“Sh*thole” countries in context: what most Americans don’t get about colonial legacies

Adriana DiSilvestro, Staff Writer

Thursday, Jan. 11, in a meeting on immigration, the President of the United States referred to Haiti and the African continent as “sh*thole countries.”

Appalling? Yes. Shocking? No.

I won’t bother with the rest of the context because it’s not the politics of this specific comment that are important. President Donald Trump will continue to spew nonsense for the rest of his time in office. I believe the most important aspect of his comment is the need to understand where the sentiment of African countries supposedly being “sh*tholes” comes from. It is crucial to understand the exploitative history behind such name-calling.

I would be willing to bet that the majority of Americans, even if they refrain from such derogatory statements, have very little understanding of why “third world” countries exist in such stark economic contrast to North America and Western Europe. I, for one, had very little exposure to ideas of colonialism until college. Therefore, it is in some ways no fault of their own: it’s a failure of secondary education and of mainstream development rhetoric to instill a sense of historical accountability.

To understand the economic and political state of many countries on the African continent one must go back in history to the Portuguese “discovery” of the African continent in the 15th century. Dismantling various existing societies in their wake, the Portuguese exploration of the continent pushed other European nations to begin establishing trading posts along the African coastline, many of which functioned as slave ports. This eventually led to the infamous scramble for Africa in the 1860’s, marking the official start of European imperialism on the continent. Different countries laid claim to various regions of the continent, so colonial rule theoretically looked different from place to place; however, all colonial rule in Africa shared characteristics of violence, exploitation, and oppression.

Imagine that there are two towns. They both start out with working governments, rich cultural lives, and a prosperous existence. Now imagine that one town slowly begins sending people into the other town, to steal resources, and sometimes, people. The exploited town tries to resist, but in the end loses. So, the stealing and the oppression continues for 200 years. Finally, someone realizes that what is happening is morally corrupt and puts a stop to it. What do the two towns look like? How do they compare? And to make it worse, instead of supporting bottom up community measures to help repair the damage that has been done, the town that stole for 200 years now just throws large sums of money at its next door neighbor; money that gets lost and becomes ineffective in a place with little infrastructure or political organization to distribute it. And to make it even worse, the stealing town now begins to blame the other town for its shortcomings.

This is an extremely condensed version of colonial processes, but it is a start to the difficulty of explaining the inequalities present between former colonies, like most African nations, and former colonizers, like countries in western Europe. This, of course, is not the whole story.

Just as with the United States, the African continent is a diverse and resilient place, occupied by varying degrees of prosperity, political autonomy, and cultural richness. However, if we view the situation through the flawed lens of contemporary international development, the African continent is the one in need of “help” that comes in the form of large wads of cash, that in the end doesn’t do much to repair the damage inflicted upon millions of people less than one hundred years ago.

Understanding what historical accountability means when it comes to colonialism and global economic inequality is a difficult thing, and thinking of ways to help repair the damage done is perhaps even harder under global capitalist frameworks. What is clear, however, is that name-calling is not a step in the right direction.

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