The New Colonialists

Humanitarian groups and well-meaning charities keep failing countries afloat. They also create a crippling cycle of dependence.


| November-December 2008


Even on their best days, the world’s failed states are difficult to mistake for anything but tragic examples of countries gone wrong. A few routinely make the headlines—Somalia, Iraq, Congo. But alongside their brand of extreme state dysfunction exists an entirely separate, easily missed class of states teetering on the edge. In dozens of countries, corrupt or feeble governments are proving themselves dangerously incapable of carrying out the most basic responsibilities of statehood. These developing countries—nations such as Botswana, Cambodia, and Kenya—might appear to be recovering, even thriving, but like their failed-state cousins, they are increasingly unable, and perhaps unwilling, to fulfill the functions that have long defined what it means to be a state.

What—or who—is keeping these countries from falling into the abyss? Not so long ago, former colonial masters and superpower patrons propped them up. Today, however, the thin line that separates weak states from truly failed ones is manned by a hodgepodge of international charities, aid agencies, philanthropists, and foreign advisers. This armada of non-state actors has become a powerful global force, replacing traditional donors’ and governments’ influence in poverty-stricken, war-torn world capitals. And as a measure of that influence, they are increasingly taking over key state functions, providing for the health, welfare, and safety of citizens. These private actors have become the “new colonialists” of the 21st century.

In much the same way European empires once dictated policies across their colonial holdings, the new colonialists—among them international development groups such as Oxfam, humanitarian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) like Doctors Without Borders and Mercy Corps, and mega-philanthropies like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—direct development strategies and craft government policies for their hosts. But though the new colonialists are the glue holding society together in many weak states, their presence often deepens the dependency of these states on outsiders. They unquestionably fill vital roles, providing lifesaving health care, educating children, and distributing food in countries where the government can’t or won’t. But, as a consequence, many of these states are failing to develop the skills necessary to run their countries effectively, while others fall back on a global safety net to escape accountability.

Have the new colonialists gone too far in attempting to manage responsibilities that should be those of governments alone? And given the dependency they have nurtured, can the world afford to let them walk away one day?

The full text of this article is available  online  to subscribers of Foreign Policy (July-Aug. 2008), a magazine covering global politics, economics, and ideas that received a 2007 Utne Independent Press Award for international coverage;  www.foreignpolicy.com . Copyright 2008 © Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The article is available in full in the print edition of Utne Reader’s Nov.-Dec. issue.