In my last blog, I wrote about some of the ways in which racism underpins much of international aid and development policy. I’ve been thinking and reading more about what international aid agencies can do to address and reverse global inequalities that are the result of centuries-long exploitation of the Global South. Here, I wanted to share some of my thoughts and the articles I’ve come across on reparations and international relations.
Reparations are often framed in terms of compensation or corrective policies that a government or other official body undertakes to address systematic abuses committed against a group of people. In the US, reparations for descendants of enslaved people has gained (some) traction in recent years, and last week the city of Asheville, North Carolina passed reparations measures which, although falling short of providing direct payments, are aimed at promoting homeownership and business opportunities for Black residents. (If you are not familiar with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2014 piece on reparations, I would highly recommend giving it a read. Also, it’s summer: eat ice cream and read Ben & Jerry on Reparations.)
In light of the global BLM movement, European activists are also demanding that their governments address, reconcile and repair their brutal colonial pasts and legacies. Last week, Belgian King Philip sent a letter to DRC President Felix Tshisekedi expressing regret for Belgium’s bloody rule of the colony under King Leopold II, during which period as many as 10 million people were killed. In June, the Belgian Parliament approved a truth and reconciliation commission that will investigate the enduring impacts of the country’s colonial legacy in its former colonies, which include the DRC as well as Rwanda and Burundi. While these are important first steps, many activists—including Princess Esmeralda, a descendant of King Leopold II—have called for further reparation measures, such as revising the way Belgium’s colonial history is taught in schools and committing to fair trade policies.
Thus, we are seeing a broadening of the reparations framework as it is applied to foreign relations. Such discussions of reparations also include canceling debt accrued by countries in the Global South and implementing fair trade policies. These kinds of reforms would attempt to redress the ways in which colonial legacies manifest today as, for example, exploitative practices by multinational corporations that profit off of resource extraction from countries where large portions of the population live in poverty and lack access to basic services.
In the international development sector, Priya Lukka, a development economist at Christian Aid, argues that reparations include challenging the widespread acceptance that poverty is a natural phenomenon and acknowledging the ways in which today’s vast global inequalities are the result of centuries’ worth of plunder, exploitation and enslavement by predominantly Western governments in Africa, South America and parts of Asia. Between 1500 and 1800, over 100 million kilograms of silver were mined and shipped from South America to Europe, financing much of the industrial revolution. Had that silver been invested in 1800 at the historical average interest rate of 5%, Jason Hickel notes, it would be worth $165 trillion today; by my own calculations, that amount could pay off Latin America’s 2019 external debt 70 times over. Canceling debt as a form of reparation should not sound so radical after all. (Hickel discusses in greater detail massive European extraction programs and the largescale displacement, genocide and enslavement of indigenous populations.)
So, what role do INGOs, development agencies and charity organizations play in reparations? Lukka calls on INGOs to play a strong lobbying role for progressive approaches to development by offering counternarratives to dominant theories and practices of international aid—and also coming to terms with the fact that these theories and practices that have not been successful in reducing poverty around the world. Cancelling accrued debt for developing countries, she argues, is a first and important step, and could be counterbalanced through a wealth tax.
INGOs should also question and challenge why they have come to be such a massive—and profitable—global industry. Paradoxically, if aid organizations were successful in alleviating poverty and inequality around the world, then we should see these organizations reduce in number and size over time. This is not the case, however. One way to address this, as has been proposed elsewhere, is by shifting the power away from large international aid organizations directly to local civil society organizations and removing conditions and strict evaluation requirements for how aid money is spent. This could also allow many aid recipients and local organizations to reclaim the agency that has been stripped from them through tight regulation and monitoring of their expenditures and program outputs.
At a more short-term and micro-level, INGOs must do more to provide reparations for immediate harm caused by its personnel and programs. Organizations should hold themselves to higher standards of external accountability, especially to those whom they claim to support. This means that when staff from INGOs and IGOs engage in directly harmful practices or negligence that results in harm, the organizations should not attempt to cover it up by quietly firing the offender; rather, they should publicly acknowledge the harm inflicted and take steps to repair the damage, such as through compensation or healthcare for the survivors. They should also cooperate with local law enforcement to ensure that their staff—including and international staff—are not immune from criminal proceedings in more extreme cases.
A reparations approach to international development provides a useful framework through which to understand and improve development theory and practice. Much of my summer fellowship with the National Network of Families of the Disappeared in Nepal (NEFAD) is related to reparations and transitional justice, and I will have a few more blogs on these topics specifically dealing with ongoing challenges for conflict survivors in Nepal.
Rest in Power, Representative John Lewis. May we bear your legacy unwaveringly & continue getting into “good trouble” to advance global justice.
Posted By Beth Alexion
Posted Jul 20th, 2020