Neo-Colonialism Has Gone Green

‘One of my top priorities… is to champion global action for vulnerable countries on the frontline of climate change.’ So said the UK’s former business secretary and now COP26 president designate Alok Sharma ahead of last month’s ‘global summit on climate and development’.

Grand words, but behind them lies a murky reality. The ‘vulnerable’ countries of which Sharma speaks are poor sovereign states that have been screwed for decades by supra-national bodies, like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. And they are about to get screwed again by the same institutions, but this time in the name of saving the planet.

Back in the 1980s, global institutions, like the IMF, provided financial aid to developing countries on the condition that they changed their economic policies, reduced inflation, devalued their currencies, and so on. These so-called structural-adjustment programmes (SAP) imposed imperial-style diktats on the way that these heavily indebted countries were allowed to develop. They forced them to restrain internal demand, shift production according to the priorities of external markets and impose policies that would provide a handsome return to the aid-giver.

In recent years, global leaders and institutions have changed tack. They no longer tell subservient nations how they should develop. Instead, they nudge developing countries to consider whether they want to develop at all. In the name of the environment, they are encouraging developing countries to stay where they are, undisturbed by anything as alien as economic progress.

This is not a surprise. In Western circles, the idea of ‘development’ has long been portrayed as a bad thing. Writing in Open Democracy, the authors of ‘Development’ is Colonialism in Disguise argue: ‘The South emulates the North, captivated by its dazzling lifestyles in a seemingly unstoppable course that brings ever more social and environmental problems. Seven decades after the concept of “development” erupted on to the scene, the entire world is mired in “maldevelopment”.’

For miserablists like these, it is a straightforward narrative: the West has (mal)developed, therefore we have to stop the developing world from ‘making the same mistakes’. The authors ignore the continued immiseration visited on undeveloped countries. And they refuse to recognise their own colonial mindset, in which the development from which the West has benefited is to be denied to the world’s poorest and voiceless (who, by the way, seem to want development).

This antipathy towards development is writ large in the United Nations’s 2012 review of its 1992 action plan, originally formulated at the Earth Summit in Rio. The UN complained that, hitherto, ‘donors more often than not prioritised participation in so-called development-oriented projects and not sustainable-development governance’. Instead, the UN urged donor agencies to focus on the environment, sustainable development and climate change.

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