In The Places In Between, Rory Stewart discusses the new policy makers in Kabul: “A year before, they had been in Kosovo or East Timor and a year later they would be in Iraq or offices in New York and Washington.” [p. 245]

“Critics have accused this new breed of administrators of neocolonialism. But in fact their approach is not that of a nineteenth-century colonial officer. Colonial administrations may have been racist and exploitative, but they did at least work seriously at the business of understanding the people they were governing. They recruited people prepared to spend their entire careers in dangerous provinces of a single alien nation. They invested in teaching administrators and military officers the local language. They established effective departments of state, trained a local elite, and continued the countless academic studies of their subjects through institutes and museums, royal geographical societies, and royal botanical gardens. They balanced the local budget and generated fiscal revenue because if they didn’t their home government would rarely bail them out. If they failed to govern fairly, the population would mutiny.

“Postconflict experts have got the prestige without the effort or stigma of imperialism. Their implicit denial of the difference between cultures is the new mass brand of international intervention. Their policy fails but no one notices. There are no credible monitoring bodies and there is no one to take formal responsibility. Individual officers are never in any one place and rarely in any one organization long enough to be adequately assessed. The colonial enterprise could be judged by the security or revenue it delivered, but neocolonialists have no such performance criteria. In fact their very uselessness benefits them. By avoiding any serious action or judgment they, unlike their colonial predecessors, are able to escape accusations of racism, exploitation, and oppression.

“Perhaps it is because no one requires more than a charming illusion of action in the developing world. If the policy makers know little about the Afghans, the public knows even less, and few care about policy failure when the effects are felt only in Afghanistan.” [footnote on p. 247-248]

But Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World, by Mike Davis, takes a harsher view of colonialism: “If the history of British rule in India were to be condensed into a single fact, it is this: there was no increase in India’s per capita income from 1757 to 1947.” [p. 311]

The Places In Between doesn’t really have anything else to say on colonialism. It’s a travel story, of one man walking across Afghanistan just after the US took over. I found it a fascinating look at a tribal society.

Late Victorian Holocausts details the horrifying impact of El Niño events on nineteenth-century India, China, and Brazil. Climate change triggered devastating floods or multi-year droughts, but inept, overly rigid, or downright greedy governments turned these into epic famines. There’s little good to say about the British rule of India (which offered relief via camps where people had to work, but were fed less than the Nazi concentration camp ration). Also recommended — but not very cheerful. (This book was cited by Winds of Change, mentioned in an earlier entry.) 

Posted: Sat - September 23, 2006 at 10:23 PM