Should We Think of Foreign Aid as Reparations?

Should We Think of Foreign Aid as Reparations?

Why you should care

We might do better to consider foreign aid as a matter of justice instead of handouts. 

Among history’s winners, the concept of reparations for harms such as slavery and colonialism is not widely popular. Rich countries tend to object on multiple grounds: Slavery wasn’t a crime during the slave-trade era, let alone a crime against humanity; one should not have to atone for the sins of generations past; and reparations would raise impossible questions about who should be repaired for what harms. In other words, let bygones be bygones. But sometimes leaders of wealthy countries just scoff. It’s nigh impossible to get them to pay up.

The reparations movement has had a long and largely unsuccessful history, globally and inside the U.S.

Given that context, the global reparations movement logged a decent summer. In June, the British government agreed to pay $31.7 million to Kenyan victims of colonial-era abuse. These now-elderly plaintiffs were tortured in the 1950s, when the British government tried to quash the so-called Mau Mau independence movement. Then, in July, the organization of Caribbean nations, Caricom, launched a serious effort to seek reparations from Britain, France and the Netherlands. Caricom is seeking redress for slavery and the genocide of native peoples, legacies it says the region still suffers from. (It concludes a three-day follow-up conference today.) While the organization hasn’t said how much compensation it will seek, the amount could be in the billions of dollars, and if the case goes forward, it would take decades to resolve.

Reparations

Source Corbis

That’s a huge “if.” The reparations movement has had a long and largely unsuccessful history, globally and inside the United States. At the World Conference on Racism in 2001, for instance, African countries demanded an apology for the slave trade, but European countries would only acknowledge that the slave trade was barbaric. (Mention of the word “reparations” was excised from the conference’s final declaration.) In 2003 former Haiti President Jean-Bertrand Aristide demanded that France pay back the 19th century indemnity it extorted from the newly independent colony to compensate planters for the loss of their human property (i.e., slaves) during the revolution. He was more or less laughed off. A few months later, he was ousted in a coup.

Reparations for global harms are not unprecedented. War reparations, in which the vanquished party is forced to indemnify the victor, have a long history – though monetary payments fell out of fashion after World War II. At times, history’s winners have voluntarily paid out, too, as when the United States paid reparations to Japanese Americans interned during World War II. Reparations for colonial-era harms have had a much harder time.

Among people of faith, there’s a strong notion of alms as justice, not charity.

Would the movement do better to cast foreign aid as a form of reparations? After all, aid tends to flow from nations that benefited from slavery and colonialism, like the United States and European countries, to former colonies, like countries in Africa and South Asia. That’s not a coincidence.

“A lot of the wealth that has moved to the north has certainly been taken from the [global] south,” says Eric LeCompte, president of the faith-based campaign Jubilee USA. Jubilee has spent about 15 years working on debt relief for poor countries; now it also works to get multinational corporations to pay their share in taxes to southern governments, as well as climate debt.

To be sure, some reparations advocates are not keen on the idea.

Foreign aid, meanwhile, has not been particularly effective. As economists and advocates have long shown, current aid practices tend to foster dependency, bypass governments and weaken states instead of strengthening them. Casting aid as reparations would mean tying it to what rich countries owe poor ones, instead of what they decide they’re noble enough to give. Among many people of faith, “There’s a strong notion of alms as justice, not charity,” says LeCompte. Thinking of aid as reparations might gum up the works (and the arrogance) of the white savior industrial complex. It might even make aid more accountable to the people it’s meant to reach.

To be sure, some reparations advocates are not keen on the idea.

“Countries that profited from slavery should pay reparations separate and apart from their role as donors,” says Nicole Lee, president of TransAfrica, the U.S.’s oldest African American human rights organization, which has advocated for reparations for many years. Lee would prefer that reparations remain its own issue, separate from aid, because its goals are different. “Aid is important, given present circumstances, but reparations call for a deeper understanding of what is owed.”

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