The New White Man's Burden

The New White Man's Burden

Rumy Hasan
Rumy Hasan
5 min read

In recent years, we have seen graphic and disturbing scenes of migrants attempting to cross into Europe as they flee the developing world. Especially poignant are the pictures of young, sub-Saharan African men scaling the barrier fences that surround the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco:

Leaving aside whether Spain should return these enclaves to Morocco, the determination of migrants bound for Europe is striking. They have illegally entered Morocco and, from there, are allowed to enter another country illegally—almost certainly with the tacit approval of the Moroccan authorities. Also striking is the sight of the young men crying “freedom” and wrapping themselves in the EU flag upon their arrival in these enclaves. In reality, they are anything but free, as it is highly unlikely that the Spanish authorities will grant them asylum and the right of abode. If it is determined that they are illegal economic migrants, they will be removed in due course. Even so, this is not a remotely sufficient deterrent.

We are often told that such images are an indictment of European heartlessness. It is less often pointed out that they are an indictment of those now ruling Europe’s former colonies more than half a century after independence. Almost without exception, post-colonial governance has been a disastrous failure. Some naively claim that the migrant crisis of recent years is the consequence of Western intervention in the countries from which so many are fleeing. But, for the most part, this is false. While it is true that significant numbers of migrants are from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the largest number since 2013 have been fleeing Syria’s civil war where Western military intervention has been minimal.

Nor are migrants from sub-Saharan Africa seeking refuge from Western-led military interventions. They are attempting to escape poverty, joblessness, corruption, and a lack of hope in their own countries created by their own rulers. Forty years after independence, the economy of Zimbabwe is on its knees. In November 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food warned that 60 percent of the population is “food-insecure,” that is, “the people of Zimbabwe are slowly getting to a point of suffering a man-made starvation.” [My emphasis.] That so many have attempted to cross into Europe—and that so many more will certainly follow—is understandable given that tens of millions from the developing world have already settled there. These migrants believe that their prospects will be vastly improved under the governance of Europe’s democratically elected leaders and the continent’s liberal institutions and laws.

The number of people who hope to migrate is very large: a Gallup opinion poll conducted in December 2018 showed that 750 million people worldwide want to migrate permanently to another country—that’s 10 percent of the global population. The desired destinations of the vast majority are unsurprisingly Western Europe and North America. And the largest percentage of those polled between 2015 and 2017—33 percent—who said they wanted to migrate lived in sub-Saharan Africa. During the run-up to the 50th anniversary of Jamaica’s independence in 2011, Jamaican newspaper the Gleaner reported that an astonishing “60 percent of Jamaicans held the view that the country would have been better off if it had remained a colony of Britain. Conversely, 17 per cent of those surveyed said the country would be worse off had it remained a colony of Britain, while 23 per cent said they did not know.”

A similar sentiment is likely to be found in many other former colonies in which decades of independence have not produced much progress. Indeed, the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership was launched in 2007 by the Sudanese billionaire Mo Ibrahim for precisely this reason. The prize may be won by former African Heads of State or Government who are judged by the following criteria: they must have left office in the last three years; they must have been democratically elected; they must have served a constitutionally mandated term; and they must have demonstrated exceptional leadership. The prize is a hefty initial sum of $5 million, followed by $200,000 every year for life. Nevertheless, in the years 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016, and 2018, no prize was awarded because no candidate had satisfactorily fulfilled these preconditions. This is another damning indictment.

It is unforgivable that the rulers of the countries from which citizens are attempting to enter Europe utter not a word when tragedy befalls unseaworthy vessels in the Mediterranean, and they make no effort to have the bodies of the dead returned home. Egregiously, the Western media falsely calls this Europe’s migrant crisis and focuses solely on the failings of European leaders and institutions. They studiously neglect to interrogate the regimes in the migrants’ own countries about this appalling reality, nor do they condemn their role in it or acknowledge that is their migrant crisis before it is Europe’s.

The occasional exception demonstrates the good this might do. It took a 2017 CNN report of Africans being traded in slave auctions for the Nigerian authorities to bring some of their citizens home. Nigeria is Africa’s largest country and it has a massive oil sector. With effective management, it could have been a prosperous nation. Instead, the reality has been the squandering of oil wealth by some of the world’s worst kleptocrats that might otherwise have contributed to an improvement of living standards.

It is tempting to wonder what percentage (a majority?) of the Nigerian population also believe their country would be better off had it remained a British colony. Certainly, a Victorian colonialist would crudely contend that this demonstrates the validity of what Rudyard Kipling called the “White Man’s Burden.” The full title of Kipling’s notorious 1899 poem is “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and the Philippine islands,” and it was written in an attempt to convince the US that Western men had a moral responsibility to colonise and civilise the Philippines.

Today the White Man’s Burden has been inverted—it is not the West’s duty to colonise but to welcome any and all migrants beseeching the white man (and woman) to provide what their own rulers will not: sufficient food, adequate housing, jobs, education, healthcare, and so on—the foundations of a happy and prosperous life. Though they rarely show it, the leaders of these failing states—be they democratically elected or not—ought to be thoroughly ashamed of this. But Western nations are reluctant to point this out, oppressed as they are by their own shameful history. And so self-flagellation takes the place of constructive criticism and action, and the pushes and pulls that motivate migration flows from the Global South to the North remain unaddressed.

Meanwhile, it is becoming apparent that there are many Europeans who do not wish to bear this new White Man’s Burden—they find the notion morally detestable and they are beginning to elect politicians who feel the same. The influx of migrants in recent years has produced an inevitable backlash against mass immigration, zero tolerance for illegal immigration, and the rise of populists and demagogues committed (in their rhetoric at least) to ending both. Parties that forcefully campaign on this issue have been gathering strength across the continent.

However, it is also morally wrong for Europeans to ignore the profound problems of the developing world that impel so many to make the perilous journey for a better life. There are no easy solutions available, but what ought to be offered is sustained advice and assistance designed to help massively improve the self-governance of failed and failing states. Foreign aid has attempted to do this in the past, but its record has been patchy. In response to the migration influx, in 2017, Germany’s Ministry for Economic Development and Cooperation advocated a Marshall Plan with Africa, which acknowledges that Africans are risking their lives to enter Europe because of a lack of development and opportunities in their own countries, and asserts a pressing need to tackle this robustly. This was a positive and encouraging development. But other EU countries have expressed little interest and, although the project is still in its infancy, insufficient progress has been made.

If initiatives such as this one are enacted with an emphasis on improved governance and curtailing corruption, the prospects of sustained and sustainable development for Africa and the Global South writ large can significantly improve. In time, this will hopefully put an end to the perilous flight of migrants and the obscenity of the new White Man’s Burden.

ImmigrationrecentWorld Affairs

Rumy Hasan

Rumy Hasan is a senior lecturer at the University of Sussex and Visiting Professorial Research Fellow at the Civitas Think tank.