Relationships of power between global and local knowledge


Louis Bickford

Martín Abregú is vice president for International Programs at the Ford Foundation. As such, he works on designing and implementing a vision for the foundation’s work at the global level, seeking to respond to the global drivers of inequality by bringing new voices and perspectives into the international arena. He works with teams in the US and around the globe, including 10 regional offices and four international programs: Civic Engagement and Government; Gender, Racial, and Ethnic Justice; Natural Resources and Climate Change; and Technology and Society.  

I first met Martín Abregú in Buenos Aires in the late 1990s, when he was the Executive Director of one of the most important human rights organizations in Argentina, the Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS). I was living in Chile at the time, making frequent visits to Buenos Aires, developing a regional grantmaking initiative on historical memory as a consultant for the Ford Foundation’s Santiago office. Over coffee at one of Buenos Aires’ famed confiterias, or during lunch or dinner at one of the city’s many restaurants, or in his office at CELS, we talked endlessly about the challenges of dealing with the past. Shortly after that time, Martín moved to the Ford Foundation, where he continues to work today, and I left Chile to work and teach elsewhere, but we have stayed in touch. I interviewed him for this project on July 2nd, 2020.  

Martín is now the Vice-President for International Programs at the Ford Foundation. I asked him if he thought transitional justice remains relevant in today’s world. There are, he said, at least three ways to think about transitional justice.

Transitional justice from three distinct perspectives

First, transitional justice originally emerged as a way to deal with a very specific challenge: how to build a post-authoritarian society in the aftermath of dictatorship and how to guarantee that authoritarian rule would “never again” become the system of governance in countries like Argentina. In this sense, transitional justice can be seen quite narrowly, as a set of strategies to confront precisely this problem in similar situations. This may continue to be relevant in the 2020s, but only in contexts in which similar conditions obtain, such as the ending of autocratic regimes.

Second, transitional justice has raised complex questions of social memory: how societies “remember” a troubled past. From this angle, transitional justice has been a part of a larger global movement to provoke a rethinking of how societies narrate the story of their past in ways that help build rights-respecting societies in the future. Although this is extremely relevant in today’s context, when statues and monuments are being torn down around the world, Martín points out that we need to understand these processes better, including how a focus on narrative construction can genuinely lead to positive results.

Third, and perhaps most provocatively, transitional justice has been a vital part of a conversation about confronting and shifting the deep and enduring legacies of past injustice, especially in terms of the foundations of structural inequality and racism in many societies. This may be the way in which transitional justice is most relevant today, although I would add that this may be also be one of the least developed areas in the field, one of the areas that most needs to be strengthened and developed to meet the needs of the current context. For Martín, what we are seeing in the United States is clear call for understanding the historical and structural roots of inequality that still resonate today, especially in patterns of police violence. In this regard, transitional justice has much to offer, and Martín sees the field continuing to play an exciting role in the future.

Global and local knowledge: the importance of listening to each other 

Martín and I also discussed a different topic: the appropriate role of comparative global expertise, often transported and shared across borders by experts employed by international organizations. Transitional Justice is somewhat known for this kind of comparative expertise. On the one hand, as the Chilean scholar Jose Zalaquett often remarked, the field is characterized by the “horizontal” sharing of ideas across countries in the global south (e.g. from Argentina, to Chile, to South Africa, to Timor-Leste, etc.) and thus can be seen as a “south-south” movement. On the other hand, the field quickly began to develop comparative expertise that was frequently assembled and diffused by universities and NGOs (including the International Center for Transitional Justice), often based on the North. Other essays in this blog series also highlight this dynamic, including the interviews with Aaron Weah, Nomfundo Mogapi, and the VivaVoz fellows.

For Martín , the core issue is about relationships of power between global and local knowledge and the experts associated with each. He directs our attention to “the division of power, or the division of labor between local people and global experts”. He adds that “the central issue there is you need to be able to bring that international experience, in the sense that people have a lot of knowledge based on their work in other places. And that is great. And everyone can benefit from knowing more about that. But at the same time, you definitively need to make enough space to understand the local context. And because global experts know more about the tools and about the local context, they tend to focus on what they know, and that is fine. But then local people know more about the local context and less about the tools, and they also focus on what they know. So at the end of the day, it ends up being about who has more power”. To make matters worse, too frequently, “Local experts are not interested in listening to global experts, and global experts are not really interested [in listening to local experts]. Each of them is focusing on what they know ... The problem is that none of them is really listening to learn”.

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Martín Abregú

Issue: Radical Critical

Transitional Justice is a professionalised and internationally accepted policy field. But do its implicit and explicit foundations still hold good? Which of its underlying assumptions, patterns of thinking or practices should be critically reviewed?

Guest moderator

Louis Bickford, CEO,

Louis Bickford, PhD, has been working in the transitional Justice field since 1994 with institutions such as the Ford Foundation; the University of Wisconsin, Madison; the International Center for Transitional Justice; and the United Nations, as well as various other foundations and international organizations and has published widely on transitional justice, memory, and human rights. He is the founder and CEO of Memria.Org and an Adjunct Professor at Columbia University and New York University.

This blog series examines the field of transitional justice through a critical lens, asking challenging questions and exploring ways in which it is relevant today. Through a small number of carefully-selected interviews, the series intends to provoke debate within the field and help lead to innovation and adaptation.


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