While Brexit and the Mexican wall are the West’s shrill cries for national sovereignty, it seeks to hollow out the same in Africa through “voluntary colonisation”
Cosmopolis column in the Hindustan Times, 28 December, 2018
In late November, Germany’s minister of state for Africa managed to raise the hackles of an entire continent. Günter Nooke argued that African countries should consider “voluntary colonisation” to speed economic development and create employment. If sovereign nations in Africa agreed to lease portions of their territory to western states or to transnational institutions such as the European Union or the World Bank, you could have Hong Kongs or Singapores rising on the North African coast, or in the Sahel, or in Madagascar. Nooke insisted that such “voluntary colonies” would also curb the flow of migrants north from Africa into Europe as they would provide alternative destinations for people trying to improve their lives.
Predictably, the proposal was dismissed out of hand by the African Union, whose spokesperson resented the suggestion that “Africa needs to give up sovereignty and accede to ‘management’ by international organisations.” Other politicians and writers on the continent rightly bristled at the thought of western countries patronisingly relieving African nations of their political power for the sake of their supposed development; according to Nanjala Nyabola, writing in Al Jazeera online, the attempt “to reclaim colonialism by couching it in neoliberal trends or ideology” smacked of “hipster colonialism”.
That trendy ideology is particularly the brainchild of Paul Romer, an American economist and former senior vice-president of the World Bank and newly-minted Nobel prize winner. He advocates “charter cities”, essentially special economic zones in developing nations that would be administered by either rich countries or powerful companies. According to Romer, these charter cities would offer the security of “rules” that incentivise profit, attracting foreign investment. He nearly convinced the government of Madagascar in 2009 to embrace the scheme, before it had to be abandoned following public outrage. Undeterred, Romer’s special economic zones are about to be tested in Honduras. Romer sees the world as ripe for the creation of charter cities; in a 2011 Ted Talks, he showed a photo he had taken from a plane of a deserted African coastline as proof that his model had plenty of room to grow.
There is a very insidious kind of delusion at the heart of this magical thinking. Aware that his scheme conjures 19th-century European empire, he insists that while colonisation was borne out through “condescension” and “coercion,” charter cities only offer the natives the privilege of “choice”. But what is more condescending than suggesting that sovereign African (or Latin American or Asian) nations are incapable of improving themselves? And what better represents the coercive force of the market than demanding the exchange of sovereignty for investment?
Proponents of “voluntary colonisation” or “charter cities” don’t appreciate the ways in which existing nations are already hampered in improving their economies. According to the UN Economic Commission for Africa, multinational companies illicitly transfer over $100 billion in unpaid taxes out of the continent every year. African markets have long been dumping grounds of western exporters, with everything from imported agricultural goods to second-hand clothing conspiring to hurt local producers. And never mind the bedevilling legacy of western invasion and genocide in the continent, the Cold War-era meddling in African political systems, and the more recent military interventions that have stirred precisely the turmoil that has generated flows of migration north to Europe.
But however far-fetched it seems now, there is an understandable urgency to the idea of “voluntary colonisation” or “charter cities”. Increased migration to Europe and other wealthy parts of the world is inevitable. Economic globalisation has not flattened the world, as its evangelists such as Thomas Friedman promised, but has concentrated wealth within countries and expanded inequality between countries. Add the immense effects of climate change and the consequences of political and social unrest, and it is hardly surprising that we have become familiar with images of migrant caravans moving to the southern border of the US or of migrants filling boats in the Mediterranean.
“Inequality is now determined more by where you live than the class you belong to,” writes Branko Milanovic, a leading scholar of global inequality. Your country and place of birth determine your future prospects in the world economy, a position often inextricable from the relative power of your passport. That simple fact may not be apparent to many people in wealthier countries, but it is abundantly clear to the migrants who make perilous journeys across borders in search of better lives.
It’s not a paradox, but rather an entirely natural function of our current stilted global order that people in the West yell about preserving their national sovereignty — think of the chest-thumping around Brexit or of the arguments of Trump advisers in defence of the preposterous, wasteful border wall with Mexico — while seeking to hollow out sovereignty elsewhere.