In what ways does Colonialism still have an impact today?

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After the end of the second world war and the eventual break up of the Soviet Union come the ‘end’ of the cold war, decolonisation was all but a done deal. Every great empire the world had ever known had given their previous conquests independent, autonomous home rule. The ability to control themselves, their own government, their own set of rules, their own economy and culture with which to prosper and the opportunity to become a thriving competitive player in the world. This was the idea anyway.

We do however, still clearly see the effects of colonialism in these countries right now; primarily in the fact that none have actually become thriving competitive players in the world, (at least, not to the point of their former colonial masters). This short essay will analyse the factors of primarily western colonialism which continue to play a part in the apparent hindrance of these countries progress. Throughout this essay when talking about the west, I shall use interpretation of Deudney and Ikenberry (1993/94) who define the West as consisting of Western Europe, North America and Japan. Their West is based on the logic of ‘industrial liberalism’ and distinguished by a private economy, a common civic identity and public institutions.

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There are many factors to be considered during this analysis, primarily three main contributing areas to a countries prosperity: social or cultural aspects, economics and politics. I shall focus in on some points throughout these all encompassing headings in order to truly understand the impact of today and then proceed to focus in on my own country of interest, Malawi, a former British colony of Africa.

Firstly, and perhaps most clearly seen in the decolonised states of South America and Africa is the influence of culture. The dominance of western religious values, especially those of Christianity via the Spanish throughout the Spanish inquisition were spread to almost every country in South America, a heritage which still holds strong today. The dominance of Islam through the Orient is also notable from empires such as the Ottoman, but its numbers not as vast and it’s means not nearly as vicious as the wests. A sentiment explained by Samuel P. Huntington when he states that “culture almost always follows power” (1996: 91).

Western cultural values at that time differed to what they do today, for instance Bull maintains that “The United States remained fundamentally aligned with European policies of racial exclusiveness in its denial of equal rights to blacks (1984: 122). Inevitably so but it could be proposed that their attitudes to suffrage or minority rights as a whole may still hold true in decolonised countries such as Malawi, in which women are refused credit, a man will most probably earn double that of a woman and where in the 2008 elections, women running were stoned and berated in the streets. It may be fair to say that these cultural values have been continued by the countries in question or that it may be more of a political issue than a social one but you must agree that they were instilled to this degree by the colonisers.

On the social side though, colonialism has shown definite positive impacts for today’s ex colonial citizen, whether a good thing or not, both English and Spanish are the most widely spoken languages spoken in the world, which has aided further relations with the west and in turn led to a following of western ways. Health and literacy rates are also on the up due to the continued influence by the west, many states now offer free education, be it minimal or not, and health care to masses with the aid of charities and governments in the west.

“A process of social change … had produced a small western-educated professional middle class in Ghana’s coastal towns and cities, and the educational infrastructure … was amongst the most extensive in sub-Saharan Africa.” (1984: 165)

One more small cultural impact holds today is an impact on the colonisers, rather than the colonised. This is primarily discussed by Edward Said in relation to the Orient, but the issue of stereotyping, when he states that “All knowledge that is about human society…is historical knowledge, and therefore rests upon judgment and interpretation.” (1979) which he later backed up with the point that “So far as the United States seems to be concerned, it is only a slight overstatement to say that Muslims and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists.” (1980). These stereotypes of people from third world countries, not just in the orient but throughout the Global South continue to stick with westerners, even through blatant media coverage and interaction. Even positive stereotypes can be detrimental.

For example, African Americans, Kenyans, and indeed all third world persons perceived to be good at sports may be seen only in ways which fit that stereotype, and their intellectual capacity be seen as an afterthought. Negative stereotypes, perhaps not that of savages for whom it is “the white mans burden” (1899) as Kipling put it, to civilise, but that of a less educated somewhat more volatile people for whom it may be the westerners duty to… westernise. Many people may see this disruption of cultural norms and tradition as a form of neo-colonialism, in which I grant, there are many wrongdoings and infringements on ex-colonised countries, but purely socially and culturally, I see fewer deplorable impacts than admirable today.

It is at culture that I tend to stop praising the merits of neo-colonialism, both the impacts from political and economical viewpoints of colonialism are seemingly more unfavourable than those of culture. The continued political hegemony and economic exploitation of past colonies is something many ex-colonial leaders have spoken out about. Julius Nyerere (1973: 263) and Kwame Nkrumah (1965: ix), the first free leaders of Tanzania and Ghana respectively, have spoken out about their lack of power to do anything without a western influence being involved, due to the amount of power they still held over the country’s ongoings.

“Even when the direct control exercised by Western states and empires over societies was reduced through decolonization, they maintained predominance in the world’s systems of production, trade and finance.” (2002: 9)

This quote by Jacinta O’Hagan perfectly sums up the attitudes expressed by both Nyerere and Nkrumah, but does not I believe still hold true as an impact today. Maybe not long ago, and maybe it is hard to generalise through every country in the third world, but this very day in 2011, I adhere to what O’Hagan interprets Huntingtons earlier statement that “culture always follows power” and states that “therefore, a retreat of Western power implies a retreat of Western norms.”

Here she states only a retreat of power, not a complete removal of all influence and continues to analyse Huntingtons views that therefore, “the appeal of democracy is waning as other, increasingly dynamic, civilizations look to their own traditions for political institutions and legitimacy” (1996: 93, 193, 224-5). and that “European colonialism is over; American hegemony is receding. The erosion of Western culture follows, as indigenous, historically rooted mores, languages, beliefs and institutions reassert themselves.” (1993: 192)

This point too, can be backed up by the points made by Handelman that many states, especially African states have attempted to employ democracy, in a manner which would replicate the west and satisfy Deudney and Ikenberry but have in turn failed, only to go back to an authoritarian or single party state, “Of 98 democratic transitions in the Third World, fewer than half (46%) survived until 2004… [with only] 37%… in sub-Saharan Africa” (2009: 31) Handelman continues to argue that perhaps the impact of colonialism, or in fact more precisely decolonisation with the installment of western views is a large part of what has hampered success of countless Third World countries. Logically, every prosperous First World country has been through extended periods of authoritarian or single party rule to get where they are today, why should the Third World be any different? When they want democracy, they’ll have a revolution like the rest of us did… and in fact, like exactly what they’re doing in Libya right now.

The spread of democracy though, cannot simply be pushed aside by these few points made by Handelman, Huntington and O’Hagan. Handelman does not deny that the spread of democracy or the push for democracy in a neo-colonial manner has not been a massive impact of colonialism. He further links the cultural impacts of education and primarily literacy rates to the incline of democracy rates within Africa, therefore showing how a cultural impact, impacts upon political. Another questionable impact verging on this Venn diagram is the boarder issue, once again, especially in Africa.

After decolonisation following the second world war, boarders were drawn and have proceeded to cause conflict among cultural and ethnic groups, according to Elias Papaioanno and Stelios Michalopoulos (2010) and the Asiwaju date index (1985), there were around 200 groups such as these partitioned across borders, this has caused resource wars such as those in Burkina and Mali in 1971 and 1985 , tribal wars, as in Rwanda and much unrest over religious boundaries such as that of Sudan in which it was essentially combined into one country of both Islamic and Christian faiths, and which is finally seceding into north and south… where there will once again be rivalry over resources. Secession though, may not be the way, as has been pointed out by Amitai Etzioni who said that “if these ethnic groups seceded, the people involved would live under less, not more, democratic governments than those that now govern them, as was the case when Slovakia seceded from Czechoslovakia.” (2004)

Economics, has however, the most prominent impact from colonialism I believe, as was reflected by Nkrumah when he notes that in the aftermath of Colonialism, former colonial masters instilled Neo-Colonialism as a political system to insure control of their former colonies, “that the state which is subject to it, is, in theory independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty. In reality its economic system and thus, its political policy is directed from outside.” (1965: ix) This stranglehold on third world economies is the basis for the primary Neo-Colonialism argument, with many solid points and followers to its name. Every Third World country in the world is currently in debt, through the nature of government to government loans and loans from bodies such as the International Monetary Fund.

This strongly impacts the working of a country, as the constant influx of both loans and aid along with outgoings to in turn, repay the money owed can seemingly not be handled by a third world country as well as a first world one does, this is strongly down to both corruption, development and instability of governments within the third world, issues discussed in depth within Moyo’s “Dead Aid” reading, (2009) in which he explains that some countries ended up in fact paying back more than they were borrowing in loans due to inflation, bad government and corruption. Throughout his argument he strongly devalues the use of aid in this way and essentially backs up his argument with ‘look, fifty years on, over US$400 billion spent, not much has changed’. This stranglehold of debt, no matter how morally and ideologically minded, a western sovereignty will always have something in power with which to hold over an ex colonised country.

The Third World is also exploited for its cheap labour, with many large scale businesses relocating many factories and manual labour duties abroad to Africa or Asia. There is an argument that this brings jobs and economy to the country, and this is true, but the impact of these businesses is never going to be on the half full side of the cup. The majority of the money made from these factories is heading straight back out the country and if the minimum wage was propositioned to be raised, or if child worker laws were to be introduced or heavily enforced, these companies would have to qualms in relocating to a more preferable location just across the boarder, leaving many without jobs and the country without what we consider to be basic human rights.

So in order to build a steady and properly steady economy, they must resort to selling what resources they have, and building up businesses of their own. This too though has its downsides. In Malawi the economy is heavily agriculture-based, with more than one-third of GDP and 90% of export revenues come from agriculture. This export revenue barely reaches the money brought in by the World Bank and the IMF, and can be so easily compromised by a bad harvest or bad weather, something becoming increasingly more common through the effects of climate change.

However, not all is bad. Growth is inevitable, with the advent of mass globalisation, Africa is needed. Africa as a continent is one of the largest producers of mined good, cash crops, and oil, both flammable and edible, at least one of these, no country is missing out on. The scramble for Africa is often spoke of in terms of both western and mainly China in the orient’s race to acquire its goods, but rarely in terms of the race by African countries to build up. With significant investment coming from all angles, although, chiefly from China, currency wars have ensued, driving down the value of the currency dangerously in order to gain the upper hand in investment terms.

This though is the prime legacy of colonialism, the integration of the international capitalist economy, and it is something many have taken up without complaint. Moyo explains the establishment of successful and lucrative stock markets set up in Johannesburg and following that 15 more functioning and transparent stock-markets and their existential growth of late. (2009: 4) This growth, although, slow moving compared to that of other ex-colonial countries in South America and Asia is significant as it shows determination to finally get out of the rut that Africa has been stuck in for what seems like eternity. There is no denying the impact of colonialism today at least, but should this carry on, I believe I could get on board with Huntington and O’Hagan’s optimistic suggestion that “both the West’s capacity and will to

dominate is gradually receding as other civilizations experience economic growth and a revival of cultural assertiveness.” (1996: 82-91, 102-9), (2002: 119)

In conclusion I believe that dependance and western values may be the most influential impacts of colonialism this very day, but that the world is rapidly changing and the west must wake up to this fact and get on board with China, a country which still has memories of times when it too was going through this, and so is better placed than most to tackle it. It is also fair to say that had Africa not been colonised it would today still have problems of economic development. Africa was way behind technologically and would have needed to import western technology and therefore would have had to export something to pay for it.

So Africa’s position in the international economy, particularly as a producer of primary products for industrialized countries, should not be blamed solely on colonialism. It is largely a function of unequal development. We may have pushed Deudney and Ikenberry western ideals of democracy and free trade upon third world countries, and yes trade is, and always will be unequal in some sense. “Richer countries subsidise their own producers and supply chains make small-scale producers compete to sell low price produce to richer countries, who capitalise on the value added.” (Vorley, 2003).But there will come a point that the small scale producers will have the gumption and more importantly, power to negotiate on their terms… the terms of a newly formed first world country.


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