Posted on January 12, 2011

Haiti, Sudan, Côte d’Ivoire: Who Cares?

Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal, January 11, 2011

Once upon a time in West Africa, two kings named Acqua and Bell made a memorable request of British Prime Minister William Gladstone. “We are tired of governing the country ourselves,” they wrote in a letter dated Nov. 6, 1881. “Every dispute leads to war, and often to great loss of life, so we think it is the best thing to give up the country to you British men who no doubt will bring peace, civilization and Christianity in the country. Do for mercy’s sake please lay our request before the queen. . . . We are quite willing to abolish all our heathen customs.”

The kings’ offer (which Gladstone declined) makes for interesting reading as one postcolonial state–Sudan–votes this week to split in two, with uncertain consequences. Another state–Côte d’Ivoire–stands on a razor’s edge between outright dictatorship and civil war. And a third–Haiti, a de facto American colony from 1915 to 1934–has proved unable to pick itself even inches off the ground since last year’s devastating earthquake. What, if anything, does it all mean?

It means that we’ve come full circle. It means that colonialism, for which the West has spent the past five decades in nonstop atonement, was far from the worst thing to befall much of the colonized world. It means, also, that some new version of colonialism may be the best thing that could happen to at least some countries in the postcolonial world.

Take Haiti. Haiti is no longer a colony of the West, but it has long been a ward of it. Even before the earthquake, remittances and foreign aid accounted for nearly 30% of its GDP. The country is known as the “Republic of NGOs,” since some 3,000 operate in it. What good they’ve done, considering the state the country has been in for decades, is an open question. Security, to the extent there is any, is provided by some 12,000 U.N. peacekeepers. {snip}

But last year’s fraudulent elections are a reminder that Haitians have been as ill-served by their democracy as by their periodic dictatorships. When “Baby Doc” Duvalier was overthrown in 1986, per capita GDP was $768. In 2009, on the eve of the quake, it was $519. Nor do the troubles end there: Criminality is rampant, and Haiti ranked 177th out of 179 on Transparency International’s 2008 corruption index. These are not the depredations of greedy foreign interlopers. This is the depravity of the locals.


Côte d’Ivoire used to be one of those promising African states bucking the usual trends of the continent. But then per capita GDP plummeted by about 40% in the past 40 years. More recently, the country has seen a civil war between north and south and military intervention by French troops. Now its president, Laurent Gbagbo, refuses to concede an election the U.N. insists he lost to challenger Alassane Ouattara, a former International Monetary Fund official.

{snip} U.N. peacekeepers aren’t going to force him out. {snip} There’s the U.N. and all its failures explained in a nutshell.


Postcolonial Africa has seen the future. As often as not, it looks like Zimbabwe. The West professes to “care” about countries like Haiti, Côte d’Ivoire and– at least for as long as George Clooney is in the area–south Sudan. But “care” at the level of simple emotion is little more than a cheap vanity. The colonialists of yore may often have been bigots, but they were also, just as often, doers. Their colonies were better places than the shipwrecked countries we have today.