alternative, (post-)developmental policies offered by his government (ch. 4.2), and where tensions with ideas of Post-Development theory lie (ch. 4.3). In the end, I point to some of the specific potentials and dangers of a PD state and undertake some first steps to situate it as an actor to bring about a post-developmental world (ch. 4.4). Yet, in the end, we have to acknowledge that there are “no blueprints valid for all times and places” (Kothari et al. 2019, pp. xxix), which is certainly also valid for a PD state – but still, I am convinced that we can learn from the multifaceted experience of revolutionary Burkina Faso.

[1] I found documentaries about Sankara in Kiswahili, Amharic, Wolof, Portuguese, French, Spanish, English and a number of other languages I could unfortunately not identify – a clear sign that his story is widely spread.

[2] With the term “revolutionary Burkina Faso” in this paper, I refer to Burkina Faso under Sankara’s presidency (1983-87) without claiming that this was the only revolutionary phase.

[3] “African Socialism […] claimed to draw on communitarian, humanist and socialist values in African traditions without strictly adhering to and following the classical and doctrinaire model of scientific socialism (Marxism) from Europe” (Botchway & Traore 2018, p. 27).

[4] Many scholars have concluded that Sankara’s ideology and politics were influenced by Pan-Africanism, African Socialisms including Nkrumahism, nationalism (Botchway & Traore 2018, p. 30), anti-neo-colonialism (p. 32), anti-imperialism and other socialisms including forms of Marxism (p. 21) from which he eclectically drew inspirations for his pragmatic and locally adapted policies (p. 32). Yet, Sankara called it a Eurocentric practice to try to “uncover spiritual fathers for Third World leaders” (Genève Afrique in Phelan 2018, p. 66), which is I why I want to restrain myself in this regard.

[5] ‘Intersectionality’ is a concept developed by the Afro-American feminist legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw and originates in anti-racist feminist theory (Carastathis 2014, pp. 304). It emphasizes that the intersection of different kinds of discriminations leads to unique experiences and thus brings up the need for multidimensional analyses taking all kinds of intersecting systems of oppression into account (ibid.).



From my partial perspective of situated knowledge based on what I could ‘see’ when reading, watching and listening to the corpus of knowledge I drew from for this thesis, I can only draw tentative conclusions. As PD scholars, the patriarchal, neo-colonial, capitalist state is certainly part of our concept of the enemy, yet analysing the case of revolutionary Burkina Faso (1983-87) has shown that the idea of a benevolent Post-Development state geared towards serving the interests of the masses instead of serving a politico-economic elite is not utopic. The CNR aimed at radically transforming the state and at overcoming its neo-colonial, patriarchal and capitalist features and can demonstrate impressive successes in this regard. In this conclusion, I intend to provide an answer to my research question, whether Burkina Faso under the presidency of Thomas Sankara can be considered a Post-Developmental state. First of all, the CNR radically rejected “development” “aid” and neoliberal “development” policies by refusing both IMF assistance and the SAPs, by refraining from applying neo-liberal growth-promising trade policies, by demanding an unconditional debt cancellation and by announcing the plan to abolish “development” “aid” once and for all in the long-term. In order to assess the offered alternatives to “development” within the CNR’s discourse and politics, I worked with the normative orientations of a PD society as suggested by N’Dione et al. (1997), which I slightly extended and complemented with the notion of the normative boundaries of PD as elaborated on extensively by Mies & Shiva (1993). Instead of relying on “aid” from abroad, the CNR’s post-developmental politics comprised domestic resource creation for more financial autonomy, protectionist food sovereignty politics complemented by the promotion of agroecological methods and subsistence farming, the special promotion and inclusion of the underprivileged as equal members of the society, avant-gardist feminist politics in many different domains and impressive tree-planting projects to halt desertification. With a focus on local production and consumption with fair prices, the CNR installed a system aiming at a solidary instead of an imperial mode of living, in respect of the post-developmental normative boundaries of self-determination. Notably, the CNR’s (national) post-developmental politics were even inclusive beyond state boundaries because of South-South solidarity and because non-nationals could become normal members of the CDRs and thereby participate in politics. Thus, the CNR broke with nationalist ideas of segregation and enclosures. Yet, the end result of my assessment through PD lenses is mixed, as the government can be reproached for a too authoritarian style, e.g. concerning its coming to power via a coup d’état, its top-down way of educating the people and above all its oppressive and in some cases very violent dealing with dissidents. From a socio-ecological perspective, the extraction of gold as well as the initial and later corrected moves to modernise agriculture via the use of pesticides remain questionable, too.

Until this point, the interpretative assessment for and against a PD alternative seemed rather clear to me. But let us come to the more complex core of the PD state debate. The Burkinabè model of ‘Democratic Centralism’ was a hybrid of a grassroots democracy happening through the CDRs and the UFB and a representative democracy, where the CNR credibly tried to design politics in the interests of the masses – and from my subjective perspective obviously did so better than most elected governments. After seizing power, Sankara and his government promised to have the people steer the state. Yet indeed, the four years’ experience of revolutionary Burkina Faso has shown that even if the CNR pursued ways of decentralizing and partially democratising power via the CDRs, their nation-state remained a hierarchical and paternalistic construct: Especially when it comes to politics on the macro-level, the CNR often decided for the people and their assumed best and thus took the steering “expert”-role harshly criticised in PD when it comes to “development” “experts”.  However, today’s political economy gets more and more complex. We cannot expect each and everyone in this world – and not a few of us busy with surviving – to spend our time designing post-developmental macro-politics or making an effort to restructure and democratize the institutional world order. As a result, my own pledge would be that, above all in politics on the macro-level, we cannot avoid relying on people we trust to assume the role of a politician and translate diverse local needs into national and international politics. To make it more concrete, the consultation of the people’s needs, which often but not consistently happened under the CNR, together with an orientation towards these needs would be a decisive pre-condition for post-developmental politics in the sense of societal self-determination. Where it happened under the CNR, the example of ‘deep’ participation on the grassroots-level illustrates how the state can support people to define their collective needs and visions. This is necessary both for the politicians’ tasks of translating needs into politics as well as for the people themselves so that they can also design and implement local solutions independent from a centralized authority. While democratic procedures and a certain autonomy were introduced on the grassroots level, the government acted as a last instance to ensure that the decisions taken by the people adhered to the broader revolutionary (post-)developmental goal of an endogenous “African” way of a good and dignified life. While this could have been a great potential in regards of securing the respect of normative boundaries, it has to be criticized that under Sankara, the right to resistance including the right to build forms of opposition was unfortunately undermined. Learning from the shortcomings of my case study, I insist that people need to be able to hold their government accountable to avoid abuses of power, so that concrete procedures for controlling the government have to be created.

In contrast to anarchistic PD scholars, I argue that any alternative to “development”, to be called as such, needs to respect certain normative boundaries beyond mere self-determination. Further reflection is needed to figure out where the right balance for a PD state lies between granting autonomy and top-down regulations. I think that the autonomy of the grassroots should be granted as far as possible and only get restrained by the big lines of normative boundaries and thus where the principle of living in harmony with nature and people implying the prevention of discrimination, oppression and exploitation is harmed. If we consider such normative limits, by way of illustration the prevention of a deterioration of the climate crisis as a normative boundary to be protected, as indispensable, we have to deal with the tension that a certain disciplining necessary for protecting these boundaries brings along. This tension with PD thoughts consists of the idea “to know better”, which can be criticised as paternalism. Or, don’t we think that we maybe just really know better in some regards, if honest to ourselves? Otherwise, we PD scholars would not have proposed normative PD criteria anyway, right? Evidently, there are some paradoxes inherent in PD theory, which emphasizes horizontality of knowledge while simultaneously proposing a catalogue of normative criteria. As far as I know, the uncomfortable question of how to defend the normative boundaries we want to protect has been avoided in PD debates so far. Even if the design of mechanisms of control with as little disciplining as possible remains a big challenge, a post-developmental state, demilitarized and without prisons as dreamed by Sankara and without police violence[1] as we should have learned from the Black Lives Matter movement, could be one answer to this dilemma, if elaborated further.

On top of protecting the normative boundaries of PD, the second principal role of a PD state is to create the necessary political frame conditions for grassroots self-determination. In the case of revolutionary Burkina Faso these consisted of redistribution mechanisms such as the land reform, the provision of public goods, protectionist trade policies, a democratization of enterprises and the promotion of equal rights independent of gender, ethnicity or class. The normative orientations of redistribution and inclusion can thus be seen as constituent part of the frame conditions for realizing self-determination. Political education was promoted as one public service in order to provide spaces for the Burkinabè citizens to get conscious of the impact of colonialism, patriarchy and other forms of dominion on their thinking and acting. Such a decolonisation and depatriarchalization of the minds was seen as a pre-condition to free the way to emancipation. Inclusion was thus strived after beyond formally granting equal rights, but was also aspired to achieve via a process of education. I am convinced that in times of a multi-facetted crisis, political education if constructed in a critical way of knowledge exchange can help us to get ready to take on responsibility and contribute to steering our society into a better future. Concerning the realization of equal rights as a frame condition for self-determination, (post-)developmental Burkina Faso succeeded to achieve greater equality among people – which is laudable from a feminist intersectional perspective – although it could not bring about total equality without abolishing itself as a state. Yet, struggles for a good life for all are never without contradictions (Ziai 2015, p. 849), no matter if on the grassroots or on the state level.

From this analysis, I conclude that revolutionary Burkina Faso followed the vision of a self-determined (national) (post-)development, with the ‘post-‘ in brackets because 1. it is no self-description, thus the brackets. Instead, Sankara subversively appropriated the term “development” and gave it a different meaning in line with (many) PD thoughts, which gets marked by the ‘post-’; 2. “developmental” and post-developmental politics are no mutually exclusive categories, but can partially overlap, e.g. in the promotion of women, despite striving after different societal goals in the overall. This hybridity of certain politics is taken into account through the brackets; and 3. As the picture remains mixed, with some authoritarian sides of the regime, there is an additional reason to keep the ‘post-‘ in brackets, in order to mark the tensions of this empirical alternative to “development” with PD theory.

Finally, I do perceive the whole project of Burkina Faso under the presidency of Thomas Sankara as a courageous trial to build a PD state. Sankara’s PD answer to problematizing “development” practice as neo-colonial and depoliticising consisted of a self-determined (national) (post-)development with the aim of an endogenous “African” (or rather Burkinabè) way of a good and dignified life for all. After scrutinising my case study, I argue that we should consider the (post-)developmental state as a temporary bridge, similar to a women’s quota, to achieve more equality and, more broadly speaking, to get closer to a post-developmental future, until one day, it might be superfluous. Making mistakes is human, so failures of politics, which inspire us should not disillusion us too much, but rather encourage us to try ourselves and do better. In this sense, I wrote this paper to provide us with imperfect, but courageous inspirations to create another, post-developmental world in times of a manifold and undeniable crisis. Together, we can radically alter North-South relations, gender relations, human-nature relations, state-people relations and human relations in a broader sense. This one epic quote of Sankara concerning our collective task cannot be said too often: “We must dare to invent the future” (in Murrey 2018a, p. 11). For this to happen, I would like to make a pledge towards us PD scholars to think beyond small-scale local communities as alternatives to “development” and to integrate a more global, critical political economy perspective into our post-development thinking. This can allow us to think bigger, to think transnational relations differently and to tackle system immanent asymmetries of power. I would like to situate Post-Developmental states as powerful actors who have the best potential to offer political solutions to “developmental” problems like poverty by an internal redistribution and beyond have good potential to challenge neo-colonial North-South relationships and thereby global inequalities together with civil society actors. We need to think of alternatives to our unfair international trading system and alternative, just and more radical redistribution mechanisms than “development” cooperation, such as reparations for slavery, colonialism, the causing of the climate crisis, and the granting of the right to freedom of movement for all. Last but not least, (post-)development finance appears to be a field deserving further research because only autonomy in finance can allow Post-Development states, whose self-determination and political leeway will become compromised otherwise, to do radically different politics.

[1] excluding self-defence and preventing bigger harm


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