Yes, it's still colonialism

by Sasha Alyson

“The developed countries are not interested in the development of the rest of the world.”
—Yash Tandon, long-time trade negotiator for Uganda, in his book “Trade Is War.”

We use the term “karma colonialism” to describe the overall impact of the modern aid industry. Is such strong language justified?

Let’s look at the characteristics of the aid industry that justify this term. In Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview, Juergen Osterhammel defines colonialism as:

“a relationship between an indigenous (or forcibly imported) majority and a minority of foreign invaders. The fundamental decisions affecting the lives of the colonised people are made and implemented by the colonial rulers in pursuit of interests that are often defined in a distant metropolis. Rejecting cultural compromises with the colonized population, the colonizers are convinced of their own superiority and their ordained mandate to rule.”(1)

A cartoon of the late 19th century depicts colonial attitudes of that era.

Here are some key characteristics of foreign aid today:

Crucial decisions are made within wealthier, more powerful countries (the global North), about how poorer, less powerful countries (the South) should be run.

We offer many examples on these pages. Education is one. The quality of primary-level education seems to have gotten worse over the past 15 years, under the influence of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, which mandated a one-size-fits-all approach of pushing more children into school while ignoring quality. (See Education is getting worse.)

The strongest force in global health, through both money and influence, is the Gates Foundation. It is run by three trustees — Bill Gates, Melinda Gates, and Warren Buffett — who are all extremely wealthy, white Americans.

Finance is another example. When Western banks pushed ill-conceived loans onto poor countries, often into the hands of corrupt governments, the Western-run International Monetary Fund bailed them out by giving the countries a loan for the sole purpose of repaying the banks. Then the money was owed to the far more powerful IMF, which forced debtor countries to accept conditions that even the IMF later admitted were a bad idea.(2)

These decisions are made by people who know remarkably little about the country they are ruling.

They do not understand the history, culture, and government of the countries affected, have no long-term stake in their future, and often never even set foot in the countries whose future they are deciding.(3)

Yet their decisions affect the everyday lives and futures of people in poor countries. The decisions are not passed down as edicts, of course; that was the old style and it led to expensive wars. Under the unwritten rules of karma colonialism, they are passed as suggestions to the local government, which largely goes along — because the suggestions are accompanied by bribes, or threat of withholding aid money on which they’ve become dependent. (See Bribes.)

They see the colony as a place for them to work their will.

There is more lip service today to the population that lives there, but now as in the past, those with the power and money consider it their duty, their prerogative, and — although the specific term has been retired — their manifest destiny to make decisions about the future of the colony which will bring it into their sphere.

The colonial powers are whiter.

Yes, it would be more comfortable if we didn’t bring that up. But it is fundamental. From the first large-scale encounters between peoples of different color, the whites had the better weapons. That allowed them to deem themselves superior, reinforced by advances in some fields, notably science, which had produced those better weapons. The vanquished cultures achieved high skills in other fields, ranging from agriculture to art. Like the Europeans, most engaged in warfare. But none were as skilled at mass murder and terrorism as were the Europeans.

In many cases, they internalized the belief in white superiority.(4) Lee Yuan Kew, who led Singapore through four decades of development, recalled later how for himself and his friends, this assumption of white superiority crumbled at the beginning of World War II when the Japanese army quickly captured Singapore and Hong Kong from England: “Stories of [the British Soldiers’] scramble to save their skins led the Asiatics to see them as selfish and cowardly,” he recalled later.(5)

But the unspoken feelings persist, on both sides. When aid workers arrive in a country of people darker than themselves (and nearly always, that is the situation), they arrive with money, power, confidence, and presumption. They come from a richer and more powerful country; surely (both sides may tacitly assume) that gives them the knowledge to fix things here, too. When the World Bank studied the attitudes of its non-local staff in developing countries, it found that they greatly under-estimated the capabilities of the local population.(6)

Anyone who’s spent much time with charity workers in poor countries has been discomfited — unless they’ve become used to it — to see a white aid worker talking to a non-white villager in a tone which at home would be reserved for small children or pets.

Benefits flow to the ruling country

Money is the obvious benefit, but in the case of karma colonialism most of it comes not from extracting raw materials, but by getting in the midst of a money river that flows without much accountability.

Much aid money never even leaves the donor country. The U.S. food aid program buys food from American farmers, then pays American shippers 2-3 times the market rate to send it to Africa or Asia.(7) After the Haiti earthquake, most USAID relief money went to firms located inside the beltway; only 1% went directly to Haitian organizations.(8)

Old-style colonialism was said to be for “God, Gold and Glory.” Today, there are more non-cash benefits. Individual philanthropists and celebrities boost their egos and gain status at home. Staff build their resumes and networks. Corporations build goodwill and get a toehold in overseas markets. Churches still send out missionaries, often ostensibly to boost education or health care. Governments build support for their trade policies.

People in the colony pay the price.

In the past, to see the abuses of colonialism a Westerner had to take a steamship across the ocean, then spent weeks in a tropical climate, exposed to diseases for which they had no immunity. Not many people did that. Today, travel is easy, and everybody’s got a camera. The aid industry could not survive if it were as heavy-handed as traditional colonialism. Instead, it takes its toll in ways that are invisible to a casual short-term observer. (See, for example, our stories about, Toms Shoes and aid giveaways.)

Charities arrive to give away goods and services because that’s what makes donors feel good, mindless of how this undermines the local economy. Local officials find that it’s more lucrative to respond to what INGOs want, rather than to their own citizens.

The ruling country exercises its power through local intermediaries.

The governments of developing countries get aid money from Western governments; they also get cash and perks and gifts from INGOs, which need permission to operate.

This gives INGO activities a veneer of local control: “They invited us to come.” No matter if “they” is a government which was not chosen in an open election, which is getting paid to issue that invitation, and which has become more accountable to the international aid industry than to its own citizens. (See Bribes again)

Power and money buy good media coverage.

We’d like to think that journalists are doing their best, and some indeed are, but they are vastly outgunned. The aid industry feeds them stories that portray less developed countries as bundles of neediness, waiting helplessly for aid from the West. They show inspiring stories of Westerners who built a hospital or orphanage, because their readers want a Western hero. It keeps readers and viewers and advertisers happy, but paints a false image of reality.

* * *

Karma colonialism doesn’t involve tanks or warplanes. But traditional colonialism didn’t always require military force, either. It often used threat of military force, economic pressure, deceit, and bribes offered to the local elite. Karma colonialism uses all of those, too.

As for why we call it karma colonialism… please read “A veneer of good karma.

Notes and Sources

1. Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview, by Jürgen Osterhammel, translated by Shelley Frisch, page 16. Markus Weiner Publishers, 2005. Quoted on Wikipedia.

2. Nobel laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz writes in Making Globalization Work that in Indonesia “the IMF, together with others including the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, provided some $22 billion in loans during the East Asian crisis. The money was characterized as a bail-out for Indonesia, but a closer look shows that, as is typically the case, it was really the Western banks that were being bailed out. The extent to which Western creditors, not Indonesia, were the real beneficiaries became clear when the IMF insisted that food and fuel subsidies to the poor be cut back, arguing that although there were billions of dollars available to repay Western banks, there simply wasn’t enough money to help Indonesia’s poor (though the costs were a mere fraction of what was provided to the country).”

Stiglitz notes that the IMF and World Bank both acknowledged later that they had pushed weaker countries in the wrong direction. The key point is that whether the conditions were good or bad, the IMF, controlled by Western financial interests, considered these decisions to be its prerogative.

3. A small but telling example is a World Bank report about early childhood development in Laos which refers 8 times to “Khmun and Hmong” children. The two largest ethnic minorities in Laos are the Khmu and Hmong; these names are familiar to anyone who spends much time in Laos. Khmu is sometimes spelled Kammu or Khamu, but no one in Laos believes the country has a Khmun minority. More at: Clueless at the World Bank.

4. This helps to explain the huge market for skin whiteners in much of Africa and Asia. The skin-bleaching aisle of a Thai drugstore is as big as the potato-chip aisle in America. In markets with minimal safety regulation, users take big health risks. Some of the bleaching products will turn smooth skin into a battlefield, and contain chemicals that damage internal organs. But many people take the risk. “I like white people. Black people are seen as dangerous; that’s why I don’t like being black. People treat me better now because I look like I’m white,” a Congolese hair stylist told BBC News, which added that “Entrenched in the minds of many Africans from a young age is the adage ‘if it’s white, it’s all right’, a belief that has chipped away at the self-esteem of millions.”

5. Quoted in The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor, by William Easterly.

6. “World Development Report 2015: Mind, Society, and Behavior, page 18. Furthermore, experts did a worse job analyzing data in their own field than in other fields, because they were so strongly influenced by their prior assumptions. See Pygmalion and Golem.

7. This policy is known as “Cargo Preference” and many countries have similar policies. The rationale is always that it helps each country maintain a strong merchant navy, necessary for national security in times of war or emergency. It also, not coincidentally, creates jobs and profits for the “donor” country. Food Aid and Agricultural Cargo Preference (ACP) found that “70% of ACP vessels did not satisfy the criteria that deem them militarily useful, a large share were ultimately owned by foreign corporations, and no ACP vessel crew has been mobilized for national service.”

8. “How Humanitarian Aid Weakened Post-Earthquake Haiti,” by Michelle Chen, The Nation, 2 September 2014. USAID countered that some of the money to Washington-area firms later got to Haiti, but refused to disclose “proprietary” details. Transparency is something they expect of government agencies in poor countries, not of themselves.

Top photo: School Begins. In this 1899 illustration from the satire magazine Puck, Uncle Sam addresses his new class in Civilization, who are labeled Cuba, Porto Rico, Hawaii, and Philippines: “Now, children, you’ve got to learn these lessons whether you want to or not! But just take a look at the class ahead of you, and remember that, in a little while, you will feel as glad to be here as they are!” An African American boy cleans the windows, a Native American boy holds a book upside down, and a Chinese boy stands alone outside.

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