Forget Aid -Debt Should Be Repaid

On a cold February afternoon in 2022, the European Union (EU) and African Union (AU) convened at their annual diplomatic summit.Leaders forged the Cotonou Agreement, promising to increase aid and cooperation, secure peace, and facilitate trade between Europe and Africa. However, these vague promises could not overcome disagreements, even during the summit.

For one, the EU rejected the AU’s demands to support African vaccine production and waive European patents on COVID-19 vaccines. Under the EU’s plan, Africa would forever depend on Europe for vaccines, unable to produce their own. Over 100 organizations in 22 African countries declared that the Cotonou Agreement was tainted by the “legacy of colonialism,” “neocolonialism,” and the “substantial power asymmetries that persist in this partnership.”After centuries of mistreatment, Europe still doesn’t consider Africa its equal.

This rising tide of contempt harms international cooperation. Europe should work with developing nations to tackle mutual challenges — climate change, recessions, terrorism, and instability.

Rising Regionalism

European collaborations are too limited. Amid supply-chain issues precipitated by the Ukraine war and the Covid-19 pandemic, it can be tempting to pinpoint the lack of cooperation on the decline of globalization. The pandemic decreased international trade between nearly all nations. Meanwhile, Russia’s war on Ukraine disrupted grain and energy trade, thereby decreasing the flow of goods and coordination around the world. But, even if there were more globalization, collaborations would still be narrow. What limits cooperation is the stain of history that renders Europe an inferior partner to developing nations.

The lack of Euro-Atlantic cooperation is the symptom of a century-old disease: colonialism. Today, the silver drained from Latin America amounts to over $165 trillion. The labor extracted by Europe between 1619 and 1865 is valued at $97 trillion. European colonial gains came at the expense of developing countries,locking them into generational despair. There is no surprise why developing nations still question Europe’s intentions.

Recently, President Akufo-Addo of Ghana said that to sustain cooperation, Europe must “intensify…reparations for Africa.” The African Union and Jamaica seek over $10.5 billion to compensate for colonial injustices. Some African commentators even assert that modern European foreign policy follows colonial and “paternalistic” patterns.  The absence of robust reparations is a barrier to collaborative relations with developing nations. Put differently: reparations are a critical prerequisite to cooperation.

The legacy of colonialism is scarred with suffering. European mistreatment and exploitation shoved developing countries into lasting despair. But today, Europe is characterized as the savior— a great power generously extending aid to developing nations.Developing nations are played off as Europe’s charity case. This inherently ignores developing nations’ role in enriching Europe and Europe’s role in impoverishing developing nations. Only by understanding the immoral forces behind “aid,” can Europe transform aid into a debt repaid.

If Europe chooses not to cooperate with developing nations, they will turn to countries that are antagonistic to European values: China and Russia. Recently, China displaced  Europe as Latin America’s second most important trade partner. According to two African surveys, “China holds a substantial lead over the EU” in terms of development and partnership. Latin America and Somalia are also turning to Russia. Developing nations have no reason to cooperate with Europe, who enslaved their people, halted economic progress, and often exercises neo-colonial policies today. Due to the lack of apologetic dialogue and reparations, developing countries often choose to cooperate with China over the EU. Besides missing out on lucrative economic opportunities, Europe leaves Africa open to China’s authoritarian influence. China recently “exported authoritarianism” to Africa by introducing digital censorship to African leaders. Meanwhile, as African countries deem China as its “partner of choice,” they show less interest in European collaboration.

Mechanics of Reparations

Reparations provide an alternative vision of what international development could be if inequalities caused by climate change, colonialism, and structural violence were taken into account. They utilize the principles of distributive justice to strengthen cooperation.

Europe can use Chicago’s reparatory mechanism as a model, scaling it to the size of developing nations. In the late 20th century, Chicago’s police force brutally tortured, raped, and suffocated African Americans. In 2014, Chicago issued $5.5 million reparations to the survivors of torture, their families, and many other African Americans afflicted by police misconduct. Reparations for colonialism are much more difficult to selectively target. After all, nearly all people in developing nations bear some of the vestiges of European injustice. However, broad-based public investments in developing nations — acting as reparations —  can lift impoverished residents out of poverty and repair the long-standing ramifications of colonialism. European reparations must have a tangible, long-term effect, just as Chicago’s direct reparatory framework compensated afflicted African Americans.

Colonialreparations for land-grabbing, resource exploitation, and slavery could be paid as economic investments. For example, Europe could invest in education or even skilled job training in Brazil to reduce dependence on the deforestation industry. Europe can even create innovative industries in Africa, catering to the 22 million people entering the workforce each year. This is not aid or charity; it should be framed as a repayment — a reformed brand of cooperation that puts to rest the looming spirit of European colonialism.

Akin to colonialism, climate change is an issue of imbalanced power. Throughout history, wealthy nations in Europe have “emitted three times as many greenhouse gasses as developing countries.”The smoke that fueled the British Empire now drowns the marshlands of Bangladesh. And thanks to Europe, the Middle East is now composed of oil-pipeline nations — scorched every year by unbearable temperatures. Making matters worse, an S&P study found that developing countries will be “four times more exposed to the risks of climate change than their rich peers by 2050.” Europe looted developing nations to stoke climate change, and now post-colonial, developing countries suffer the most.

Europe must compensate developing nations by deploying climate change adaptation technologies and financial redress. Resources for climate change adaptation — air purification, water management, flood prevention, storm preparation, and agricultural maintenance — can ease the growing climate pressures on poor nations. Europe must also adopt an emission-based compensation mechanism where each European nation proportionally pays poorer nations according to their per capita carbon footprint. This will not only deter rich nations from contributing to climate change, but also assist poorer nations in preparing for its effects. So far, Germany and Austria have made strides towards justice, pledging $170 million and $50 million respectively to climate reparations.

To repair foreign relations, Europe must decrease developing nations’ dependency on European aid. Investing in long-term development and innovation — for example, helping developing nations produce their own vaccines — allows these nations to become self-self-sufficient and serves as a reparation for structural violence.

We must not forget that resetting foreign relations and rebalancing the global economy is the ultimate goal of reparations. Europe didn’t develop African and Latin American nations — these colonized countries developed Europe. To forge stronger collaborations, the Euro-Atlantic community must frame aid as a repayment for past wrongs. Reparations are a pivotal precondition to cooperation. After all, there is no better way to collaborate than by mending past injustices and simultaneously laying the foundation for a prosperous future.

Ashwin Telang
Ashwin Telang
Ashwin Telang works at the Borgen Project, an organization which aims to make international poverty a focus of U.S. policy.