You can’t get there from here, or from anywhere you’re at

“Colonial administrations may have been racist and exploitative, but they did at least work seriously at the business of understanding the people they were governing.  They recruited people prepared to spend their entire careers in dangerous provinces of a single alien nation.  They invested in teaching administrators and military officers the local language.  They established effective departments of state, trained a local elite, and continued the countless academic studies of their subjects through institutes and museums, royal geographical societies, and royal botanical gardens.  They balanced the local budget and generated fiscal revenue because if they didn’t their home government would rarely bail them out.  If they failed to govern fairly, the population would mutiny.

“Postconflict experts have got the prestige without the effort or stigma of imperialism.  Their implicit denial of the difference between cultures is the new mass brand of international intervention.  Their policy fails but no one notices.  There are no credible monitoring bodies and there is no one to take formal responsibility.  Individual officers are never in any one place and rarely in any one organization long enough to be adequately assessed.  The colonial enterprise could be judged by the security or revenue it delivered, but neocolonialists have no such performance criteria.  In fact their very uselessness benefits them.  By avoiding any serious action or judgment they, unlike their colonial predecessors, are able to escape accusations of racism, exploitation, and oppression.

“Perhaps it is because no one requires more than a charming illusion of action in the developing world.  If the policy makers know little about the Afghans, the public knows even less, and few care about policy failure when the effects are felt only in Afghanistan.”

— Rory Stewart, The Places in Between, pp. 247-248

4 thoughts on “You can’t get there from here, or from anywhere you’re at”

  1. Hello Tetman I’ve swung over from Betsy’s (I’m catherine-the-thief I’m on my other blog). You’ve hit upon my favourite topic. I studied Lenin’s theory of imperialism at uni and then went out to pre-war Somalia to work in an unscrupulous aid agency office where I was shocked. I went on to Ghana to the Governor’s perch where he could select a pretty female slave and if she became pregnant she won her freedom. I think Stewart must realise his comments about colonialism ignore the horrors (how many severed hands in the Congo) at the heart of exploiting and demeaning a people over a long period of time but serve as relief for his post colonial argument. It is true that today’s multinationals owe allegiance to no one and overpaid foreign ‘experts’ are shipped out before they have any connection to their environment (most don’t go out for that!). Such a massive topic.
    I’m glad you’ve brought it out.

    1. Hello, Catherine. While I was keying in that quote, I thought of the Congo and how what happened there just over a century ago under Belgian tyranny didn’t precisely fit well with Stewart’s point, which seemed implicitly to be about the British colonial presence. But I thought what he had to say was important enough that I wanted to pass it along.

      Recently I watched “Restrepo,” a film about a platoon of American paratroopers stationed in an Afghan valley to the northeast of that part of Afghanistan through which Stewart had trekked five years previous. I was appalled at the willful ignorance of their commander, a young captain who said he intentionally studied nothing about the Afghan people, their culture, or their history prior to his unit’s deployment. He said he wanted to avoid having any preconceived notions, wanted to approach his mission with an open mind. Well, there’s open mind and there’s empty head. While the captain and his men were good soldiers, and I am more grateful than I can say that such men risk and sometimes lose their lives at the behest of my nation’s government, I found it inexcusable that their superior officers didn’t require them to learn at least a smattering of the language and customs of the people whose land they were occupying and whose hearts and minds their government was ostensibly trying to win.

  2. Haven’t seen Restrepo but recently saw Black Hawk Down again and felt exactly what you are expressing. I lived in pre-war Mogadishu for three years and worked, went to weddings, walked, ate, all the things you do as a curious guest. I learnt so much. And yet the film while recounting a noxious tragedy portrayed the Somalis as such faceless monsters without providing a real context – decline and anger caused by the post-colonial factors you mentioned before.

  3. I saw “Black Hawk Down” back when it came out. I took my son on a Monday afternoon. He was 14. It was the first “R”-rated movie he saw.

    Several times in the first few minutes of “Restrepo” I had to remind myself that what I was seeing was not a movie, that there were real bullets flying around fired from machine guns carried by two groups of young men who were trying to kill each other, and sometimes succeeding.

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