The economics of colonization, decolonization and development
The most prominent explanation of inequalities between developed and underdeveloped nations in the 1950s maintained that what was needed was for poorer nations to modernize via the same route as ‘successful’ Western nations. W. W. Rostow’s (2000/1960) modernization theory argued it was tradition that was holding developing nations back. According to this view, aid and internal agents educated in and committed to Western ways of working were needed to break free from tradition and ‘catch-up’ with the USA and Western Europe. Rostow set out the exact stages of economic growth that he thought wealthy nations had followed and that developing nations needed to go through. In doing so he assumed that developing nations were starting from the same kind of situation that Western nations had been in a hundred years or more previously. This ignored the far-from-even economic playing field left by the ravages of colonization. His theory also ethnocentrically assumes that West is best, and that it is to competitive capitalism and its associated emphasis on individual success that all right-thinking people must aspire. In other cultures, such as China — where the interests of the community, rather than individuals, are privileged — very different paths towards economic success have been apparent (Stockman, 2000). Rostow’s model of economic success is one especially likely to ignore not only cultural differences in values but also in the ways in which women contribute to the economy.
Within feminist economics, writers such as Lourdes Beneria (for example, 1995) and Marilyn Waring (1999/1986) challenged the assumptions of mainstream economics that lie behind Rostow’s theory and indeed inform The United Nations System of National Accounting (UNSNA) which determines public policy in most parts of the globe. Waring (1999/1986) notes that this system of accounting neglects the environment and has tended to view women as non-producers. It is a system which justifies war and only ‘counts’ cash-generating activities. The UNSNA is used, in particular, to control cash generation in countries that
owe money to governments of wealthier nations and multinational banks and agencies. It is a powerful system in which women literally — as her book title suggests — count for nothing. Beneria (1995) argues that progress has been made in incorporating women’s work within national accounting and feminist economics has provided alternative macroeconomic models to encourage gender development. However, empirical work continues to show that women bear the brunt of many economic policies and their unpaid work is still underestimated. To illustrate: one study outlines how black women in Zimbabwe continue to be found at the lowest socio-economic level, despite post-independence efforts to improve their status. These women undertake a range of informal work such as cross-border trading and foreign currency exchange, in addition to the copious amounts of domestic work required given that they lack plumbing and other amenities (Moyo and Kawewe, 2002). Like Beneria and Waring, these authors are critical of the current dominance of patriarchal views about what is valuable. But unlike Beneria and Waring, Moyo and Kawewe (2002) indicate how these views became dominant because of historical colonialism’s role in establishing the neo-colonial power of Western-controlled banks, companies and agencies. This is the kind of argument promoted by dependency theorists.
Dependency theory attributes the relatively strong economic and political position that America, Britain and other ‘advanced’ nations have in the world today to how they benefited from colonial and slave pasts (for example, Frank, 1972). Colonial powers fuelled the Industrial Revolution that made them wealthy by exploiting land, resources and people elsewhere. Trees were felled to clear land for farming and to provide timber, minerals were mined, new crops were planted. Much of the spoils were exported back to the homeland or remained in the hands of the white settlers. Local populations worked in new industries, but often as poorly paid labour. Then over the course of the first half of the twentieth century, due to the expense of running vast empires, the cost of the two World Wars, and political pressure or revolt from native populations, colonies gained independence. Yet by the time European nations withdrew they had denuded much of Africa, India and the Americas, destroyed most traditional systems of governance, and left many peoples largely impoverished and economically dependent on their former colonial masters (Frank, 1972). It seems clear that the economic consequences of colonization were to concentrate the world’s wealth in the hands of a minority of its population: white European men. However, initially at least, colonization required some degree of economic cooperation. White folk often were not very good at finding their feet in new climes and many would have starved were it not for the assistance of the locals. Such acts of kindness are most famously celebrated in the American feast of Thanksgiving, but
occurred in other colonies (for example, see King, 2003). However, as colonizers gained economic and political control via varying combinations of persuasion and coercion, indigenous populations found themselves subject to new forms of constraint within structures not of their own making.
Andre Gunder Frank (1972) claimed that the plundering and reshaping of colonies made them economically dependent on the West. His dependency theory argues that through trading and colonizing, capitalism became a global system within which the wealthy nations maintained their privilege by keeping the underdeveloped nations poor. If Western capitalists were to continue to enjoy increasing profits, they needed to keep wages down. Having a source of cheap (usually non-white) labour in the Third World, remains to this day advantageous for First World nations. For example, large companies like Nike and Gap increase their profits by making use of women who, despite codes of conduct, live and work in poor conditions within supply companies located in the developing world — in Cambodia for example (Klein, 2002/2000). Immanuel Wallerstein (1974) has developed an arguably more complex version of these ideas in his world systems theory. He locates capitalist economic dominance as a primarily Western but more shifting exploitation of peripheries by the global centres (for example, ‘metropoles’ such as New York and London). Both Frank and Wallerstein say little about the gendered effects of capitalism as a system of global exploitation, but there have been feminist contributions based on and related to these influential Marxian based models.
Catherine Scott (1995) has engaged with both modernization and dependency theory in order to show how women are associated with the tradition deemed to be holding back development. The theorists see modernization as crucial if men are to free themselves from the maternal household and gain their identity. Women and the household are thereby supposed to be part of a past that must be escaped. States which fail to become masculinized in this way are seen as ‘soft’, as unsuccessful. Such a view ofWestern ways as superior is not entirely avoided by dependency theorists such as Frank. These theories, though critical of capitalism, still represent it as dynamic and technologically superior. Within these theories women tend to be regarded as doubly oppressed — which assumes that oppressions can be added onto each other rather than seeing them as entangled in complex ways. Revolution by people within dependent nations is encouraged by dependency theorists, in order to establish ‘self-reliant, autonomous development’ (Scott, 1995:103),but women are not seen as revolutionaries. They are seen as victims within male dominated households, as stagnant products of colonial exploitation, or contradictorily viewed as ‘naturally’ male dominated. This is despite efforts within dependency theory to portray the household in a more complex light than in modernization theory. One of the most celebrated efforts in this respect is Maria Mies’s research on lace making in Narasapur in India (see Mies, 1982).There the women make lace at home, their labour exploited within a patriarchal system of purdah that restricts their movements. Their lace is exported and sold to wealthy women in Western nations. This capitalist process is fuelled by the male domination of women in that locale. Attempts such as Mies’s have not succeeded, according to Scott, in seeing the household as a place of conflict and change. Dependency theory inherits a Marxist focus on production at the expense of reproduction and this leads to a view of practices at home as ‘backward’. Opposition movements can then play on male anxieties about changing these ‘backward’ practices. What work such as Scott’s suggests is that, in order to break free of colonizing influences, reform is required not only of economics, but also of the related ideologies. We can begin to see that it is difficult to maintain a distinction between those feminists who analyze the economic and those interested primarily in symbolic practices. In trying to understand the continuance of inequalities between ethnic groups, a notion of post-colonialism in which economics is present but less central becomes relevant.