Has Decolonisation been Achieved?

By Agnieszka Szalasny

Originally published in October 2013

This study investigates the issues of modern slavery, economic dominance and dependency relations in the contemporary world entail that the decolonization process cannot be fully defined as having been achieved. Nowadays, the dominant role of colonial empires has been replaced by transnational organisations which dictate economic terms globally, thus affecting the political life in developing countries. The phenomenon of exploiting human and natural resources on a massive scale is examined through the Ivory Coast and Anglo American Company activities, using dependency theory. Although the unprivileged position of Third World countries is not generally recognised nowadays, not much has been done to change the situation. The famous Cuban revolutionary Ché Guevara once said that ‘We (developing countries) are countries whose economies have been distorted by imperialism, which has abnormally developed those branches of industry or agriculture needed to complement its complex economy’. And those words seem to perfectly summarize today’s world order. Legacies of imperialism still continue to pillage African countries and many other ‘underdeveloped’ areas around the world, through the imposition of corporations funded by the lifestyles of Western consumers. As long as the Third World countries remain dependent on foreign markets, unfavourable trade agreements and ideologies imposed on them by the rich western markets cannot be measured by the same means as fully independent states.

Two decades after the breakup of the Second World War, a final and most dramatic wave of independence swept across the European Empires in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Sometimes, it was a result of peaceful negotiations between the leaders of nationalist movements and European powers or the consequence of devastating wars in the name of liberal values (Smith, 2003: 75). Although the process of decolonisation conventionally began in 1776, when thirteen colonies of British America declared their independence, it still remains hard to define whether decolonisation has been achieved or not (The History Channel Website, 2013). The legacies of imperialism are deeply rooted in post-colonial countries even though not directly exposed. This paper is going to show that, despite the relative political independence of the developing countries, there are still factors that subordinate them to Western countries, even if the neo-colonial policies are not as visible as the colonial ones half a millennium ago. Terms such as neo-colonialism (also called new colonialism) will be explained here with the intention of showing its presence in the contemporary world order and emphasising that, despite having constitutional independence, the developing countries are still largely depended on dominant economies. The case of Africa as the Third World’s dominant continent will be discussed here mostly with illustrative examples of development in the Ivory Coast and its continuous problem of slavery as well as unfair trade practises related to gold mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo and surrounding arenas.

In order to deeply examine the abovementioned question, the consideration of imperialism and colonialism is crucial. In classical Marxism, the term ‘imperialism’ referred to a stage of capitalism leading to political, economic and military rivalry and conflict between the advanced capitalist countries at the turn of the nineteenth century (Smith, 2003: 22) whereas the Oxford Dictionary defines it as ‘a policy of extending a country’s power and influence through colonization, use of military force, or other means’ (Oxford Dictonaries, 2013). It is therefore noticeable that imperialism is often associated with colonial practices. Even if imperialism does not necessary mean involving the forceful annexation of territory, it is still reflected in the economic exploitation of weak countries by the stronger ones. However, imperialism should not be confused with colonialism. The driving forces behind colonialism were additional to those motivating imperialism, so thus colonialism is an adjunct of imperialism rather than its equivalent (Smith, 2003: 23). Nevertheless, nowadays, in the era of globalisation those definitions are adjusted to what we know as ‘neo-colonialism’. In post-colonial studies, the term ‘neo-colonialism’ refers to varied dependencies (like social, economic and cultural) of countries from the developed world in the respective internal affairs of the countries of the developing world (Nkrumah, 1965). Despite the aforementioned fact that the final wave of decolonization process occurred after WWII, many former colonial powers still continue to derive benefits from their anterior colonies. Today, in contrast to colonial times, instead of governments the more important role is played by NGOs and multinational corporations which continue to exploit natural resources and people from past-colonial countries. Although there are many cases to examine this phenomenon, here will be investigated the ‘neo-colonial’ controversies surrounding firstly the Cocoa Trade in West Africa and secondly the Gold Trade in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It is worth mentioning that those cases are only a part of what is really happening in the African continent and in many other Third World’s countries nowadays.

In order to rightly understand and interpret the political and economic situation of post-colonial countries, a look back at the historical background is crucial. As the focus of most colonial economies was on exporting goods to empires of the colonisers, their trade opportunities became very limited. The world has been divided into those who were located on the peripheries (developing countries) and those in the centre, with developed, advanced economies at the forefront (Handelman, 2011). The main aim of economy was to enrich colonisers through the maximisation of extracting goods from colonised countries. When independence reached the colonial economies, they were left in a highly specialised condition, with few major commodities oriented towards export earnings and thus the foreign exchange (Smith, 2003: 77).

The economy of the Ivory Coast, which achieved formal political independence from France in 1960, in colonial times was based mainly on cash crop of coffee and cocoa in the southern forest zones and cottons in northern savannahs. As the main goal of the French policy was to stimulate the production of raw materials, economy relied heavily on agriculture and that tendency prevailed until today (Manzo, 2009 :251).

Currently, in order to meet the challenge of commodity’s high demand in the West, many farmers in the Ivory Coast are forced to seek cheap labour and the easiest way for them to do so, is to use poor children from neighbouring countries (it is estimated that around 15 000 trafficked children from Mali are working without payment on Ivorian cocoa farms) (Manzo, 2009: 248). The root of that rather worrying phenomenon is poverty, as the farmers in West Africa do not get fair prices for their cocoa. Most of them are uneducated and do not have a proper access to global market prices of their product. Thanks to that, multinational corporations are able to sell their products for a comparatively low market price, as the labour costs are cut by the so-called ‘modern slavery’ (Bowman, 2007). Human Right Watch in its report about child trafficking writes: ‘Traffickers lure children from their homes with promises of high-quality schooling and vocational training abroad. Many of the children are orphans, forced to become breadwinners following the death of a parent from AIDS or other causes’ (Human Rights Watch, 2003). The organisation reports that nearly half of the chocolate produced in the United States was linked to cocoa beans harvested by child labourers in Côte d’Ivoire. Furthermore, children below the age of four might be a part of illegal modern slavery.

However, the most shocking thing is that organisations such as IMF and the World Bank contribute to the exploitation of children in Africa and to human rights violations. Through the ‘Structural Adjustment’ plan proposed by those organisations, Third World countries became obligated to succumb to neo-liberal (essentially capitalist) development agendas. Those agendas covered inter alia the liberalisation of banking and trade, which at least in theory, the farmers would have benefited from. The combined effect of externally imposed policies and improved international prices for cocoa and coffee resulted in an explosion of cocoa production in the mid of 90s which consequently contributed to supply rise. Unfortunately for agricultural producers, the over-supply of cocoa made it a very easily accessible product and thus its price inevitably fell (Manzo, 2009: 251-56). Therefore, the Structural Adjustment instead of helping the economy of developing countries drove these deprived nations deeper into poverty. Moreover, so as to repay the foreign loans taken by developing countries, IMF and the World Bank prescribed substantial cutbacks which reduced spending on important matters including healthcare, education and development and thus lowered the standard of living even further (Shah, 2013).

As mentioned before, the economy of the Ivory Coast was predominantly orientated at exporting goods, so it was forced to export more, in order to meet the insatiable demand of Western societies and be able to pay off its debts (Smith, 2003: 75). As the price of cocoa declined, farmers began to exploit trafficked children. This phenomenon however, cannot be simply described as slavery; nowadays there is a lack of a master-slave relation, which makes it substantially more difficult to bring those involved in the process to justice. Paradoxically, the roots of this changed form of slavery lie in its formal abolition. Starting from the Slavery Convention of 1926 to the Rome Final Act of 1998, freedom from enslavement has been guaranteed and classified as one of the main principles of human right conventions. The Ivory Coast, among other states, signed those conventions and thus committed itself to adhere to the regulations. Although slavery still persists there in various forms such as debt bondage or contract slavery, and slave became a ‘consumable item’ in the world economy (Manzo, 2005: 521-34).

Although child trafficking became a serious concern, it still remains a very hard task for the international community to change the present situation. In 2001, the US Congress publicly recognised what was happening in most of the farms in West Africa and launched an international agreement known as the ‘Cocoa Protocol’ (Free The Slaves Organization, 2007-2013). Nevertheless, that protocol is voluntary and thus there is no way to enforce it legally. Multinational corporations were against it from the very beginning and thus it is very doubtful that child trafficking is going to be suppressed by this means (Bowman, 2007).

As a result, it is noticeable that the economic consequences of colonial dependency of the Ivory Coast and the neoliberal development imposed by IMF and the World Bank widely contributed to worsening the condition of the Ivory Coast as well as the rest of West African countries. Although the term ‘slavery’ is inherently related with colonial times, its legacies prevailed until present day. Quoting Bales, ‘it is like the shift from the of colonies in the last century to the economic exploitation of those same countries today without the cost and trouble of maintaining colonies’ (Bales, 1999: 25). Similarly, the greatest companies do the same as what European empires did in the last century – they benefit from the natural wealth of Africa and take advantage of low-cost labour without any effort of governing in the particular country. Thus, the process of decolonisation cannot be labelled as finished, because the colonial legacy is still present in post-colonial countries, even if not demonstrated directly (Bales, 1999).

Another case study which will be discussed here regards gold mining activities in the Democratic Republic of Congo and its surroundings, which became a serious concern, both for the indigenous people and the international community as well. The role of a leading corporation, called AngloGold Ashanti will be markedly depicted here, as well as its contribution to human rights abuses in post-colonial countries and unfair trade practices which result in increasing its profits whilst deepening the poverty of local communities.

It seems to be very questioning that such a country as the DRC is widely considered to be the richest country regarding its natural resources and, at the same time having the second lowest GDP per capita in the world (CIA, 2013). The two recent conflicts (First and Second Congo Wars) started in the mid-90s caused a dramatic decline in economic development and deterioration of living standards. Those two wars took lives of millions of people, leaving the country in completely internal disorder (BBC, 2013). The government was unable to rescue many areas within the country, where ethnic groups were fiercely fighting in the last years. This situation seems to benefit the world’s second largest mining company, AngloGold Ashanti together with De Beers and Anglo Platinum. All of them extract natural resources of Africa, similarly to the ex-colonisers of the past. The small town of Mongbwalu, which is the focal point of AngloGold’s activities, just after the wars became controlled by a rebel group called the Nationalist and Integrationist Front. As the group started to control the whole town, including the gold spot, the Anglo-American company entered into the settlement with FNI by using its financial power (HRW, 2005). Journal of African Business and many others authoritarian organisations agree with suspicions of committing serious human rights abuses by FNI such as murdering and raping many women and children in Mongbwalu’s area (Journal of African Business, 2009). However, those violations did not keep the mining company away from integrating into the local mining industry – on the contrary, the company secured a safe position within the community of the town, which continues to be threatened by the rebel group. While the company largely benefits from its links with armed groups, at the same time, it disregards the poverty stricken locals who were born on the land (Curtis, 2007).

Apart from the AngloGold activities in the DRC, it operates in five other African countries. The company’s mining activities in Ghana turned out to be an environmental threat to the whole community around the Obuasi gold mine. Many of the local rivers which used to provide access to drinking water and activities such as fishing and land irrigation, have been flooded with pollution as a result of the mining activities. Although AngloGold Ashanti promised an “appropriate compensation” for the spillage, months after the incident, villagers had still not been given any compensation. The local community lives in continuous fear of the company security and policy, which protects the corporate interests, by intimidating and tracking ‘illegal’ miners through, for example, destroying their houses and properties. Thus, it is clear that companies contribute to propagate corruption within the countries where they operate and reduce the chances for development and enrichment of the indigenous people (Curtis, 2007). Although their unfair trade practices got the attention of organisations like the United Nations, which have described these actions as ‘deeply concerning’, it remains a challenge to change the situation, as AngloGold declared they follow the voluntary principles of Corporate Social Responsibility which, as some argue, help to prevent mandatory external investigations into the corporation (Curtis, 2007).

The case of AngloGold company is a clear example of exploiting African people. It shows that despite the decolonisation process, the Western power is still dominant in the contemporary world. The government of the United Kingdom remains in close relations with the company, despite its devastating records in countries in which it operates. They support the voluntary character of CSR and demonstrate opposition towards introducing international legally binding frameworks for multinational companies (Curtis, 2007). The way things stand at the moment, it seems very unlikely to improve the condition of ex-colonial countries, as it is simply unprofitable for countries which possess great capital and therefore unlimited power.

So consequently, both the phenomenon of modern slavery, economic dominance and dependency relations in the contemporary world entail that the decolonization process cannot be fully defined as having been achieved. Nowadays, the dominant role of colonial empires has been replaced by transnational organisations which dictate economic terms globally, thus affecting the political life in developing countries. The Ivory Coast case and the activities of Anglo American company are just two examples of multitude cases where extracting human and natural resources from peripheral countries are generally recognized. The famous Cuban revolutionary Ché Guevara once said that ‘We (developing countries) are countries whose economies have been distorted by imperialism, which has abnormally developed those branches of industry or agriculture needed to complement its complex economy’ (March, 2005). And those words seem to perfectly recapitulate today’s world order, where legacies of imperialism still continue to pillage African countries and many other ‘underdeveloped’ arenas around the world, through the imposition of corporations funded by the lifestyles of Western consumers. As long as the Third World countries remain dependent on foreign markets, unfavourable trade agreements and ideologies imposed on them by the rich western markets, they cannot be measured by the same means like as fully independent states.


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