Koh-i-Noor was taken from an Indian prince in 1848 during the days of empire,
and now India wants it back.
It may prove tricky: Pakistan, Afghanistan
and Iraq all stake some kind of claim to it.
But the question arises about Britain's duty to its former colony. Apologies
for sins committed generations earlier are now being thrown around willy-nilly.
The return of looted treasures would seem to be a logical second step.
Then perhaps reparations in full.
As we Europeans sit here in our ivory tower, do we have a duty towards
the rest of the world? And if so, how far should that duty extend? Virgil
used the word `pietas' to describe Aeneas' sense of duty to the Fates.
The Europeans' duty seems to be extending ominously close to pity.
So imperialism is no longer fashionable. We cannot go out there and
conquer the Gunga-Dins, so we'll just have to damn well help them. Foreign
aid is now a billion dollar industry, supporting extensive advertising
and marketing campaigns, and with senior staff and fund-raisers even earning
bonuses. Their intentions may be honest and their wills altruistic, but
foreign aid has, in many ways, become the new imperialism.
Just as Christian missionaries from Europe did in the 19th
Century, many NGOs propagate Western values, whether intentionally or not.
The religious ones (known as RINGOs) are obviously guilty/innocent of this,
but many supposedly neutral organisations play a similar rôle. A
common ambition is to promote women's or children's interests, but when
these are defined by Western norms, the consequences for local people can
often be disastrous. A report in the Economist earlier this year pointed
out that some groups who carry out birth-control projects are in fact paid
to carry out sterilisation programmes `because donors in the rich world
consider there are too many people there'.
An example, even more shocking, can be found in Southern Sudan. Supposedly
well-meaning anti-slavery campaigners had the bright idea of buying children's
freedom from their captors. Their action has been condemned by the UN but
some American NGOs still carry on. It doesn't take long for even a non-economist
to realise that buying slaves is hardly going to discourage people from
In other cases, foreign aid has been responsible for continuing or complicating
wars, where organisations feed armies, shelter hostages or serve as cover
for warring parties. The arrival of big international NGOs means the arrival
of a lot of baggage: they bring with them western living standards, personnel
and purchasing power which can have a dreadful long-term effect on local
markets and generate great local resentment. And they promote a distorted
image of the white man as a wisened, wealthy healer of woes - a totem that
any half-ambitious locals will aspire to follow in the future.
The giving world needs to rethink its giving. All too often, aid comes
with a catch. Some decades ago, the British government agreed to fund the
building of a damn in Malaysia. In the back rooms, a second deal went ahead
which ensured that the Malaysians would buy all of their armaments and
military needs from the British. Nowadays, a recipient government may be
expected to carry out certain (Western) economic reforms in order to guarantee
help. Insisting on good governance is fine, but insisting on a particular
economic model is rash and presumptuous.
Therefore our duty must be one that is very narrowly defined: ensure
the health and welfare of the world's population purely as far as subsistence.
But from that point on, we must swallow our pride, be done of any further
action, and leave them alone.
Autor: James Allen, UK