Sunday, April 11, 2010

Colonialism's legacy isn't the most important thing holding Africa back.

So says Nicholas Kristof.

It's very easy to invoke "colonialism" as the root cause of anything that goes wrong in Africa. (An example is the fifth comment in this Metafilter thread about the article on African "un-wars" that I blogged the other day.) I say this is easy because it almost always sounds plausible, and you can make the assertion without knowing much beyond the general fact that there was a lot of colonialism in Africa. Not many people will defend colonialism, and that's fine with me -- but I don't think it's fine to use it as a convenient scapegoat for all the current-day problems in an entire continent. Kristof supports his conclusion by taking a reasoned looked at the actual evidence from developing nations that experienced heavy, light, or no colonialism. Anyone who wants to opine on the effects of colonialism should first look at Kristof's fact-based reasoning.

Although placing all the blame on outsiders who did wrong in the past might feel like a righteously perceptive outlook, this can't be the key to future progress. It's similar to turning every discussion of race in America back to slavery. While it is important to recognize that slavery (aside from its inherent evil) had deleterious consequences that are still with us, it's counterproductive to place all the blame on slavery. If you send a message that a group of people is persistently held back by things someone else did in the distant past, you're denying the current-day people their own agency and capability to solve problems for the future.

What I don't understand about Kristof's blog post, though, is why he doesn't link to his own vividly reported column about a household in Zimbabwe, which that blog post is based on. (See how easy this linking thing is?) You can find the link somewhere on the page, but it's buried deep in the right-hand sidebar. (And I've found by observing the behavior of blog readers that people rarely look at the sidebar.) Basic blogging practices dictate that if your blog post begins, "In my Sunday column . . . ," you need to link to that column. Kristof writes a New York Times blog and has an active Twitter page; surely he's blog-savvy enough to know how to do this, or he has staffers who are supposed to do it for him.

By the way, Kristof notes in that column that the leader of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, "subjects journalists to imprisonment," so he had to keep his reporting "surreptitious." He risked his liberty to bring us this column; he should promote it as effectively as possible.


Jason (the commenter) said...

Countries that have been on the receiving end of colonialism:


They all seem to have been able to move on.