Peace – Neocolonialism or just doing it right?

Unrelated, but a nice sentiment

As part of my degree I spend a lot of time worrying about developing countries. Lying awake at night wondering if a well-meaning NGO has nearly bankrupted a rural community with bizarre unwanted projects. Or pacing my flat muttering ‘governance fail’ and ‘misplaced aid’.

I’m a practical person, so I naturally start thinking of solutions. I climb back into bed and think, ‘what can I do to help?’

I must admit that in my slightly sleep deprived state I’ve considered some odd remedies. I think my first one was something along the lines of…

“I’ll win the lottery and set up a trust with some sound investments, I’ll offer microloans for community infrastructure projects and develop a scheme to detect, develop and reward good governance at the local level”

Or… “I’ll find a genie and get a wish, and wish for the IMF to forgive it’s loans and the Security Council to give up their veto power” That one was a keeper you know, there’s tonnes of genies in Leeds.

But, I think this is my best one to date. It started out as a pie-in-the-sky idea but, it’s been firming up in my head. I’m serious about this one.

I want to run a developing country. Myself. Now I don’t mean Brazil or India or something, they’re doing fine, I’m talking about Somalia or Sudan or something.

I don’t want to live there, I don’t want to be their President and run for an ‘election’. I just know that the single biggest problem facing the poorest countries of the Global South isn’t war or famine or disease (although these are significant and of course interlinked) it’s bad governance.

In the study of peace building, that is the post conflict physical and otherwise reconstruction of the state and society from the individual level to the international, the greatest danger is a lack of coordination. Efforts fail because there are a multitude of actors all pursuing worthy goals but with no central, coherent vision or strategy. That’s what we’re missing, something or someone to hold it all together. Now I’m a huge fan of democracy and I firmly believe that when a decision can be taken democratically then categorically it must be. However the evidence is against us. Democracies, especially in Africa, are by and large not working. They produce weak governments with no control that resort to, in the worst case brutality or, in the best case, neglect.

Look at South Korea, in the 1950s it was an impoverished state with no infrastructure and no resources. Until the 1990s it was ruled unquestioned by a succession of benevolent dictators and now it’s one of the most developed, modern, wealthy countries in the world. This is in thanks partly to unimaginable quantities of American aid but also shrewd economic decisions taken by people who didn’t have to be populist in their decision making. Come on! It makes parts of the European Union look 3rd world! Most importantly, it is now a democracy, autocracy was a necessary but undesirable, temporary, state.

These democratic but failing states are barely worth the title ‘state’, they tend to be strange coalitions of tribal elements with no commonalities. A state must do 3 things to be considered functioning and therefore a state in the first place. 1) it must have the monopoly of the use of force in it’s boundaries. 2) it must have clearly defined boundaries and be able to enforce them and 3) it must protect and serve the people who live within it. If they can’t do that, they aren’t states.

Let’s look at Somalia, their government, the custodian of the state, hasn’t got anything close to a monopoly on force, they cower before the fabulously well armed tribal groups who run the country in tiny fragments. It’s boundaries are known to no one, it is roughly bordered by Ethiopia and Eritrea but these are vague and useless for anyone else but map makers. Finally Somalia doesn’t have a proper army or police force to defend it’s people, so the population rely on the tribal warlords, it doesn’t provide even basic healthcare, schooling, roads or railways. It is not a state.

It isn’t just them, there are a few of them by this definition. I really don’t consider some tinpot dictator a head of state when he’s holed up in a compound in the capital with his henchmen while his people in the countryside die in the most abject, miserable and frankly intolerable poverty imaginable. Broadly a final test of statehood is international recognition. Usually via the UN, although this isn’t exclusive, Taiwan is a modern, liberal democracy that our comrades in the People’s Republic of China refuse to recognise and veto their application to join the UN, but isn’t internationally recognised as a country.

So, back to running a country, why do I want to do this? I know the challenges and I know that if I had a chance, I wouldn’t do a half bad job. Mostly I just want to help, flooding them with money and well meaning NGOs has failed. This probably smacks of neocolonialism but there is a precedent. There are a total of 16 non-self governing territories in the world. Not a single one of which actually want to become independent. How foolish and patronising would it be if we forced them to accept self determination against their will? That’s not democracy. This is the same sentiment that some NGOs go into developing countries with. The ‘we’re from the Global North, we know what’s best’. We ought to be careful we don’t appear the same.

I remember a taxi ride I took in Mumbai in India in 2005. I was having a conversation with the driver about the British rule of India. He had some really interesting opinions. He joked that “50% of Indians think the British left India 50 years too late, the other 50% think they left 50 years too early”.

Can you imagine what India might be like if it was run by the UK until this year? From my perspective I think it might be in a better position domestically but Britain would never have allowed to acquire such geopolitical significance.

So, how would I run a country? It’s about numerous factors and people coming together. Lots of them are already there, community groups, religious figures, NGOs, other countries’ interests, businesses but they lack any central direction. It’s about balancing the infrastructure of the state with strong investment action on a local level. Quite simply it’s about not buying guns and building a hydroelectric plant with your IMF loan instead. It’s about not building yourself a palace and having champagne imported and spending the money on training nurses instead. It’s about forfeiting your individual embassies in other countries and sharing them with your neighbours and spending the cash on paying school teachers and having unemployment benefits instead. It seems simple right? It’s about subsidising mobile phones and investing in the infrastructure so your people can talk to each other and you can can talk to them. It’s about letting people own the land they live on and sell it as they wish. It’s about lowering taxes on people who earn less than a dollar a day (the fact they are taxed at all is madness). It’s about letting your people grow the crops they need to survive rather than growing the ones the Global North wants. It’s about having a centrally run government funded HIV/AIDS programme that coordinates NGO and WHO efforts for a single, unified approach.

These seem so simple but that’s the problem, the approach of the Global North for so long has been that we assume that developing countries are doing this already or have tried it, and it hasn’t worked.


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