Accounting for history

“We’re looking at really big numbers”

Radical activists demand that rich nations pay reparations for slavery and colonialism. Kehinde Andrews, the co-chair of Britain’s Black Studies Association, made the case in an interview with D+C/E+Z.
“People like James Watt relied on capital that was generated in the colonies.” picture-alliance/dpa “People like James Watt relied on capital that was generated in the colonies.”

Why do you say that reparations are the way to deal with the historic atrocities?
First of all, we must understand that slavery and colonialism are what western prosperity and the current world were built on. Slavery brutalised all societies involved. Atrocious racism survives; both in severe structural inequality and in blatant racial prejudice, with one of many recent examples being the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. If we want to fix today’s problems, we have to tackle the root causes.

But aren’t the industrial revolution and technological progress at least as relevant to western prosperity?
Don’t forget that it started with textiles, and that this industry depended on the cotton produced by enslaved Africans on colonial plantations. Moreover, the investments that drove the industrial revolution were financed with profits made in the slave trade and the colonies. In Birmingham today, we worship pioneering innovators like James Watt, but it is largely neglected that people like him relied on capital that was generated in the colonies and supported the slave trade.

What sums should reparations amount to, according to you?
Well, we should take into account the unpaid labour that millions of people were forced to do from the 16th to the 19th century. On top of that, we need to consider the damage done. We’re really looking at very big numbers. In the USA, they are discussing sums of $ 4.9 trillion to $ 15 trillion.

Even transferring only $ 4.9 trillion from the rich nations to the descendants of the victims of historic atrocities hardly seems realistic.
Yes, I know. One issue is it would probably destabilise western economies to the extent of making the entire exercise useless. Repairing the damage this way could destroy the global system. On the other hand, the principle of reparations is quite well established. Not so long ago, Germany’s Federal Government compensated people who did forced labour under Nazi rule, and earlier it had paid reparations for Hitler’s genocidal holocaust.

Who would pay the money – western governments?
Governments should certainly have to play their part and spend tax money, but the private sector should be involved too. Consider Lloyds of London, for example. It is a giant financial-sector company that started out by insuring slave ships. Companies like that must contribute their due share. The same applies to churches and everyone else who had links to slavery.

Who should get the money?
That is a more difficult question. It would not make sense to hand it out directly to masses of people. They’d spend it, so it would be gone fast, reinforcing the existing global political economy, unless the global system collapses first. We need a collective solution. That said, it would not make sense to give the money to the governments of formerly colonised countries either. They are part of the problem and deserve their reputation for corruption. All too often, they simply continued abusive practices introduced by the colonialists. What might work out, though, would be to establish a kind of international council, involving various stakeholders apart from governments, such as civil-society organisations and academia for example. That council would then decide what to do with the money.

What should be done with the money?
It could be used for things like building infrastructure, establishing educational institutions and providing health care. But more importantly, it should be used to develop true economic independence for the former colonies.

That sounds like official development assistance. Donor governments spent $ 140 billion on ODA last year, and it is not easy to invest such sums in a way that actually delivers results.
ODA is not the answer. As Malcolm X said, “if you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, that’s not progress”. The point is to heal the wound. ODA does not do that, all too often it only compounded problems by reinforcing an unjust hierarchical order in which Europe and North America are always the top and Africa is the bottom.

Some of our Asian friends would dispute that hierarchy because they consider Europe, and even North America, to be deca­dent. They see Europe as a spent force.
But they all believe that Africa is the bottom. ODA may make a difference in the sense of alleviating poverty somewhat, but not in terms of reversing an unjust world order built on colonialism and slavery. There is no scenario that would deliver African or Caribbean countries’ actual equality with the dominant nations. We need a revolutionary approach.

Well, five decades ago South Korea and Ghana were at a similar level of development. South Korea received massive aid and used it to catch up with western nations.
Okay, so Samsung is a leading multinational corporation now, but it still needs rare earths and other resources imported from Africa. It’s quite obvious that not every African country can become the next South Korea – or China, for that matter.

CARICOM, the regional organisation of Caribbean nations, is demanding reparations for slavery and colonial rule. Do you think it will achieve anything?
Well, the debate has changed. It is no longer about “you did something wrong – now give us money”. It is more about getting the former colonial powers to acknowledge guilt, apologise and offer reparations in terms of education programmes, debt relief, infrastructure et cetera. The movement “Stop the Maangamizi” in the UK organises an annual march asking for recognition, and in the USA, black activists are demanding free education, for example. Something like that may well happen, but it won’t be enough to repair the real damage.

Would it make sense to build clean-energy infrastructure to compensate for historical atrocities?
In principle it might, but we mustn’t let the rich countries off the hook too easily. They are the ones who caused global warming, and they are the ones who benefited from the industrial development that made it happen. For this reason, climate finance already serves a specific compensation purpose, and so far rich nations have neither pledged enough money nor established mechanisms for paying what they did pledge. Legacies of slavery and colonialism are central to understanding the global climate injustice, but we should not conflate the topic of global warming with the reparations debate.

Kehinde Andrews co-chairs Britain’s Black Studies Association and is an associate professor in sociology at Birmingham City University.

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