Thursday, December 18, 2008

The White Man's Burden

Take up the White Man's burden--
Send forth the best ye breed--
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild--
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child. - Rudyard Kipling, The White Man’s Burden, 1899

Those lines haven’t aged very well, both because that style of poetry is outdated and because the sentiments in it are now considered racist and imperialistic. The imperialistic attitudes of Kipling’s era have been utterly rejected since; now, perhaps the greatest crime a nation can commit is invading an innocent, weaker country. Modern people, particularly liberals, claim that they cannot conceive of the mindset behind Kipling’s words. (Few conservatives are really fans of imperialism, either, though some, such as Bill Kristol, seem to think that free countries have an obligation to forcibly export democracy).

Liberals might think that the attitudes of The White Man’s Burden are utterly foreign to them, but they’re wrong. Modern liberalism regards undeveloped foreign countries as “half-devil and half-child”; as entities that require good White aid if they are ever to really succeed. Only the language and methods have changed—instead of using war to better uncivilized countries, activists use money, and they now say market their efforts as a “test of our humanity” (as Bono’s website says) instead of as the “White Man’s Burden”. The face has changed—but underneath, the same old Westerncentric ideas prevail.

Think of the faces behind African aid. There’s the aforementioned Bono, who’s made Third World debt his own private crusade—as if, say, Zimbabwe would be a perfectly functioning country if not for the crushing weight of its national debt. There’s Bill and Melissa Gates, and all the artists who performed at the Live 8 concerts in 2005. Then there are the G8 leaders, who constantly promise increased amounts of aid money to Third World countries (which usually means Africa).

There are almost no African faces behind Western aid, as apparently real live Third Worlders don’t have anything to say. Much of the allure behind foreign aid is not based on good results (of which there are few), but rather because seeming to do something is so appealing. Bono is a good man, and wants an outlet for his better nature. So he pushes for Third World debt relief for the “half-child” poor nations, and feels good about himself. Nobody cares that his efforts don’t actually produce any results.

Meanwhile, people like Ian Khama get no recognition at all. You probably haven’t heard of Ian Khama—he is the current President of Botswana, which is the kind of country most of the rest of Africa hopes to be—peaceful, prosperous, and successful. And it doesn’t rely on foreign aid to thrive.

(Botswana and Zimbabwe, by the way, have nearly identical histories and geographies, which makes Robert Mugabe’s oppression all the more tragic since Botswana is an example of what Zimbabwe could be).

The Botswana model should be considered a blueprint for the Third World. It isn’t. Instead, the Tanzania model is. Tanzania is rich in natural resources, with vast resources of gold, gemstones, and natural gas. But the country’s economy is dependant on foreign aid, and has been for decades. The idea is that the money supplied will be used for investment in industry and infrastructure, producing a working economy. Yet that hope has failed—today, Tanzania is one of the poorest countries in the world.

It will be very difficult, perhaps impossible, for Africa and the rest of the Third World to join the ranks of industrialized countries. Africa is mostly desert, has few large waterways, and is of little political importance. Tribes still play a powerful role in government, and most African nations are ruled either by oppressive, incompetent dictatorships or weak, corrupt democracies. All of these factors make transforming Africa into a thriving continent very hard.

But if it ever happens, it will happen due to the strength and will of the people of Africa. And excessive foreign aid stifles that strength—it forces Third World economies into an unhealthy dependence on the generosity of foreign countries. And you can’t build a functioning economy on charity.


At December 19, 2008 at 2:51 AM , Anonymous SteveB said...

This is a tough one. On the one hand you make perfect sense. It is almost like a tough-love approach. We can't keep trying to prop poeple or countries up. They need to learn to fend for themselves. We can look at the success of welfare reform as a model.
On the other hand it is hard to look at a starving people and not feel the drive to help. You don't have to be a bleeding heart libral to be moved by some of the visuals that come out of these places.
The one line of your essay that really struck me was the one that said Bono is a good man, and he needs an outlet for his better nature. I think we all feel that. We need to find a useful outlet that will help these thridworld economies without coddling them.
A hard task.

At December 21, 2008 at 5:00 AM , Blogger Beth said...

And you can’t build a functioning economy on charity.

You are so right, yet our very own Congress thinks they can do it.

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