Yesterday I received a circular request to sign a petition to have an academic article taken down. The article in question is “The case for colonialism“, written by Bruce Gilley, and published by Third World Quarterly. For Gilley, anti-colonialism has justified practices that are worse than the colonial systems they replaced; he tries to justify colonialism on the balance of costs and benefits. There’s a forceful rebuttal of the arguments by Nathan Robinson in Current Affairs:
“Truly unspeakable harms can simply be “outweighed” and thereby trivialized. … Building power lines and opening a school doesn’t provide one with a license to rob and murder people.”
Being concerned about contemporary policy, I’m less concerned about the historical revisionism than about the mis-characterisation of current issues in development. There have been massive improvements in much of Africa in recent years, and they have not happened by magic. Gilley suggests that
The ‘good governance’ agenda, which contains too many assumptions about the self-governing capacity of poor countries, should be replaced with the ‘colonial governance’ agenda.
The agenda he’s criticising makes no such assumption; on the contrary, it’s about creating capacity. The process has encouraged governments to recognise their limitations and to work collaboratively with a range of stakeholders and partners. Just the sort of thing that colonial governments didn’t do and that international organisations have had to learn.
Gilley’s critics have described the argument as “racist” and “white supremacist”; neither of those is justified by its content. The article is provocatively written, somewhat cavalier about evidence and possibly slightly bonkers. Does it follow, though, that it should be withdrawn from circulation? The proper response to anything of this nature is to make the case against it, not to have it expunged from the record. When I’ve taught students about ethics and policy in the past, I’ve sometimes given them extreme positions to consider – arguments for torture and infanticide amongst them. I’ve wanted them to be able to respond cogently and fluently to offensive views, because in real life speechless rage doesn’t win the day. I’d have had no hesitation in getting students to write a critique of this paper. Students tend to be far to deferential to the things they read; a healthy disrespect for the printed word is something to be encouraged.