In DepthColumnsGlobal wrongs, people's rights


Posted on Monday, 11 August 2014 12:38

Global wrongs, people's rights

Patrick Smith

The war-makers changed the world, although they didn't know it, on 4 August 1914.

The First World War quickened the break-up of the German and Ottoman empires, and signalled the beginning of the end of the empires in Africa and Asia run by Britain, France, Italy and Portugal.

The rule of experts first trumped the cause of equal rights a century ago.

Although an avalanche of political, economic and technological change has enveloped the world in the intervening century, the origins of the First World War and its settlement in Versailles in 1919 still have acute relevance in Africa.

The power balance within European empires shifted as the rulers came to the uncomfortable realisation that they needed their colonies to fight their wars.

With more than 16 million deaths and the defeat of Germany and Austria-Hungary, the ruling classes of the world moved to Paris in 1919 to argue about a new world order.

Four bad things then happened for Africa. Apart from Ethiopia, whose delegation swept in wearing Amharic traditional dress, Africans were kept out of the peace talks.

Next, Britain and the US shot down a proposal from Japan, backed by China, for a declaration of global racial equality that would have had monumental legal and political implications.

US President Woodrow Wilson drew support from the segregationist south, and he didn't want international interference in US domestic policy.

For Britain, a declaration of racial equality would strike at one of the empire's organising principles. An historic chance to put the world's races on an equal footing was lost.

The third and fourth bad things flowed inevitably from that. After the allies stripped Germany of its colonies – now known as Burundi, Cameroon, Namibia, Rwanda, Tanzania and Togo – the land was not to be handed back to its original owners but given in trust to other European powers.

Wilson found a moral justification for the plan. He announced that for the first time in history "the counsels of mankind are to be drawn together" to improve "the conditions of working people [...] all over the world".

So these chunks of Africa were "to be administered for the benefit of their inhabitants – the greatest humane arrangement that has ever been attempted – and the rules are laid down that forbid any form of selfish exploitation of these helpless people," according to Wilson's explanation of the League of Nations mandate system.

Forget the hypocrisy, and the tautology of "selfish exploitation". What was established was a new right: that of powerful countries, institutions and their experts to rule over countries for the claimed benefit of the inhabitants.

That is also the theme of a radical new book by William Easterly, attacking "the tyranny of experts".

Easterly traces how Versailles established the "technical approach to development" and the "betterment of peoples".

This was eagerly taken up by Whitehall mandarins to stave off the anti-colonial movement.

Today, says Easterly, it has its corollary in the prescriptions of the international financial institutions: the rule of the experts that first trumped the cause of equal rights a century ago. ●

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is Editor-in-Chief of The Africa Report. He has edited the political and economic insider newsletter Africa Confidential since 1992 and was associate producer on a documentary about the 2004 coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea commissioned by Britain's Channel 4 television.


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