Who says it’s colonialism?

by Sasha Alyson

We believe that foreign aid is best understood as a new form of colonialism. Because it arrives with a great show of wanting to help, we call it karma colonialism.

Usually, people who have experienced it have no problem with that term. Others, especially in the West, find that shrill. So let’s note that others have made the comparison.

The givers and receivers of aid, the governments in both countries, are allied against their own peoples. All that has changed from colonial times is the nature of what is being extracted.
–Angus Deaton, 2015 Nobel laureate in Economics(1)

Today… the thin line that separates weak states from truly failed ones is manned by a hodgepodge of international charities, aid agencies, philanthropists, and foreign advisors…. These private actors have become the “new colonialists” of the 21st century…. None of these groups is anxious to perform so well that it works itself out a job. No matter how well-intentioned, these new colonialists need weak states as much as weak states need them.
–“The New Colonialists,” Foreign Policy(2)

The West has failed, and continues to fail, to enact its ill-formed, utopian aid plans because, like the colonialists of old, it assumes it knows what is best for everyone.
–Former World Bank economist William Easterly(3)

New forms of colonialism… would make African countries parts of a machine, cogs on a gigantic wheel…. The new colonialism takes on different faces. At times it appears as the anonymous influence of mammon: corporations, loan agencies, certain “free trade” treaties, and the imposition of measures of “austerity” which always tighten the belt of workers and the poor.
–Pope Francis, 2015(4)

Racism in aid sector is a hangover of colonialism
–2022 report from British Parliament, as summarized in the Guardian.(5)

Notes and Sources

1. From The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality, by Angus Deaton, 2015. Deaton devotes a chapter to why he believes that foreign aid does more harm than good: “One reason why today’s aid does not eliminate global poverty is that it rarely tries to do so…. In most cases, aid is guided less by the needs of the recipients than by the donor country’s domestic and international interests.”

2. “The New Colonialists,” by Michael A. Cohen, Maria Figueroa Küpçü, Parag Khanna. Foreign Policy, 7 October, 2009. They explain that “for all the good these [aid agencies and charities] do, their largesse often erodes governments’ ability to stand up on their own. The result: a vicious cycle of dependence and too many voices calling the shots.”

3. From The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, by William Easterly, 2007. Easterly, a leading economist, was an early critic of aid who wore out his welcome at the World Bank after refusing to go along with Bank orthodoxy. For example, in “Can Foreign Aid Buy Growth?” he used this graph to challenge the claim that foreign aid promoted economic growth. As one went up, the other went down:

Graph by William Easterly shows that as foreign aid increased in Africa, 1970-1999, growth per capita dramatially fell.

4. In his 2015 speech, quoting a fourth century bishop, Pope Francis called the unfettered pursuit of money “the dung of the devil.” He identified foreign aid as part of the problem; coverage in Christianity Today noted: “The pontiff appeared to take a swipe at international monetary organisations such as the IMF and the development aid policies by some developed countries.”

5. “British MPs have issued a scathing report on racism in the aid sector, warning that colonial mentalities are pervasive across charities and in government,” reports The Guardian.

Top photo: Pope Francis by Casa Rosada (Creative Commons license CC-BY-SA-2.0)

What you can do

“Evil prevails when good people do nothing.” This and similar quotations have been attributed to everyone from Filipino patriot Jose Rizal to Martin Luther King and Thomas Jefferson. If you have observed the damage done by the aid industry, you don’t have to become a martyr as Rizal did, but silence is complicity. Raise the subject with others, discuss what you’ve seen, what you can do, post on social media if you use it. We’re happy, of course, for you to link to this site. Write letters to your local newspaper, look for opportunities to speak out on the subject. And follow us on Twitter (@k_colonialism) to get updates.

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