When one looks at poverty and suffering around the world there is a common thread: corruption and an absence of the rule of law. This thread ensures that the market is unable to move resources to their most efficient use. It increases transactions costs and reduces gains from trade. In the absence of strong property rights, there are few incentives to engage in activities that increase wealth and wellbeing.
Tragically, and despite the well-meaning but futile efforts of the aid industry, many countries have gone backwards in economic development, with their citizens now much worse off than they were during the colonial era (of course, overall, there has been a remarkable reduction in world poverty due to the growth of China and other Asia-Pacific countries).
A number of countries are extremely well endowed with natural resources, including water, minerals and fertile soils. These include African countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zimbabwe.
Is there any doubt that the people of Papua New Guinea are now worse off than before PNG gained independence on 16 September 1975? Or after Zimbabwe gained independence on 18 April 1980? Or after Mobutu Sese Seko took over the Congo (Zaire) on 24 November 1965?
Unfortunately many of these blighted countries were granted independence far too early. They had insufficiently developed the infrastructure necessary for economic development and wealth creation.
The bad name that colonialism then had (and still has) led to a wave of independence movements. This resulted in western countries lending (implicit or explicit) support to various kleptocracies rather than directly managing them as colonies. The west turned a blind eye to massive abuses under such regimes.
Yet colonialism need not be seen as an evil tool of imperialism. Enlightened leaders from the west have guided countries towards a brighter future, such as with Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Canada and so forth. Sure, the rule has not always been for the common weal, and there has been a good deal of exploitation under theories of mercantilism. But overall, colonialism in this context led to the development of the infrastructure that underpinned the future growth of these countries.
I think that the opprobrium that attaches to colonialism can be sheeted home to one person in particular. He was Leopold II, King of Belgium (1865 – 1909) who gained control of the Congo Free State and transformed it into a personal fiefdom exploiting the colony to the maximum for his personal aggrandisement and fortune.
This lily-livered toad’s (and his agents’) maladministration of the Congo was so appalling that it led to the deaths of up to 10 million and the maiming of millions more. Leopold’s desperate attempts to extract wealth from ivory and rubber will forever lead the association of his name with the worst of colonialism. Indeed his misbehaviour exceeded that of Gaius Verres who was famously prosecuted by Cicero for maladministering Sicily.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that some of the worst excesses of colonialism come from the French-speaking side, including in Congo and Haiti.
This photo shows the mutilation that occurred to children because they did not meet Leopold’s rubber quota. The British historian Dan Snow provides an interesting perspective on the history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Yes, the excesses of Leopold’s regime are clear. But so too are those of many post-colonial regimes which the west has supported. Yet we have moved away from colonialism as a tool for fostering the rule of law and economic development.
This is a mistake. While colonialism is not likely to be the best approach in all countries, it should not be ruled out entirely. In PNG, for example, it would have been cheaper for Australia and better for PNG citizens if we had continued administering it as an Australian colony / territory.
Would colonialism have prevented the civil wars in Sudan and Syria? Would it have prevented the massacre in Rwanda? Would it have stopped Pol Pot and his murderous regime taking power in Cambodia? Would it have minimised the terror that reigns in the Levant?
Perhaps not. But in many cases I suspect that a long-term benign colonial administration would have prevented these atrocities.
The west’s errors were to withdraw (partly under pressure from the United States, as FDR was a well-known opponent of colonialism from his study of Leopold II) from their various colonies prematurely. Certainly the expense of two World Wars exacerbated the financial burden placed on the west from colonial administration. But what of the counter-factual?
Yes, it is time to consider colonialism as a valid tool of statecraft. In some cases it is too late to reimpose colonialism. But not everywhere. The best places to re-impose a colonial regime are likely to be those which do not significantly affect world security. Think Zimbabwe, PNG and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.