By Siri Gamage –
From the colonial days, colonised countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America established contacts with imperial centres of the global north under the latter’s control, initiative and supervision. Though these countries have had international contacts of various sorts before colonisation as sovereign countries, the nature of international contacts differed significantly. One defining feature of colonial relations was the fact that substantially more benefits going to imperial centres and their masters in comparison to those going to colonised countries. However, a small but influential group of local elite families in such countries received disproportionate advantages from the colonial masters in return for their loyalty.
Commerce and trade thrived. Imports from imperial centres increased often replacing local alternatives. We are familiar with the story of how tea replaced a range of indigenous herbal drinks in Ceylon. A dependency was created not only in economic relations but also in the political and governance spheres. Education was converted in favour of Western education. A supposedly superior culture and way of living were implanted along with the English language and Christianity (in other parts of the colonised world, French, Spanish etc. were implanted instead of English). Colonised subjects started to look to the West for material, educational, spiritual and cultural upliftment. Societies started to fragment along those who were sympathetic to modernisation and development which were labelled as progress and those who adhered to tradition and traditional ways.
After the political independence of such colonised countries, the international relations continued with some modifications, mostly cosmetic. However, the dependencies established during the colonial era continued as the structures and practices in place in various fields such as governance, trade, economy, law, education, diplomacy, religion did not change significantly.
By now governance has changed to suit the needs of national parties and leaders in the colonised countries. Some have acquired hybrid characteristics. Governments however are beset with problems of high foreign debt, corruption and waste, increasing costs of living, law and order, etc. Countries are also connected to the global economy, Western capitals plus emerging economies in the name of free trade, open borders, globalisation, and more. Facilitation of capital and labour movement across national boundaries has become faster and smoother. Borrowings by debt ridden countries from multilateral lending agencies and countries like China have become commonplace. Foreign investments are encouraged. Diaspora groups have spread across the globe. Amidst all these new developments after gaining independence, the dependencies of formerly colonised countries have not decreased. In fact, they have increased. Writers such as Samir Amin have explained how such dependencies continue in the name of Neo colonialism or lately Neo liberalism.
How does the global economy shaped by powerful governments and multinational corporations in the global North and now China and India as well make a presence in formerly colonised countries and maintain the unequal economic, political and social order today? Such corporations are constantly looking for new markets for their products and services in the emerging economies in order to make profits for their shareholders as well as to expand corporation activities. The profits they can make in domestic economies are limited due to high wages and high input costs as well as due to high income taxes in some developed countries. Environmental regulations also make their operations expensive. Alert customers take them to task when there are breaches of consumer law. Thus, such corporations look for new places to operate their manufacturing plants, service outlets etc. where they can obtain tax and other advantages such as low labour costs and low infrastructure costs. What they pay for utilities is much less in emerging economies compared to what they have to pay in developed economies.
Such corporations thus establish manufacturing plant, export and trade points and offices in countries of the global south as well as less developed countries of the global North such as Romania and Poland. Locals who acquire skills to work in such operations with sufficient language knowledge and educational qualifications find employment. After working for some years, some are able to move across national boundaries to other countries for better pay and work conditions. Though such workers are able to earn a higher wage in their own countries in comparison to those who work in the state sector, their wages are much less in comparison to those in similar positions in developed countries.
To facilitate sections of formerly colonised countries to work for multinational corporations, developed countries of the West including USA have expanded their education and training operations to the developing countries. Thus, there are higher education programs and institutions from USA, Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand providing degree courses for a substantial fee. These countries have made it easier for prospective students from the developing countries to gain admission to courses in the West plus Australia and New Zealand through a network of local agents. Migration and settlement opportunities in such countries have also been relaxed by allowing graduates to obtain temporary work visas.
All this means that there is a heavy brain drain from the developing countries to the developed world. This is appreciated by leaders of developed countries of the global north as they need the new talent to augment their corporations, research centres, universities and fill vacancies for various jobs in rural and regional areas. Their gain is the loss for developing countries such as Sri Lanka. Yet such a loss is even not noted in the current context where international education is being pushed as the way forward by economically emerging countries and indeed those that are caught up in the debt trap even to the quality-wise neglect of state funded institutions.
Once a person or his /her family arrives in a developed country, they immediately become consumers. They have to pay rent, buy food, furniture and electronics, see medical practitioners, send children to school and pay for transport and communication. In a sense, for their whole life they become bonded to the tax system plus the suppliers of goods and services while paying a goods and services tax also (GST or VAT). The income they receive is to be spent on various necessities. If they buy a house by borrowing from a bank, they have to pay the loan and interest for 20-30 years. The same applies to those who work for multinational corporations in their own countries. This is good business for companies. The more a migrant earn, the more he/she has to pay taxes. It is good for the governments also. Moreover, when such migrants live in developed countries for 20-30 years, many detach themselves from their original culture, language, religion and way of life. In their place, they embrace the modern, consumerisit culture, way of life and its trappings. In other words, they become strangers to their mother countries and even to parts of the diaspora that try to maintain elements of original culture and identity.
One question is whether there are other ways for formerly colonised, developing countries to prosper in economic, political and cultural terms? Irrespective of the nationalistic and patriotic rhetoric adopted by political leaders, they have been unable to explore alternatives to the existing neo colonial-neoliberal economic paradigm dictated by powerful countries and agencies with the backing of their multinational corporations. They embrace expanding foreign education in their countries knowing that this leads to brain drain. State supported higher education sectors have not been able to free from inherited disciplinary knowledge, especially in social sciences and humanities during the colonial days. Instead of looking after the national interest or undertaking nation building projects and truly liberating, the political leadership seems to be following a path for creating further dependencies on countries tied to the globally dominant players. Foreign investments, some with dubious national benefits, are encouraged by mortgaging national assets on long term basis. Little they realise that national sovereignty is under threat not necessarily from minorities but from this expanding multinational operations or those coming from countries with one party rule. There are vested interests within governments that promote connections with the global economy on unequal terms. There is little hope that such vested interests that cut across party lines will change the course in the foreseeable future. It is now up to the civil society organisations to invest time to search and push for alternative paradigms in the economy, governance, higher education, international relations and other fields. Substantial reforms are also required in fields such as law and governance.
Among others, alternative development models include sustainable development projects with community ownership and management, corporative models, Social Enterprises (popular in South East Asian Countries), indigenous development, models initiated, funded and managed by NGOs, farmer organisations selling products direct to the consumer, organic farming and marketing. These can be implemented in a range of areas including industry, business, trade, transport, communications, agriculture, tourism, education and health. In such enterprises, pooling resources to achieve growth on the basis of sharing the results in an environmentally conscious way is defining feature. Profit alone does not drive them. Social responsibility is paramount. Community empowerment through engagements in such enterprises is also a main flank. This is not only theory. There are examples of such models and enterprises from countries of the global south that can be useful for understanding their scope and benefits as well as the potential to steer countries away from the dependencies being created by the neo colonial-neoliberal economic model and its advocates.