Calling On Us Not To Become A New Colonialist

I can see why The New Colonialists by Cohen, Kupcu, and Khanna is required reading, especially if you aspire to a career in international development. It gives you a double-espresso shot of doubt about the good that international organizations are doing in the so-called “developing” world and your own potentially past and future complicit role in the process. Brought up by Irish nationalists, all through my childhood I was imbued with an anti-colonial attitude, and now I could potentially become a new colonialist? Yikes!

That Somalia, Iraq, or the Congo are listed as failed states was not too surprising, but Kenya (along with Botswana, Cambodia and Georgia) is a failed-state’s cousin?! Is the Kenyan government’s lack of good governance making it a bastion of aid agencies, international charities, and philanthropists or, is it vice-versa, with the international aid workers usurping the role of the state and thus acting as new colonialists? I am of the opinion that right now sometimes both are happening for sure.

That the aid given by this conglomeration of non-state actors is surpassing traditional aid was illuminating and a new fact for me. According to the authors, only 15 percent of aid today is from official development assistance, for example, the US government giving aid to the Kenyan government. In the 1970s the majority of aid was official development assistance. Wow, that is a power shift! The authors rightfully question the expanding role of the international community in their host communities, when they point out that the staff of these major organizations are often directing development strategies and crafting government policies to the extent that those who are running the country are not developing the skills to do it on their own. It does seem that this scenario is verging on impinging on the state’s sovereignty and counterproductive to the end goal of exiting out.

As the authors point out, even traditional government aid often gets granted to humanitarian NGOs rather than to the host government in order to circumvent corrupt government officials.  That is the same reason many of the senior staff of international NGOs are foreign nationals, but it does have a somewhat paternalist, colonial feel to it. Also, my pet peeve is that many aid workers are constantly skipping around from NGO to NGO, country to country exploring new territories, instead of staying in one place, building up area knowledge and making a bigger difference.

The authors do admit that the “new colonists” are getting results, particularly in public health. Yippee! And they do not like to contemplate what could happen if all aid was withdrawn from failing or dysfunctional states.  This article is a call out to all of us working in the field to have a conscience, be wary of the temptation to build an aid empire, and ultimately focus on how to be accountable to the people that we serve.


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