Op-Ed: Long-Term Effects of Colonialism

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There are several reasons why some countries are more developed than others. One of the factors is the interconnected relationships between colonialism, geography, culture, institutions, and the leadership in those institutions.

Through examination of examples throughout history, and the effect they had on the present day, I found that various political dynamics, such as physical and cultural colonialism, partly explains why many developing countries are buried in a mountain of poverty.

During the 16th and 17th century, European countries began to exert their control over larger parts of the world. The Spanish and Portuguese founded colonies in Central and Latin America. Britain and France, on the other hand, began to colonise North America, the Middle East. These countries–which make up the power players today’s European Union–also established colonies in Asia and Africa.

Colonialism gave European powers access to fund their own economic development by exploiting their colonies. This affected the growth of those very colonies long after they gained their independence.

Haiti is a prime example of exploitation by its colonial masters. In 1790, Haiti was recognized as one of the richest countries in the world due to its lucrative export of sugar. But most of its profits went to the French colonizers. After winning their independence in 1804, Haiti was forced to pay reparations to France, in which they had to shell out almost 80% of their national budget.

As a result, this impoverished Haiti and increased France’s income. European powers used lucrative forced labor to grow cash crops for the booming global market. Even though colonialism isn’t sufficient enough as causal proof as to why some countries are more developed than others, it’s quite evident that, in terms of GDP, more than 20 countries that were once colonies are amongst the world’s poorest.

Factors include: the draining of resources, exploitation, and the inevitable dependency these developing countries grew accustomed to, which in later years helped feed the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. These are two institutions that loaned large sums of money to developing countries, but with a high interest rate.

South Sudan celebration. Photo courtesy of Al Jazeera English.

Another factor is geography, which continues to explain why many less-developed countries cannot make as much progress as the more developed ones. Location is an important variable in explaining large gaps in economic development between nations. Some regions have more advantage than others in terms of wealth and power due in part because of their location. Good soil for agriculture is one example of this. Different regions, such as the Nile Delta and Fertile Crescent in North Africa and Iraq, respectively, have had the advantage early on to produce an abundance of grain products, because they had favorable soil. But these very regions were also exploited by many European nations by way of colonialism. In North Africa, the French and Italians divided the region amongst themselves, like pieces of a pie. Parts of the Middle East was under the control of the British Empire, such as Palestine and present-day Israel.

Civil wars and revolutions both pre- and post-colonial rule have also had its effects on the present-day inequality amongdeveloping nations, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. Incidentally, many civil wars during post-colonlial rule stem from the effects of colonization itself from the re-mapping of traditional tribal lands and the installation of minority groups to rule over a rival majority, like Rwanda.

Speaking on inequality, Nancy Birdsall (1999) states:

”[…] the developing countries face special risks that globalization and the market reforms that reflect and reinforce their integration into the global economy, will exacerbate inequality, at least in the short run, and raise the political costs of inequality and the social tensions associated with it.”

Let’s take a look at two developing countries that have been both colonized, but whose trajectory, in terms of economy, have varied greatly: Brazil and Nigeria. The Portuguese colonized Brazil during the Atlantic slave trade and Nigeria was colonized by the English from 1861 to 1900. Many of Afro-Caribbean slaves ended up in Brazil, along with various European and Asian immigrants. Nigeria, meanwhile, stayed relatively heterogeneous.

Brazil has risen to become a member of BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China), while Nigeria developed well in its own right, but stayed relatively more impoverished. Having said that, let us not dodge the fact that the gap between the small percentage of the Brazilian population reaping the benefits of a booming economy and the lower-class is conspicuously wide. Both countries export agriculture, but Brazil was able to create an economic system that capitalized on this type of industry, whereas Nigeria couldn’t seem to find the right formula due to political corruption inherited from post-colonial fracturing.

There are many factors as to why both of these countries, though similar in political history, are on different levels. For one, Brazil has not only capitalized on their agriculture industry, but have also been business-friendly to many types of other industries, such as technology, architecture, livestock and Web-based entrepreneurship. Though Nigeria has the second largest film industry in the world (India has the largest), their market only caters to local and regional interests and the Nigerian diaspora, whereas India has made capital in its success of exporting Bollywood culture outside of New Delhi. Nigeria has also turned away many possible investors due to the notorious “African Prince Scam”, which has its origins in Nigerian internet cafes.

Economist Dambisa Moyo expands the big picture pertaining to inequality and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa by stating that a culture of dependency, by way of celebrity-endorsed charities, has harmed the growth of the continent. Millions of dollars are poured into Africa, but little evidence has shown that this type of system works in a practical sense. What happens is that these countries become reliant on donors, governments that don’t truly care about their interest and private institutions like the IMF and the World Bank. In turn, the debts of these countries skyrocket as poverty rates remain stagnant.

There are many variables that can be measured through a retrospective look at history, but since the economic and political systems vary, both in micro and macro levels, there is no absolute proof in a stable measurement tool in proving the cause of inequalities amongst different developing nations. For instance, during the height of the recent global economic meltdown, Nigeria, along with the Philippines, another impoverished country with a long history of colonization, maintained a strong currency, while the dollar and euro decreased in value.

What can’t be denied, on the other hand, is the fact that imperialism had tremendous long-term repercussions. Historians like to play the “What If” game. What if Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia were never colonized? What if Western nations hadn’t become the superpowers post-WWII, but instead countries like Malawi, Azerbaijan and Chile had? The fact is that it will take a handful of decades more to see if colonialism will continue to haunt the countries it touched, or if the inequalities will eventually balance out.