The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A controversial article praises colonialism. But colonialism’s real legacy was ugly.

Women and children prepare to flee with their belongings near the Central African Republic town of Grimari on May 7, 2014. (Siegfried Modola/Reuters)

How many of today’s problems in the Global South are a direct legacy of colonialism? A recent journal article by Bruce Gilley,  “The Case for Colonialism,” kicked up great controversy by arguing that the “orthodoxy” that Western colonialism was universally harmful to colonized peoples and countries is overstated. Colonialism, Gilley writes, was “both objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate” in many places.

Gilley, a political scientist at Portland State University, studies Chinese politics and recently made waves for resigning his membership in the American Political Science Association over its alleged lack of political diversity. His article in Third World Quarterly, however, ignores many existing studies that answer these questions with better data and more rigorous analysis, and which come to a resounding conclusion of “no.”

Why do we study colonialism?

Gilley implies that studying the alleged benefits of colonization is somehow off-limits, but there’s no conspiracy of political correctness preventing research on the subject. From studies of the history of wages and living standards to those exploring the legacies of colonial policies and practices, scholars around the globe remain very interested in the short- and long-term effects of colonial rule.

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Most of the thousands of studies on the topic find that while colonial rule brought some improvements in economic growth and long-term health and well-being, many of the post-colonial world’s economic and political difficulties (including corruption, poor economic productivity and violence) are directly linked to colonialism and the geopolitical system it created.

Research on colonialism is hard — but often innovative

Would former colonies be worse off had they never been colonized, as Gilley suggests? This is a question that scholars have thought about in great detail. Building plausible “alternative histories” — which academics call “counterfactuals” — is difficult, especially because colonial rule wasn’t the same everywhere. Some factors, like what the boundaries of countries would have been had the colonists not drawn them, are impossible to know. Other topics, like whether wages or life expectancy would have risen by more or less, are the subject of informed guesswork.

But although Gilley is right that this research is imperfect, it’s also often highly innovative in applying new methodologies to these problems. A particularly revealing study published this year by economists James Robinson and Leander Heldring, for instance, finds that for former European colonies in Africa, the alleged “benefits” of colonial rule did these societies less good than if they had gained this access to new technologies and markets independently. The authors also find that colonialism’s other ills (including racism, political repression and economic exploitation) canceled out any positive effects.

Colonialism led to a “reversal of fortune” in some countries

There’s also a large body of scholarly research on why some former colonies have fared better in economic and political terms than others. The “reversal of fortunes” thesis suggests that countries that succeeded in the post-colonial world were relatively poor when they were colonized, while those that have done the worst were often more prosperous to begin with.

As Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue, one reason for this trend is that colonial rulers chose policies designed to extract resources from societies that were already wealthy or possessed easily accessible natural resources — without paying much attention to political rights. In poorer and more sparsely populated areas (like the future United States), colonizing powers were forced to promote agriculture and industry through the rule of law and protections of property rights.

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Other research emphasizes differences in the ideologies and economic systems of colonial powers. Scholars point out that, for example, the goals of 17th-century Spanish colonialism were different than those of the British in the late 19th century. This meant colonizers chose to colonize different places, and adopt different governing strategies. But while some studies find that former British colonies have performed better economically and politically than others, virtually none find that colonial rule was itself an effective method of setting up long-term prosperity and stability.

Do the “benefits” of colonial rule outweigh the harmful legacies? No.

It’s true that colonial governments invested in public services and infrastructure such as hospitals, railroads, roads and schools. But careful scholarship shows that these investments did colonies little good. In his brilliant 1994 book “The African Colonial State in Comparative Perspective” (which Gilley largely dismisses), political scientist Crawford Young systematically tracks African colonial taxation and expenditures. He finds that tax burdens on small farmers, workers and other colonial subjects far exceeded any reciprocal investments in public goods, while the bulk of the money was allocated toward maintaining the colonial government. In parts of West Africa, the tax burdens on farmers were so high in the 1930s they created a cycle of poverty and debt that keeps their descendants poor today.

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It’s also worth noting that neither these arguments nor Gilley’s own essay touch on the worst legacies of colonial rule: violence, discrimination and repression. One study found that only 10 percent of African countries have experienced ethnic conflicts that can be traced back to some pre-colonial origin. Authors David Leonard and Scott Straus argue that the rest of these conflicts are explicitly products of the colonial experience.

Crawford Young’s metaphor for African colonial rule, the Lingala phrase “Bula Matari” (breaker of rocks), rightly captures the terror and arbitrary abuses under which so many colonized people suffered. Central Africa lost as much as one-third of its population during the early years of colonial rule, while centuries later, the parts of Africa most affected by the transatlantic slave trade still suffer from lower levels of community trust than their neighbors.

To gloss over this enduring legacy of colonialism, and to argue that somehow today’s fragile states might be better off by “reclaiming colonial modes of governance,” as Gilley’s article suggests, is simply ignoring a vast body of research and analysis that demonstrates just the opposite.

Brandon Kendhammer is an associate professor of political science and director of the International Development Studies program at Ohio University.