Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

New Colonialist

I need to clarify my usage of the term “new colonialist” or “neo-colonialist.” I don’t mean to belittle the term by using it sardonically – even though that’s exactly what I’m doing.

First, let’s talk about colonialism. Colonialism is the term used to describe the process in which European states went out to explore the “new world” and create colonies during the 1500s to 1900s. The colonist states subjugated the colonized people and took their resources. Colonialism was excessively violent. The British invented biological warfare by purposefully giving blankets infected with smallpox to North American First Nations. Africa was carved into countries that didn’t follow any logical topography or tribal boundaries.

Some people argue that colonialism also led to new positive developments. With the added resources, Europe was able to grow and prosper. Plus look at North American now! And Australia! White people have spread knowledge and progress to all corners of the globe.

For a less-biased and more detailed review of colonialism, there’s always  Wikipedia.  According to the internet, colonialism ended in 1914 with WWI, even though many colonized countries didn’t receive independence until much later.

First, that’s not very long ago!

Second, colonialism is a process. It’s about conquering people and uneven power relations. Arguably, colonialism is still happening, but through more subtle means. Thus the term “neo-colonialism.” Consider, for example, resource-rich African states where the majority of citizens are starving but international companies make billions off oil or diamonds.

Moreover, there are also “post-colonial” effects still being felt in many former colonies. For example, ethnic tensions in the Middle East are partly caused by which groups ended up lumped in a country together. I’ll discuss more post-colonial consequences in Africa in a later blog post.

For me, though, when I use the term “neo-colonialist” I’m just being a sarcastic little brat.

It’s partly a reaction against praise. I don’t like people telling me what a wonderful thing I’m doing by going to Africa and saving starving children, etc etc etc. It makes me feel like I’m perpetuating a myth about people in developing countries, that they’re helpless victims unable to take care of themselves. Disempowerment is also a form of subjugation. I do not want to be a neo-colonist who goes overseas to help with my white privilege guilt and make myself feel like a good person. That’s not the type of development worker I want to be.

At the same time, I don’t want to demean the work that other people are doing. Even though I think that Canadian teenagers going to Africa to build schools actually makes the whole messed up world system even worse, it is malicious of me to call that sort of work neo-colonist.

But sometimes I’m a malicious person.

It’s been over a year since I blogged. Looking back, I can see that I’m more cynical and upfront about things now. I’ll try to keep the scepticism and scorn to a minimum over the next four months. If you want to read other super cool blogs by EWBers then I recommend Nadine in Ghana (whose work I’m taking over now) and Franny in Malawi. Both of them are finished their placements now, but they wrote some great stuff over the summer.

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One thought on “New Colonialist

  1. patrickbvmiller on said:

    Thanks for writing Beth! I’m excited to follow your blog this summer. I remember having a similar discussion with a few people in my JF group as well as a few later sending groups – while we’d use the term (neo colonialist) with a healthy dose of self inflicted cynicism and sarcasm to speak of our placements, we’d also reflect on if the work we’re doing actually was meaningfully different than its more academic definition. Maybe it’s a good litmus test for working abroad?

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