Reparations rather than aid

Recognising the damage caused by colonialism may enable a rethink of ongoing colonial and imperial aspirations


Syed Mohammad Ali January 07, 2016
The writer holds a PhD from the University of Melbourne and is the author of Development, Poverty and Power in Pakistan, available from Routledge

Conspiracy theorists who are always finger-pointing at the West for all maladies afflicting the developing world can be readily brushed aside for presenting simplistic world views or failing to recognise domestic failings within countries, which have been declared independent sovereign states for several decades. However, it is equally unfair to ignore colonial legacy and the persistent negative implications of this damaging legacy, which continue to manifest themselves today in the form of glaring deprivations and disparities across most so-called developing countries.

Yet, the mainstream rhetoric of international development agencies hardly acknowledges the problem of colonialism, and instead seems to suggest that developing countries are poor because of their own internal problems, while Western countries are prosperous due to hard work and adherence to the right values and policies. This liner approach to development suggests that developing countries need to make more effort to catch up with developed countries, which can thus project themselves as providing generous support in the form of technical and financial aid to help poorer and less developed nations improve their lot.

History though has quite a different tale to tell. The European encounter with the developing world was hardly responsible for bringing civilisation to the as-yet uncivilised world. A UK-based anthropologist, in a recent article in The Guardian, has convincingly argued that Europe didn’t develop the colonies, and that it was the colonies instead, which developed Europe. Consider, for instance, how Europeans subjected indigenous populations from across their colonies to work in mines and on plantations. Europeans extracted an estimated 222 million hours of forced labour from African slaves between 1619 and 1865 alone. Valued at the current US minimum wage, with a modest rate of interest, that’s worth $97 trillion, which is more than the entire global GDP. By the early 1800s, a total of 100 million kg of silver was extracted from South America and pumped into the European economy, providing a significant proportion of the capital for the industrial revolution. Colonial rule over India undermined traditional subsistence practices to make way for cash crops for export to Europe. Under British rule, up to 29 million Indians died of famine during the last few decades of the 19th century. To transform India into a captive market for British goods, India’s impressive indigenous industries were destroyed. Before the British arrived, India commanded 27 per cent of the world economy, and by the time they left, India’s share had gone down to merely three per cent. A similar fate was in store for China after the Opium Wars, when Britain forced it to open its borders to British goods on unequal terms.

These snippets from historical research reveal the highly manipulative nature of colonialism. Subsequent scholarship by dependency theorists, or even post-colonial thinkers, argues that we still reside in an evolving economic system that has been designed over hundreds of years to enrich a small portion of humanity at the expense of the vast majority. Through this historical lens, the narrative and rhetoric employed by international development agencies seems rather superficial, if not outright ridiculous. Yet, acknowledging the colonial legacy could open up difficult questions about the need for reparations made to colonised countries to compensate them for centuries of subjugation and exploitation. This reparations argument is based on the assertion that poverty in the global south is not a natural phenomenon, but has been actively created. Right now, over a dozen Caribbean nations are in the process of suing Britain for slavery reparations. What will become of this legal battle remains to be seen. It would be difficult to put a price on the suffering wrought by colonialism, and there is perhaps not enough money in the world to compensate for the damage it inflicted.

However, even paying a symbolic amount of reparations to the colonised world would at least help alter the existing perception of international aid being provided to poor developing countries as an act of magnanimity rather than an obligation of their former colonial rulers. Even more significantly, recognising the damage caused by colonialism may enable a rethink of ongoing colonial and imperial aspirations, repackaged as they are, in the form of structural economic reforms for developing countries, which align them into lower rungs of global production hierarchies, while compelling them to continue allocating a major proportion of their national incomes for servicing foreign debts.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 8th, 2016.

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COMMENTS (3)

John B | 5 years ago | Reply There are only two sources of wealth : Natural resources and Human Capital. Colonialism exploited both and created untold damages to the wolrd. The world order after WW 1 and 2 was essentially based on colonial principal, based on economic Value (silver and gold) obtained freely from mines of colonial land with cheap labor. These are all facts. The fiat currency value fixed based on the precious metal value robbed the colonies of natural wealth since the mines and lands did not belong to the natives in all practical sense. The current turmoil around the world is also for control of resources dubbed as Strategic Interests except now there are new playerr competing with old colonial masters. Until the old colonies become self sufficient in their basic needs, their dependency towards old masters economic strategic interest will continue. The globalized economy brings interdependcy towards old colonies favor in terms of human capital, and natural resources left behind. What the old colonies need is a vision for the future and stay away from old power politics of European agenda and form regional cooperation for effective regional trade and self sufficiency. Capital will flow naturally for development. All the right around the world in old colonies are based on borders drawn by colonial masters ! Reparations should be in the form of preferential market acess with no tariff. Aid without the market acess to the capital rich colonial masters land will not grow the old colonies market. Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and other small city states and China grew faster than others because they demanded market access and capital flowed inward from colonial banks. Old colonial countries are rich in capital but are poor in resources and Human capital. How they exploit this to their benefit depends on their local vision and mission.
Toba Alu | 5 years ago | Reply On the face of it an attractive option. However, there are some serious flaws in the concept of reparations to be paid by current generations for acts of previous generations. I did not choose my parents. So why should I be held responsible for their acts, let alone my grandparents or even great great etc. grandparents. Your argument is that I or my grand parents benefitted. Maybe, but many of them have suffered from other wars and conquests. So this will be an endless series of arguments dividing people all over the world. Secondly, the current world order and spread of the human race over all the continents is one of continuous migration, wars and conquests going back for about 200,000 years. Just to single out colonialism for reparations just lacks any logic. What about the spread of the Bantu tribes conquering central, east and southern Africa, what about the Great migration into Europe, the Huns, the Roman Empire or the Ottoman Empire or any other Empire for that matter. It is already sad enough that even today Sunni and Shia are still killing each other over historical (f)acts that happened over 1400 years ago. None of them chose their parents or their religion. Please stop labeling people and dividing the world in tribes. The way forward is certainly not through reparations and retribution, but through cooperation and respect for each other.
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