Once upon a time in west Africa, two kings named Acqua and Bell made a memorable request of British Prime Minister William Gladstone.
“We are tired of governing the country ourselves,” they wrote in a letter dated 6 November 1881. “Every dispute leads to war, and often to great loss of life, so we think it is the best thing to give up the country to you British men who no doubt will bring peace, civilization and Christianity in the country. Do for mercy’s sake please lay our request before the queen... We are quite willing to abolish all our heathen customs.”
The kings’ offer (which Gladstone declined) makes for interesting reading as one post-colonial state—Sudan—votes this week to split in two, with uncertain consequences. Another state—Côte d’Ivoire—stands on a razor’s edge between outright dictatorship and civil war. And a third—Haiti, a de facto American colony from 1915 to 1934—has proved unable to pick itself even inches off the ground since last year’s devastating earthquake. What, if anything, does it all mean?
It means that we’ve come full circle. It means that colonialism, for which the West has spent the past five decades in non-stop atonement, was far from the worst thing to befall much of the colonized world. It means, also, that some new version of colonialism may be the best thing that could happen to at least some countries in the postcolonial world.
Take Haiti. Haiti is no longer a colony of the West, but it has long been a ward of it. Even before the earthquake, remittances and foreign aid accounted for nearly 30% of its gross domestic product (GDP). The country is known as the “Republic of NGOs”, since some 3,000 operate in it. What good they’ve done, considering the state the country has been in for decades, is an open question. Security, to the extent there is any, is provided by some 12,000 United Nations (UN) peacekeepers.
Should more responsibility be handed over to Haitians themselves? I used to think so, and debate on this subject rages among development experts. A new consensus holds that the long-term presence of foreign aid workers is ultimately ruinous to what’s known in the jargon as “local capacity”. Probably true. Prosperity has never been built on a foundation of handouts.
But last year’s fraudulent elections are a reminder that Haitians have been as ill-served by their democracy as by their periodic dictatorships. When “Baby Doc” Duvalier was overthrown in 1986, per capita GDP was $768. In 2009, on the eve of the quake, it was $519. Nor do the troubles end there: Criminality is rampant, and Haiti ranked 177th out of 179 on Transparency International’s 2008 corruption index. These are not the depredations of greedy foreign interlopers. This is the depravity of the locals.
Put simply, Haiti has run out of excuses for its failures at the very moment the “international community” has run out of ideas about how to help.
Maybe the UN should be called in to take charge. But events in Côte d’Ivoire suggest otherwise.
Côte d’Ivoire used to be one of those promising African states bucking the usual trends of the continent. But then per capita GDP plummeted by about 40% in the past 40 years. More recently, the country has seen a civil war between north and south and military intervention by French troops. Now its President, Laurent Gbagbo, refuses to concede an election the UN insists he lost to challenger Alassane Ouattara, a former International Monetary Fund (IMF) official.
Gbagbo seems in no mood to go anywhere. UN peacekeepers aren’t going to force him out. The US state department’s brainstorm is to entice the President to leave by offering him a high-paying job at an international organization, perhaps the UN itself. So here you have an administration that professes to believe in the UN prepared to see a senior job in that organization filled by a Third World would-be tyrant. There’s the UN and all its failures explained in a nutshell.
So if the UN can’t do the job, who will? In 1986, the Reagan administration effectively forced Baby Doc out and flew him to France, where he has lived ever since in the comfort of his ill-gotten gains. Perhaps something similar could be arranged for Gbagbo, and the people of Côte d’Ivoire will live happily ever after under governments of their own choosing.
That would be nice. But if history is any guide, it won’t happen. Pos-tcolonial Africa has seen the future. As often as not, it looks like Zimbabwe.
The West professes to “care” about countries such as Haiti, Côte d’Ivoire and—at least for as long as George Clooney is in the area— south Sudan. But “care” at the level of simple emotion is little more than a cheap vanity. The colonialists of yore may often have been bigots, but they were also, just as often, doers. Their colonies were better places than the shipwrecked countries we have today.
One day, some latter-day King Acqua will come to the West with a similar plea. If we aren’t prepared to shoulder the full burden entailed in the request, the least we can do is stop pretending we care.
Bret Stephens is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal
—The Wall Street Journal
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