Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Editor's Introduction - September 2008

"The New Colonialists" by Michael A. Cohen, Maria Figueroa Küpçü, and Parag Khanna. Foreign Policy. July/August 2008.

For many, international aid agencies and humanitarian organizations provide incomparable services to those in the world’s poorest and weakest states. However, according to authors Cohen, Küpçü, and Khanna, the increasingly direct role of these groups demands further consideration. Specifically, the authors contend that when weighing the positive aspects of foreign aid assistance, it is necessary to examine the underlying causes and consequences that have allowed for the entrenchment of these groups in the politics and economics of states and populations in need.

“The thin line that separates weak states from truly failed ones is manned by a hodgepodge of international charities, aid agencies, philanthropists, and foreign advisors. This armada of nonstate actors has become a powerful global force, replacing traditional donors’ and governments’ influence in poverty-stricken, war-torn world capitals.”

Comparing the typically invasive policies and practices of aid agencies and humanitarian organizations with those of former European empires, the authors label these groups “new colonialists.” The authors point to the fact that in providing drastic degrees of political, economic, and social-welfare assistance, these groups do little to allow feeble states to grow and develop independent of outside support.

“As a consequence, many of these states are failing to develop the skills necessary to run their countries effectively, while others fall back on a global safety net to escape their own accountability.”

Thus, the development of national infrastructures in weak and vulnerable states remains hampered due to continued dependence on aid agencies and organizations, which in turn actively maintain structures and cycles of dependence. As a result, it is necessary to question the apparent role of aid agencies and humanitarian organizations in contributing to the failure of stable development. Moreover, the argument continues, the “new colonialists” have been instrumental in further establishing detrimental policies and practices that cement their position in places and among populations of need.

“Many aid organizations will say that their ultimate goal is to ensure their services are no longer needed. But aid organizations and humanitarian groups need dysfunction to maintain their relevance. Indeed, their institutional survival depends on it…No matter how well-intentioned, these new colonialists need weak states as much as weak states need them.”

Given the business aspects of aid assistance, particularly in providing much needed services across the globe, aid agencies and organizations rely on the continued inability and lack of resources of weak states for sustained employment. Furthermore, as these groups create a competitive market for access to needy states and populations, one must ask if the established structures of dependence will ever be broken. Needless to say, it is essential for the international community, states, and, most importantly, aid agencies and humanitarian organizations to reconsider the methods and consequences of assistance.

These issues and others are considered in this month’s Roundtable.


Saving Lives: A First Step Toward Freedom Not Dependence

by William F. Felice, Eckerd College

"Unfortunately, Cohen, Küpçü, and Khanna fall into this revisionist quagmire by conflating colonialism solely with dependency, ignoring the most vicious and brutal components to the over 450 years of colonial domination... somehow today it is OK to talk about empire, imperialism and colonialism as if these were almost neutral terms."

During the nineteenth century, European powers extended and deepened their brutal domination of the so-called “uncivilized” (sic) nations and peoples around the world. These efforts were named “colonialist” and were based on the uprooting of indigenous peoples, the export and pillage of natural resources, cultural displacement, direct political control, and economic exploitation and the creation of dependency by the Europeans. While the European states gained colossal economic benefits from these arrangements, the colonized peoples were left with failed states and bad governments. Advocates of these colonialist policies often justified these actions on the basis of a deep-felt ideological belief in the superior morality of the West and the need to take up the “white man’s burden.”

So who, according to Michael Cohen, Maria Küpçü and Parag Khanna, are the “new colonialists” of the 21 st century? I first thought that perhaps the title of their Foreign Policy article (“The New Colonialists”) might be referring to Russia’s attempt to exert political and economic control over the Commonwealth of Independent States. Or, if not Russia, perhaps the authors would label the Chinese efforts to expand their political, cultural, and economic clout throughout African, Asia and Latin America as colonialist. And if not Russia or China, the last option, I thought, was for the authors to analyze the global actions of the U.S., including the establishment of 737 U.S. military bases in nations around the world, in relation to the nefarious history of colonial interventions. Boy was I wrong. According to Cohen, Küpçü, and Khanna, the “new colonialists” are Oxfam, Mercy Corps, Doctors Without Borders, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation!

Cohen, Küpçü, and Khanna claim that these NGOs and development groups “direct development strategies and craft government policies” in dozens of states with corrupt or feeble governments. These international actors have now “taken over key state functions, providing for the health, welfare, and safety of citizens.” The authors claim that this “largesse often erodes governments’ ability to stand up on their own” and results in “a vicious cycle of dependency.” As a consequence, the “failed” and “failing” states are unable to develop the skills necessary to run their countries effectively and are dependent on the NGOs for survival. “These private actors have become the ‘new colonialists’ of the 21 st century.”

This analysis of “the new colonialists” brings two disheartening developments into the open. The first is the way in which the language of colonialism, imperialism and empire has been sanitized and misused in the current period. Some scholars, for example, push hard for a new U.S.-led imperialist empire to globalize Western approaches to democracy and freedom. Others look fondly back at the era of British colonialism with rose-colored glasses. Unfortunately, Cohen, Küp ç ü, and Khanna fall into this revisionist quagmire by conflating colonialism solely with dependency, ignoring the most vicious and brutal components to the over 450 years of colonial domination. It should not be so easy to label an organization “colonialist.” In fact, given the real meaning of the term, it is absurd and scandalous to call the Gates Foundation “colonialist.” One would not lightly brand a group “fascist” or “totalitarian.” Yet, somehow today it is OK to talk about empire, imperialism and colonialism as if these were almost neutral terms.

Second, broadside attacks from the left and the right of the political spectrum on NGOs have escalated in the recent period. In addition, terrorists have declared war on NGOs, aid groups, and the United Nations. Within the academy, a “cottage industry” of scholars writing books and articles centered on the illegitimate power of humanitarian NGOs, faith-based organizations, and mega-philanthropies has emerged in the last decade. Many of these analysts have usefully documented cases of unaccountability, waste, and cronyism within the NGO community. Others have shown that, some so-called NGOs are actually profit-driven organizations with private agendas that are of little help to a poor country. However, such critiques do not apply to most of the major NGOs and philanthropies, including Doctors Without Borders and the Gates Foundation. These organizations have done reliable work in alleviating human suffering. Cohen, Küpçü, and Khanna acknowledge that these organizations “unquestionably fill vital roles, providing lifesaving healthcare, educating children, and distributing food.” Yet, despite this overall record of achievement, the authors believe that the consequence of effective NGO work is to relieve the government of the failing state of the responsibility to protect and provide for their people. These declining states are unable “to develop the skills necessary to run their countries effectively.” The authors wonder if the “new colonialists” have gone “too far in attempting to manage responsibilities that should be those of governments alone” These NGOs are thus faced with an impossible Catch-22: If they don’t act, literally thousands of lives could be lost; Yet if they do act to save these lives with interventions, for example, of food and medicine, the authors argue these actions will contribute to the poor nation’s long-term dependency on outside aid.

Cohen, Küpçü, and Khanna doubt that these humanitarian organizations really hope for a day that their services are not needed. The authors argue that the survival of these organizations depends upon the continued existence of weak states. Perhaps there are some individuals working in these NGOs who think and act the way the authors describe. I’ve never met such individuals. I have, on the other hand, met and interviewed many people in the NGO world, including staff with Doctors Without Borders, who very much yearn for a world that privileges the rights of the poor. These individuals would absolutely prefer to be working in the safety of their home nations. Yet, to advance global social justice, these global pilgrims set aside those personal goals. The amount of human suffering that would occur if these individuals and organizations packed up shop, out of a fear of creating dependency, is immeasurable.

For a people to be able to assert their collective and individual rights, and to hold their governments accountable, they first must be able to eat and to be free from devastating disease. There are countless examples of NGOs giving individuals the opportunity to focus beyond survival needs. A final example will perhaps make this point clear. Nicholas Kristof describes the work of a clinic in Ethiopia funded by outside individual donors and humanitarian aid groups. The clinic repairs obstetric fistulas, one of the most awful injuries humans can sustain. A fistula occurs when a physically immature teenage girl tries to give birth and the baby gets stuck. Without a doctor to help, the baby is stillborn, and the girl is left with perforations between her vagina and bladder or rectum. At a very early age, these girls’ lives are ruined. Globally, approximately two million girls and women suffer from this affliction. At the cost of about $450 per operation, supplied by individuals and humanitarian NGOs, these teenage girls are brought back to life. Of course, the Ethiopian government has responsibility for the welfare of its citizens and should be providing a system of basic health care. But, until that day comes, it is truly glorious to see these individuals and humanitarian NGOs working to save these young girls’ lives. These actions to save lives do not create dependency. On the contrary, these actions give these girls the freedom to actualize their human capabilities, perhaps for the first time. These outside medical interventions create the conditions for these girls to act against state corruption and inefficiency, and hopefully someday put an end to destructive forms of dependency.

William F. Felice is professor of political science and head of the international relations major at Eckerd College. Dr. Felice was named the 2006 Florida Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. He is the author of The Global New Deal: Economic and Social Human Rights in World Politics (2003), Taking Suffering Seriously: The Importance of Collective Human Rights (1996), and numerous articles on the theory and practice of human rights. More information can be found on his department website http://www.eckerd.edu/academics/irga/faculty/felice.php


Nothing "Colonial" About It: Service Delivery and Accountability

by Todd Landman, University of Essex

"The argument in 'The New Colonialists' is highly negative, inaccurate in its use of the term 'colonial,' grossly over-simplified, and does not reflect the growing attempts to provide the kind of accountability mechanisms for which they advocate."

At one level, there is little in “The New Colonialists” with which I disagree. The necessary state capacity in developing societies for basic service delivery is in many cases absent, significantly weak, or has been corrupted in ways that produce tremendous inequality of access and disproportionate social outcomes that are related to race, ethnicity, poverty, gender, and other categories of social identity. It is true that in the presence of weak state institutions, widespread corruption, and underdeveloped infrastructure, a large number of national and international non-governmental agencies and organizations have sought to redress such imbalances through their work in providing basic social services in ways that states have been unable to do.

It is true that the market for such organizations is highly competitive and their survival is dependent on recurring forms of funding within the larger world of overseas development assistance. It is also true that in certain instances, the non-governmental sector has become so dominant that it represents a set of parallel institutions that compete directly with the state. Indeed, while I was working on a project to develop human rights indicators in Bangladesh, a representative from a donor country told me that the non-governmental sector was so “overdeveloped” that the best course of action was to nationalize it, but in the absence of such an event from occurring, they had to continue to fund those groups and organizations that actually delivered the targeted development outcomes.

In this way, partner countries are dependent upon non-governmental organizations, national and international non-governmental agencies are dependent on donor countries and international donor agencies, which are in turn dependent on the non-governmental sector for service delivery and the achievement of development outcomes.

At another level, however, the argument in “The New Colonialists” is highly negative, inaccurate in its use of the term “colonial,” grossly over-simplified, and does not reflect the growing attempts to provide the kind of accountability mechanisms for which they advocate. Words such as “abyss,” “motley,” “hodgepodge,” “armada,” etc. are not particularly useful or helpful in providing a balanced assessment of the real problem of state capacity and the ways in which thousands of organisations and individuals, often working on shoe string budgets with low overheads, attempt to hold together some form of social fabric and provide social justice under exceedingly difficult conditions.

The presence and activities of these organizations are simply not equivalent to the types of colonial authority established by the great powers of Europe. Colonial expansion involved the establishment of enclave communities from which rent and natural resources were extracted for the center economy and political administration in Europe, which local governance involved a blend of military conquest, authoritarian administration, religious conversion (especially in Latin America), and imposition of foreign legal codes that undermined indigenous systems of governance, inheritance, communal property ownership and many other features of pre-colonial society. To equate the activities of the donor agencies and the organizations on the ground with this kind of history is simply erroneous, inaccurate, and provides little by way of a solution.

While the current system is one in which development assistance continues to be inadequate (only a handful of developed countries allocate more than the U.N. target of .7% of annual GDP), state institutions in partner countries continue to be weak, and the market for non-governmental organizations competitive, there is a growing emphasis within donor agencies and their partners on the role for accountability.

My own experiences in assessing the effectiveness of nine international human rights organizations in receipt of funding from the Netherlands revealed that many organizations have strong accountability mechanisms in place that tag project and program outputs, outcomes, and impact to particular lines of funding and particular donor agencies. Donors, for their part, have increased the reporting requirements for their partner organizations in ways that enhance accountability across the sector.

While such reporting requirements have created new demand on organizations and occupy larger proportions of their annual budgets, good reporting procedures and mechanisms of accountability, impact assessment, and feedback, mean that it is now more possible than ever to assess the value of these activities and the contribution that they make in providing much needed redress in some of the world’s most difficult settings. Like “The New Colonialists,” I too have a certain optimism for the role that aid agencies and their partner organisations can have, but they are simply not colonialists and they are much further along the route to establishing systems of accountability than the article suggests.

Dr. Todd Landman is Director of the Centre for Democratic Governance, Department of Government, at University of Essex. He is author of Issues and Methods in Comparative Politics, 3rd Edition (Routledge 2008), Studying Human Rights (Routledge 2006), and Protecting Human Rights (Georgetown 2005); co-author of Governing Latin America (Polity 2003) and Citizenship Rights and Social Movements (Oxford 1997); and co-editor of the Sage Handbook of Comparative Politics (Sage 2009). Dr. Landman has served as international human rights and democracy consultant for UNDP, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, CIDA, DFID, DANIDA, IDEA, UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Foreign Ministry of the Netherlands, Foreign Ministry of Mongolia, International Centre for Human Rights Policy, and Minority Rights Group International. His personal website can be found at http://privatewww.essex.ac.uk/~todd.


Cosmopolitanism and Rationalizing Tendencies

by James Pattison, University of West England

"We should not let the pejorative language of colonialism lead us to forget that what matters is securing people’s basic needs, and not let dependency provide us with another convenient rationalization for why we don’t do anything wrong when we choose not to help those less fortunate than ourselves."

When phone-in talk shows, the press, and undergraduates debate the case for cosmopolitan accounts of global distributive justice, there are a number of standard rationalizations given for why we don’t have a duty to help. These include: “we have duties only to our fellow countrymen”; “poverty is caused by corrupt leaders, so not our fault, and therefore not our responsibility“; and “humanitarian aid is counter-productive.” Unlike the other two sorts of rationalization, the latter claim does not necessarily deny the moral cosmopolitanism premise that we have extensive duties to relieve the suffering of those beyond our borders. Rather, it follows that good cosmopolitans shouldn’t give aid because doing so will violate the negative duty not to harm others, including those in other states. Yet I think we ought to be wary of this claim, given what Thomas Pogge calls our “rationalizing tendencies.” That is, we often interpret our moral values and empirical judgments in own favor. Consider, for instance, the frequent flyer who convinces herself that global warming is exaggerated in order to excuse her own significant carbon footprint. Claims of dependency by the “new colonialists” may fall into the same category. They provide a convenient excuse for individuals not to support aid agencies and international charities—our donations and support are only going to worsen the situation of those needing help anyway.

To be sure, allegations of donor dependency may have some substance and, as such, be more than simply selfish rationalizations. But it is questionable how much significance we should we give to this problem. It is important to remember that what ultimately matters is the effective provision of vital services, such as education and healthcare. This is not to deny that donors acting on cosmopolitan sentiments should be aware of the potentially detrimental effects of their beneficence. More specifically, aid agencies and other benefactors should take steps to help secure the accountability and long-term sustainability of the services that they provide. My point, however, is that dependency seems, by comparison, a minor complaint when what is at stake is the provision of services that are inextricably linked to the basic health and welfare of citizens.

The provision of these services can be said to be cosmopolitan not only in a moral sense—fulfilling duties to those beyond our boundaries—but also in the political sense of the term—the agents that provide the services are non-state, global actors. Some may feel uneasy about the growing influence of such cosmopolitan agents, but we should not romanticize the system of states. Those that revere the state often view it as the ultimate political community. It should be strong, the argument runs, and political leaders should be free to make their own decisions without external influence. The obvious problem with this perspective is that it takes the state to be a “black box”: what goes on within it is no one else’s problem. And, on this view, aid that can help the state’s people but harm the state is problematic. This gets things the wrong way round. As most modern, liberal conceptions of the state tell us, the state exists to provide for its citizens. It follows that if cosmopolitan agents can provide basic services that better secure people’s needs than then the weak state, so much for the state.

It is perhaps inevitable that the services provided by cosmopolitan agents will lead to allegations of dependency. This may be testament to the job that some of them are doing: they’re providing effective services that people want to use. It is also perhaps inevitable that their presence will give rise to accusations of being “new colonialists.” However, we should not let the pejorative language of colonialism lead us to forget that what matters is securing people’s basic needs, and not let dependency provide us with another convenient rationalization for why we don’t do anything wrong when we choose not to help those less fortunate than ourselves.

Dr. James Pattison is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of the West of England, U.K. He recently completed his PhD on humanitarian intervention, for which he was awarded the “Sir Ernest Barker Prize for Best Dissertation in Political Theory.” He has written various articles on the ethics of war and intervention and is currently working on a book on the Responsibility to Protect for Oxford University Press. Please visit his website: http://www.uwe.ac.uk/hlss/politics/staff_jPattison.shtml.


In with the Old, Out with the New

by Brent J. Steele, University of Kansas

"The problem with this thesis is that the authors do not seem to entertain the possibility that the nation-state is itself an (old) colonial construct, and that even the longing for the 'strong' structures of the nation-state in these at-risk areas represents, at least implicitly, a somewhat outdated way of thinking."

Michael Cohen, Maria Figueroa Küpçü and Parag Khanna make some compelling arguments about the inherent drawbacks regarding the role diverse networks of NGOs play in keeping at-risk populations alive throughout the world. We are informed that these groups are “the new colonialists,” agencies much like the old European empires. These new colonialists are apparently enforcing a cycle of dependency which prevents the development of state structures, structures that apparently sustain these populations more effectively. The problem with this thesis is that the authors do not seem to entertain the possibility that the nation-state is itself an (old) colonial construct, and that even the longing for the “strong” structures of the nation-state in these at-risk areas represents, at least implicitly, a somewhat outdated way of thinking.

While NGOs can indeed, as they note, help rebuild houses and vaccinate children, they threaten the “authority of an already weak government” in the areas they operate. Another way to put this argument is that we should value the structure of the Westphalian nation-state over the needs of individuals, presumably because over the long term the former ultimately ensures the latter. But as they also admit, the reason that the “new colonialists” are here in the first place is because the governments of these states are ineffective. Perhaps they were ineffective precisely because the nation-state itself was doomed from the start in those areas—areas that were arbitrarily carved up by European colonial empires. Take the Afghanistan example—are we really to believe that Karzai’s government would be any better at delivering aid to some of these at-risk populations in remote areas than the “new colonialists”? And if not, then why are we to consider Karzai’s opinion forceful?

Another problem identified by the authors with the new colonialists is that they “bleed the country” in which they are aiding of “local talent.” Again, however, this is talent that could presumably be better used towards building up the national government, the state. But if we understand that the nation-state system itself is useful and effective in only certain contexts (temporal and spatial), if we free our mind of the idea of a Westphalian system as the default form of international order, if we are willing, moreover, to admit that a system where a multitude of specialized actors (states, NGOs, IOs, etc.) perform different functions, then the authors main beef with the “new colonialists” is a rather narrow one indeed.

Throughout the essay, the authors admit that the “new colonialists” are effective—they “get results,” they are “reliable.” Yet for them, two further problems remain. First, according to the authors, the “new colonialists need weak states as much as weak states need them.” That may be true, but they provide very little evidence that this cycle of dependence is intentionally perpetuated by the aid groups. They give the example of Georgia, asserting that the writing of grant applications for the Georgian government by NGOs “result[s in] a vicious cycle of dependency as new colonialists vie for the contracts that will keep them in business.” But how this extends into dependency is not entirely clear. A second issue for the authors is that NGOs are “unaccountable.” But how accountable are nation-states? If we assume that nation-states are more accountable than NGOs (and depending upon which state we are talking about, that’s not entirely true), we must also assume that those who fund NGOs (their members) do not hold their organizations to account. In fact, that is precisely what they can do if they threaten to withdraw their memberships and financial support.
I, and indeed most individuals of my generation, first “experienced” the idea of international politics by viewing the globes on display in a grade school classroom. In those depictions, the surface area of the seven continents was distinguished by nation-states—each coded by different colors. This was a quick and easy way to conceptualize the world at that time, but it was not always accurate. It is even less accurate today—in a fluid age where the nation-state exists in both complementary and contentious form alongside many other political organizations. The proliferation of these organizations, including what these authors have termed the “new colonialists,” has come about in part because the old order of nation-states, far from being an absolutist solution to “global order,” instead worked only in particular contexts. In others, where acute intra-state competition occurs, groups vied to capture their state institutions in order to have a “legitimate” basis for authority to do what they wished to do within their own sovereign borders (think the Hutus who spoke for Rwanda at the U.N. Security Council during the 1994 genocide). That there are problems with the practices of non-state actors is a valid point brought forth by these authors—that these problems would be ameliorated by a return to the “one size fits all” nation-state model found on the globes of my youth is, however, an argument whose time has passed.

Brent J. Steele is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Kansas. His primary research interests cover a wide array of international relations topics, including international ethics, international political theory, United States foreign policy, Just War theory, ontological security theory and international security. In addition to his first book, Ontological Security in International Relations, he has published articles in journals such as International Relations, International Studies Review, International Studies Quarterly, Journal of International Relations and Development, Millennium and, Review of International Studies. Please visit Dr. Steele’s website: http://www2.ku.edu/~kups/people/Faculty/Steele_Brent.shtml.