In recent international news, a group representing 15 Caribbean nations (CARICOM) is seeking reparations from former colonial rulers for past atrocities, which they argue continue to have negative socioeconomic development impacts to this day:
Spurred by a sense of injustice that has lingered for two centuries, the countries plan to compile an inventory of the lasting damage they believe they suffered and then demand an apology and reparations from the former colonial powers of Britain, France and the Netherlands.
To present their case, they have hired a firm of London lawyers that this year won compensation from Britain for the torture of Kenyans under British colonial rule in the 1950s.
Just as important, the discussions around reparations — in the Caribbean as in Europe — might become an occasion to delve into history, to mourn but also confront the many ways in which the past continues to shape the present.
This is more than just creative accounting. When economists debate why some countries are poor and others are rich, they often focus on the cultural, political or economic structures of poor countries. But historians of the Caribbean have long argued that national inequality is a direct result of centuries of economic exploitation.
But a French commission concluded that, while there was a responsibility on France’s part, financial reparation was not the solution. Its report suggested that French aid to Haiti was a kind of “reparation” and urged more of it.
After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, President Nicolas Sarkozy offered an aid and debt-forgiveness package to the country. But the French government never officially apologized, let alone offered compensation.
Despite the rightness of the Caribbean nations’ claim, European governments are likely to respond similarly this time. If Caricom accepts this approach, the call for reparations may ultimately just come to play a strategic role within international negotiations over aid and trade.
What would it mean to truly rid our world of the legacies of slavery? In the Caribbean, it would mean undoing the divisions created by colonialism, through regional economic cooperation and reduced dependence on foreign aid and foreign banks.
It would mean, above all, ending the continuing mistreatment and stereotyping of Haitians, who were the pioneers in the overthrow of slavery and have been paying for it ever since.
In Europe and the United States, it would mean abandoning condescending visions of the Caribbean and building policies on aid, trade and immigration based on an acceptance of common and connected histories.
It would mean, above all, consigning racial discrimination, exploitation and political exclusion to the past. That would be the truest form of reparation.
By framing the issue of reparations as a way to remedy past atrocities (mainly slave trade) as well as a way to move forward cooperatively, CARICOM may indeed be able to achieve its goals. Reparations fit into a broader interpretation of common but differentiated responsibilities, and are consistent with the human rights accountability based approach to development:
The concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities” in reference to the “global commons”, has until this point been used almost exclusively in the environmental and natural resource arena. I would argue that both of these terms have a much wider application. Global commons should refer to any non-excludable good / service, with positive / negative externalities, whose effective management requires global coordination (to overcome cheater and free-riders). This would include, among other things, development outcomes.
By re-framing the concept of “the global commons”, a new global partnership for development can take root through the UN Post-2015 Development Agenda, with the concept of common but differentiated responsibilities at its core. By “common but differentiated” I do not mean that countries should have ideologically different policies–quite the contrary. The “common” aspect refers to creating programs with global policy coherence, aimed at achieving a normative vision of the future. The “differentiated” aspect refers to these programs being financed in a way that takes into account past transgressions, present context, and future goals.
Both articles mention the socioeconomic effects of slavery and slave trade, and corresponding financial component of reparations, an unavoidable element of any reparations argument. More tellingly, both articles also mention the emotional and psychological impacts of slavery that still persist today. What exactly should reparations look like? I believe in order to be effective–to truly “rid the world of the legacy of slavery”–reparations must have two components:
1) Debt Relief / Development Aid: Debt relief already exists, in the form of the Highly Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) Initiative. However, only five of the thirty-five HIPC countries are in Latin America (LA)–apparently Latin American countries are not poor enough to qualify for debt relief. Given the IMF’s role in the “Lost Decade” of development in LA (1980s), which was much more recent and therefore has a more direct impact on current socioeconomic conditions in Latin America than the 18th century slave trade does, it is particularly troubling that the IMF does not believe most Latin American countries should qualify for debt relief–particularly given Latin America’s substantial debt burden.
Debt relief should be extended to Latin American countries. Furthermore, donor countries should make a strong effort to reach the 0.7% of GDP for development aid target. Both initiatives should carry only the precondition of good, transparent, and accountable governance (political preconditions as opposed to economic preconditions, which are restrictive, paternalistic, and often lead to counter-productive development outcomes). This precondition gives developing countries the greatest amount of autonomy in developing their poverty reduction strategy.
2) An Admission of Wrongdoing, and an Apology: It is clear that the scars of slavery have not healed on their own over time. Drastic economic differences between the most and least developed countries play out as various power-asymmetries on a global scale, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Instead of convergence, there is divergence, with devastating impacts such as human suffering, instability, and conflict. In light of both our common past and interdependent future, it is essential to acknowledge past wrongdoings, so the worlds leaders can move forward in a constructive manner.
Case in point is recent news concerning allegations that the N.S.A. spied on foreign leaders. While Germany, France and Spain certainly are not happy with the news, they are willing to hear America out and work with U.S. intelligence agencies–they understand the positive ends of U.S. actions even if they do not agree with the means . Latin American leaders have, in general, reacted in a much more negative way, cancelling diplomatic exercises and moving towards greater isolation. This reaction is reflective of a deep mistrust between L.A. countries and the highly developed Euro-America alliance.
By admitting to past wrongdoings via these two forms of reparations, we can move forward with greater trust and cooperation with our L.A. neighbors. These are countries we share an economic and political ideology with; there is no reason for such distrust and dislike to persist. L.A. countries also have a crucial role to play in the global partnership for development, as an intermediary between the most and least developed countries in the world (“south-south cooperation“).
To overcome the most pressing issues affecting the world in the 21st century, we need trust, coordination and cooperation between nations–especially between allies! We also need a global economic framework that will reverse the damaging trend of economic divergence and lead to more sustainable, peaceful, and inclusive development. Reparations are but one example of the “common but differentiated responsibilities” every country has in achieving this future. That we can have a debate on the merits of reparations in an open and even-handed way is a testament to how far we have come as a global community, but much work still remains to be done.