Book-Blogging: The White Man’s Burden, Chapter Eight

This is part of my effort to write my way through a number of development-focused books, starting with The White Man’s Burden. Previous chapters: onetwothreefourfivesixseven

Originally, I thought I could combine Chapters Eight and Nine – they’re less development-focused, shorter, etc. Turns out, they’re both pretty interesting and I found myself writing too many words for one post; so, on to Chapter Eight.

First, the definition of “post-modern imperialism:”

“The complicated mixes of international and domestic governance structures evolving… similar to classical imperialism, these efforts involve a remarkable degree of control over domestic political authority and basic economic functions by foreign countries”

In other words, it’s an offshoot of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s “Pottery Barn” theory of nation-state aggression: “You break it, you buy it.” The most generous explanation for this mindset is that the nascent governments put in place after a war may actually need assistance – without which they would collapse and leave everything worse than before.

The more tongue-in-cheek explanation may be that many people believe spreading peace and democracy throughout the world requires suspending peace and democracy for a time – a rather Orwellian explanation for those “do-gooders” to explain.

Easterly has a dim view of post-modern imperialism, which he likens to colonialism and – perhaps more controversially – the mindset and actions of modern-day development agencies:

“Like today’s donors and post-modern imperialists, the colonizers were outside Planners who could never know the reality on the ground. Like their modern-day counterparts, colonizers often unwittingly destabilized the balance of internal power”

I think the argument can be made that this sentence is both essentially true and deeply unconstructive – one that gives off way, way more heat than light. Putting today’s foreign aid donors in the same boat with war-waging post-modern imperialists and colonizers seems like a rather severe comparison, meant to elicit emotion rather than reason. It is true that today’s donors often unwittingly tip the scales in ways that are unpredictable and negative (see: DRC, Angola, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.); it is not necessary to conclude that, because of this, they are similar in word and deed to the colonizers of old, or the warmongers of new.

I don’t think the discussion of aid is helped by direct comparison to slave-traders or armies that kill untold numbers of people.

Easterly concludes that “non-colonies had more rapid increases in secondary education from 1960 to 2001” and “growth per capita from 1950 to 2001 was 1.7 percentage points higher in the non-colonies than the non-settlement colonies.” These are seemingly-damning statistics, capstoned by the claim that “economic miracles are uncommon under any circumstances, but they seem to be more likely among non-colonies than colonies.”

This many very well be true! But the premises don’t lead to the conclusion, in my opinion, because the countries aren’t random; as Easterly writes, “they wound up that way because of factors that influenced their social evolution.”  In other words, there are important reasons why countries such as China and Japan weren’t colonized, and they may very well be the same reasons that they became economic miracles.

Let’s assume that Easterly’s contention is basically true; it’s still far from clear that the “economic miracles” argument holds up to further scrutiny. As Easterly readily brings up, the top-line figures mask wide variation between the non-colonies – China has had fantastic growth, Afghanistan and Ethiopia less so. Remove China from the group and it’s not clear that non-colonies would have out-performed the former colonies; China has posted such unprecedented growth over the past 30 years that it tips the scale in any comparison.

This isn’t to say that subjecting the continent of Africa to arbitrary borders, slavery, and subjugation was positive – it plainly was not — but merely that from a growth perspective it’s difficult, if not impossible, to compare them to non-colonies.

Easterly holds that there are three ways that the West caused long-term fractures in myriad African societies:

“First, the West gave territory to one group that a different group already believed it possessed. Second, the West drew boundary lines splitting an ethnic group into two or more parts across nations, frustrating nationalist ambitions of that group and creating ethnic minority problems in two or more resulting nations.  Third, the West combined into a single nation two or more groups that were historical enemies”

It’s not hard to think of countries that fit one or more of these: Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan, and Rwanda immediately come to mind. He then cites studies that corroborate the claim, including an innovative study that looked at a nation’s borders:

“…artificially straight borders were statistically associated with less democracy, higher infant mortality, more illiteracy, less childhood immunization, and less access to clean water”

Straight lines rarely exist in nature, and they don’t exist in organic nation-building much, either; these were lines drawn on a map with a ruler by Western powers.

A similar story plays out in Israel-Palestine, India, Pakistan, and Sudan – many of which remain today, or recently were, global “hotspots.” All were influenced by Western intervention, culminating in decades of war, untold human losses, and stunted economic growth. Out of these countries, only India has remained relatively peaceful and growth-driven (even so, the spectre of nuclear war with Pakistan over Kashmir in 2005 loomed large); Israel-Palestine is a fractured, apartheid-esque state; and Sudan is now split after decades of ethnic strife and a genocide.

I found this chapter very persuasive. Western intervention successes (arguably South Korea, though that obviously overlooks North Korea) are much rarer than abject failures.

At the same time, I’m drawn to the idea that, as a nation that has done a lot of harm, America should do what it can to support the development of these areas. The premise of “Aid has been ineffective in the past” doesn’t lead to the conclusion of “Stop trying,” in my opinion. I hope this is more responsibility-taking than guilt, but those two motives can get crossed without much effort.

I’ll leave out discussion on a lengthy section of the chapter that focuses on Zaire/Democratic Republic of Congo, only because I don’t yet know enough about the area. If you’re interested in its history, I’d recommend looking into King Leopold’s Ghost and Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, two supposedly-fantastic books that cover its time as a colonial state through the present day.

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