Come, fix upon me that accusing eye. I thirst for accusation.

W. B. Yeats


The feeling of guilt has aptly been termed one of America’s few remaining surplus commodities. Ubiquitous and repeated allegations that the West is responsible for the poverty of the so-called Third World both reflect and strengthen this feeling of guilt. Yet while such allegations have come to be widely accepted, often as axiomatic, they are not only untrue, but more nearly the opposite of the truth. Their acceptance has nevertheless paralyzed Western diplomacy, both toward the Soviet bloc and toward the Third World, where the West has abased itself before groups of countries which have negligible resources and no real power.

The feeling of guilt toward the Third World has been reinforced by political, emotional, and financial interests. It often goes together with condescension and contempt toward the people of the Third World. On the other hand, it is unaccompanied by a sense of responsibility for the results of the policies it itself inspires—policies which have ironically obstructed development in the Third World, and have contributed to intense and widespread suffering in many parts of it.

Allegations of Western responsibility are usually expressed vaguely and their ostensible grounds shift. But the general thrust is unequivocal. It is a persistent theme in the United Nations and its numerous affiliates. It is expressed virulently by spokesmen from the Third World and the Communist bloc, and is often endorsed by representatives of the West, especially of the United States. It is sounded continually in the universities, in the churches, and in the media.

Peter Townsend, for example, perhaps the most prominent British writer on poverty, asserts in his much-acclaimed book, The Concept of Poverty:

I argued that the poverty of deprived nations is comprehensible only if we attribute it substantially to the existence of a system of international social stratification, a hierarchy of societies with vastly different resources in which the wealth of some is linked historically and contemporaneously to the poverty of others. This system operated crudely in the era of colonial domination, and continues to operate today, though more subtly, through systems of trade, education, political relations, military alliances, and industrial corporations.

So too, the late Paul A. Baran of Stanford argues in another widely-used text, The Political Economy of Growth:

To the dead weight of stagnation characteristic of pre-industrial society was added the entire restrictive impact of monopoly capitalism. The economic surplus appropriated in lavish amounts by monopolistic concerns in backward countries is not employed for productive purposes. It is neither plowed back into their own enterprises nor does it serve to develop others.

And finally—though of course examples could easily be multiplied1—we have the late Dr. Nkrumah, Prime Minister and President of Ghana, perhaps one of the most influential African politicians since World War II, who declares in Africa Must Unite:

Thus all the imperialists, without exception, evolved the means, their colonial policies, to satisfy the ends, the exploitation of the subject territories, for the aggrandizement of the metropolitan countries. They were all rapacious; they all subserved the needs of the subject lands to their own demands; they all circumscribed human rights and liberties; they all repressed and despoiled, degraded and oppressed. They took our lands, our lives, our resources and our dignity. Without exception, they left us nothing but our resentment. It was when they had gone and we were faced with the stark realities, as in Ghana on the morrow of our independence, that the destitution of the land after long years of colonial rule was brought sharply home to us.

All these allegations are either misleading or untrue. Thus Professor Townsend cannot be right in saying that the backwardness of poor countries is explicable only in terms of an international social stratification or of colonial domination: the poorest and most backward countries have until recently had no external economic contacts and often have never been Western colonies. Baran’s statement is again obviously and wholly untrue since throughout the Third World large agricultural, commercial, and industrial complexes have been built up through profits reinvested locally. Nor does Nkrumah’s statement bear much relation to reality. For example, before colonial rule there was not a single cocoa tree in the Gold Coast (Ghana); when colonial rule ended, cocoa exports, entirely from African-owned and operated farms, totaled hundreds of thousands of tons annually—and this was the case with external trade in general.




So far from the West having caused the poverty of the Third World, contact with the West has been the principal agent of material progress there. Indeed, the very idea of material progress is Western, especially in the sense of a constant and steadily increasing control over man’s environment. People in the Third World did not think in these terms until the arrival of Western man. The materially most advanced societies and regions of the Third World are those with which the West established the most numerous, diversified, and extensive contacts: the cash-crop-producing areas and entrepôt ports of Southeast Asia, West Africa, and Latin America; the mineral-producing areas of Africa and the Middle East; and cities and ports throughout Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America. The level of material achievement usually diminishes as one moves away from the foci of Western impact: the poorest and most backward are the populations with few or no external contacts, the aborigines being the limiting case.

All this is neither new nor surprising, since the spread of material progress from more to less advanced regions is familiar from economic history. The West was far ahead of the present Third World when it established contact with these regions in recent centuries. It was through these contacts that human and material resources, skills, capital, and new ideas—including the idea of material progress itself—flowed from the West to the Third World.

This process is especially evident in Black Africa. All the foundations and ingredients of modern social and economic life present there today were brought by Westerners, almost entirely during the colonial era. This is true of such fundamentals as public security and law and order; wheeled traffic (sub-Saharan Africa never invented the wheel); mechanized transport (transport powered by steam or gasoline instead of muscle—almost entirely human muscle in Black Africa); roads, railways, and man-made ports; modern forms of money (instead of barter or commodity money, such as cowrie shells, iron bars, or bottles of gin); the application of science and technology to economic activity; towns with substantial buildings, water, and sewerage; public health and hospitals and the control of endemic and epidemic diseases; and formal education.2

In short, over the last hundred years or so, contact with the West has transformed large parts of the Third World for the better. Southeast Asia and West Africa provide well-documented examples. For instance, in the 1890’s Malaya was a sparsely populated area of hamlets and fishing villages. By the 1930’s it had become a country with populous cities, thriving commerce, and an excellent system of roads, primarily thanks to the rubber industry brought there and developed by the British. Again, before the 1890’s there was no cocoa production in what is now Ghana and Nigeria, no exports of peanuts or cotton, and relatively small exports of palm oil and palm kernels. These are by now staples of world commerce, all produced by Africans, but originally made possible by European activities. Imports, both of capital goods and of mass consumer goods designed for African use, also rose from negligible amounts at the end of the 19th century to huge volumes by the 1950’s. These far-reaching changes are reflected in statistics of government revenues, literacy rates, school attendance, public health, infant mortality, and many other indicators, such as the ownership of automobiles and other consumer durables.

Western activities—supplemented at times by the activities of non-Western immigrants, notably Chinese, Indians, and Levantines, whose large-scale migration was, however, made possible by Western initiative—have thus led to major improvements in the material conditions of life in many parts of the Third World. This is not to suggest that there has been significant material progress everywhere in the Third World. Over large areas there have been few contacts with the West. And even where such contacts have been established, the personal, social, and political determinants of economic performance have often proved unfavorable to material advance. But wherever local conditions permitted, contact with the West most often resulted in the elimination of the worst epidemic and endemic diseases, the mitigation or disappearance of famines, and a general improvement in the material standard of living for all.




Many of the assertions concerning Western responsibility for poverty in the Third World express or reflect the belief that the prosperity of relatively well-to-do persons, groups, and societies is always achieved at the expense of the less well-off—i.e., that incomes are not generated by those who earn them, but are somehow extracted from others, so that economic activity is akin to a zero-sum game, in which the gains of some are always balanced by the losses of others. In fact, incomes (other than subsidies) are earned by the recipients for resources and services supplied, and are not acquired by depriving others of what they had.

The notion that incomes are extracted rather than earned has been among the most disastrous of popular economic misconceptions or delusions. It has, however, served the purposes of those who expect to benefit from the maltreatment of other people—through, for example, the expropriation or even destruction of relatively prosperous minorities. The notion has been used by medieval rulers and modern demagogues alike, and their victims range from medieval Jewish communities to the ethnic minorities of contemporary Asia and Africa. In Asia and Africa it is widely regarded as axiomatic that poverty reflects exploitation by foreigners, including ethnic minorities who have risen from poverty to prosperity. This belief is encouraged assiduously by local politicians, especially those who promised that political independence under their auspices would herald material prosperity, and is often propagated as well by other influential local groups who also expect to benefit from policies inspired by these ideas.

In recent decades the effectiveness of the notion that incomes are extracted rather than generated has been extended and reinforced by two streams of influence whose operation in this area has been cumulative. The first is Marxist-Leninist ideology, and the second is the spurious belief that the capacities and motivations of people are the same the world over.

In Marxist-Leninist ideology any return on private capital implies exploitation, and service industries are regarded as unproductive. Thus, earnings of foreign capital and the incomes of foreigners or ethnic minorities in the service industries become forms of exploitation. Further, neo-Marxist literature has extended the concept of the proletariat—which in this scheme of things is poor because it is exploited—to the peoples of the Third World (most of whom are in fact small-scale cultivators).

The notion that all individuals and societies are basically alike has also promoted the belief that Western prosperity has been achieved at the expense of the Third World. For if human aptitudes and motivations are substantially the same everywhere and yet some societies are richer than others, then the more prosperous must have oppressed and exploited the rest.




But if the idea that incomes and property are extracted rather than earned is the principal assumption behind the notion of Western responsibility, a number of more specific contentions and suggestions are also heard. Most of these are in effect variants or derivations of the main theme, geared to particular audiences. Perhaps the leading such variant is the argument that the poverty of Asia and Africa can be attributed to colonialism. This idea is axiomatic in much of the Third World and in publications of the UN and its affiliates, and it has great appeal in the United States.

According to General Principle XIV of the first United Nations Conference for Trade and Development (UNCTAD): “The liquidation of the remnants of colonialism in all its forms is a necessary condition of economic development.” This passage (which would not have been acceptable to Marx) reflects the Leninist doctrine under which colonialism is by definition exploitative. Leninist doctrine is reflected also in the phrase, “colonialism in all its forms”—a covert reference to foreign investment, which in Leninist ideology is itself a species of external exploitation.

Whatever one thinks of colonialism, however, it is certainly not incompatible with economic development. Some of the richest countries were formerly colonies and were even as colonies already very prosperous (North America, Australasia). As I have already stressed, many of the African and Asian colonies of the European powers progressed very rapidly during colonial rule, usually much more so than the independent countries in the same area. And at present one of the few remaining European colonies is Hong Kong. Conversely, some of the materially most backward countries in the world never were colonies (Afghanistan, Tibet, Nepal, Liberia). Ethiopia is perhaps an even more telling example, though it was an Italian colony for a very brief period (six years) in its long history.

The manifest untruth that colonial status must imply poverty, stagnation, and exploitation is sometimes camouflaged by suggestions that without colonialism the peoples of the colonial territories would have created nation states, or developed their own industries, or undertaken economic planning. Yet it is purely fanciful to imagine that such policies would or could have been pursued by the tribal chiefs or local rajahs or sultans who were replaced by colonial governments. And even if they had, such policies would not necessarily have made for progress. Indeed, state subsidies to particular activities or centralized control of economic activity are more likely to perpetuate poverty than to relieve it.

The terms economic colonialism and neocolonialism have sprung up recently to describe almost any form of economic relation between relatively rich and poor countries, regions, or groups. This terminology confuses poverty with colonial status, a concept which has always been understood to mean lack of political sovereignty. Since the late 1960’s, the usage has been extended to cover the activities of multinational corporations in the Third World. In fact, these activities have promoted progress in poor countries by expanding opportunities and raising incomes and government revenues. Thus not only does the new terminology reflect a debasement of language; it also distorts the truth.

The decline of particular economic activities—e.g., the Indian textile industry of the 18th century—as a result of competition from cheap imports is sometimes instanced as an example of Western responsibility. This argument identifies the decline of one activity with the decline of the economy as a whole. But except under most peculiar conditions, rarely specified in this context, cheap imports extend the range of choice and of economic opportunities of people in poor countries. These imports are usually accompanied by the development and expansion of other activities: if this were not so, the population would be unable to pay.




According to another set of allegations, the West damages the Third World by manipulating the terms of trade so that these are unfavorable to the latter and also deteriorate persistently. This is alleged to have contributed to a decline in the share of the Third World in international trade. A related form of damage is said to be the indebtedness inflicted on the Third World by the West. These allegations are again fictitious, untrue, or irrelevant.

To begin with, the diversity of trading patterns within the Third World renders the aggregation of their terms of trade largely meaningless because the terms of trade of particular Third World countries and groups can move differently and even in opposite directions (the experience of the OPEC countries against other Third World countries is only a recent and familiar example). And over very short periods, changes in the terms of trade as conventionally measured are of little welfare significance without reference to changes in the cost of production of exports, the range and quality of imports, and the volume of trade.

Insofar as changes in the terms of trade do affect development and welfare, what matters is the amount of imports which can be purchased with a unit of domestic resources, and this cannot be inferred from the ratio of import and export prices. (In technical language, the comparisons relevant to economic welfare and development are the factoral terms of trade and not the crude commodity terms.) Further, expressions such as unfavorable terms of trade are meaningless except by reference to a base period. In recent decades, however, even the crude commodity terms of trade of Third World countries have been exceptionally favorable. When changes in the cost of production, the great improvement in the range and quality of imports, and the huge increase in the volume of trade are taken into account, the external purchasing power of the exports of the Third World in the aggregate is now very favorable, probably more so than ever before. This in turn has made it easier for governments to retain a larger proportion of export earnings through major increases in royalty rates, export taxes, and corporation taxes.3

But the terms of trade are in any case irrelevant to the basic causes of Third World poverty. This is obvious, for instance, from the material backwardness of societies and countries with little or no external trade. Changes in the share of the Third World in international trade are also irrelevant to its poverty. A reduction in the share of a country or group of countries in global trade has by itself no adverse economic implications because it often reflects the expansion of economic activity and trade elsewhere, which normally does not damage but benefits those whose relative share has declined. For instance, since the 1950’s the large increase in the foreign trade of Japan, the reconstruction of Europe, and the liberalization of intra-European trade have brought about a decline in the share of other groups in world trade, including that of the United States and the United Kingdom. Furthermore, domestic developments and policies unrelated to external circumstances—such as increased domestic use of previously exported products, or domestic inflation, or special taxation of exporters, or the intensification of protectionist policies—frequently reduce the share of a country or group of countries in world trade. (As an aside, I may note that in recent decades the share of the Third World in total world trade has increased and not decreased, notably so since before World War I.)

So far as indebtedness is concerned, the external debts of the Third World reflect resources supplied to it. Indeed, the bulk of the current indebtedness of Third World governments consists of soft loans, often very soft loans, under various aid agreements, frequently supplemented by outright grants. With the worldwide rise in prices, including those of exports of Third World countries, the cost even of these soft loans has diminished greatly. If governments cannot service such soft loans, this reflects either wasteful use of the capital supplied, or inappropriate monetary or fiscal policies. It is worth remembering that in the course of their development many rich countries relied extensively on external loans, and hard loans at that.

Nor do persistent deficits in the balance of payments of many Third World countries mean that they are being impoverished by the West. Such deficits are inevitable if the government of a country, whether rich or poor, advancing or stagnating, lives beyond its resources and pursues inflationary policies while attempting to maintain overvalued exchange rates.

It is paradoxical to suggest that external economic relations are damaging to development. They normally benefit people by opening up markets for exports, and by providing a large and diverse source of imports, besides acting as channels for the flow of human and financial resources and for new ideas, methods, and crops. Because of the vast expansion of world trade in recent decades and the development of technology in the West, the material advantages from external contacts are now greater than ever before. The suggestion that these relations are detrimental is not only unfounded but also damaging, because it serves as a specious justification for official restrictions on their volume or diversity.




Yet another batch of arguments holds that the mere presence of the West and the day-to-day activities of its peoples are in themselves harmful to the Third World. One form of such damage is said to derive from the so-called international demonstration effect, brought about by the new availability of cheap consumer goods supplied by the West. This availability supposedly obstructs the material progress of the Third World by encouraging spending there, an argument which of course completely disregards the level of consumption and the extension of choice as criteria of development. Yet these are what economic development is about. The notion of a damaging international demonstration effect also ignores the role of external contacts as an instrument of development; it overlooks the fact that the new consumer goods have to be paid for, which usually requires improved economic performance, such as more work, additional saving and investment, and readiness to produce for sale. In short, it overlooks the obvious consideration that a higher and more varied level of consumption is both the principal justification (or even the meaning) of material progress, and also an inducement to further economic advance.4

An updated version of the international demonstration effect proposes that the eager acceptance of Western consumer goods in the Third World is a form of cultural dependence engendered by Western business. (Rather paradoxical!) this charge is often accompanied by allegations of the damage to the Third World done by Western patents, which are said to obstruct the spread of technology.) The implication here is that the peoples of the Third World have no independent minds, that they are manipulated at will by foreigners. In fact, however, Western goods have been selectively and not indiscriminately accepted in the Third World and have been of massive benefit to millions of people there.

As was to be expected, allegedly lavish consumption habits and the pollution of the environment in the West have also been pressed into ideological service. A standard formulation is that per-capita consumption of food and energy in the U.S. is many times that in India, so that the American consumer despoils his Indian opposite number on a large scale—or even, according to Professor Rene Dumont, is guilty of a kind of cannibalism (for “in over-consuming meat which wasted the cereals which could have saved them, we ate the little children of the Sahel, of Ethiopia, and of Bangladesh”). Apart from everything else, such formulations fail to note that per-capita production in America exceeds production in India more than the difference in consumption, allowing it not only to pay for this consumption, but also to finance domestic and foreign investment, as well as foreign aid.

The so-called brain drain, the migration of qualified personnel from the Third World to the West, is again influentially canvassed as an instance of Western responsibility for poverty in the less-developed countries. This is a somewhat more complex issue, but it certainly does not substantiate the charge it is meant to support. As an adverse factor in Third World development, the voluntary departure of formally trained people seeking to improve their condition is almost certainly less important than the enforced exodus of highly educated people and of others with commercial and administrative skills, or the discrimination of Third World governments against ethnic minorities who remain, or their refusal to employ foreigners. Indeed, many voluntary emigrants leave because their own governments cannot or will not use their services—and not only when they belong to ethnic minorities. Thus their departure does not deprive the society of resources which are productive at present or in the foreseeable future.

Finally, there is the allegation that the West has damaged the Third World by ethnic discrimination. Yet the very countries in which such discrimination occurred were those where material progress was initiated or promoted by contact with the West. The most backward groups in the Third World (aborigines, desert peoples, nomads, and other tribesfolk) were quite unaffected by-ethnic discrimination on the part of Europeans, whereas many communities against which discrimination was often practiced—Chinese in Southeast Asia, Indians in parts of Southeast Asia, Asians in Africa, and others—made great material strides forward. In any case, discrimination on the basis of color or race is not a European invention but has been endemic in much of Africa and Asia, notably so in India, for many centuries or even millennia.




The West may indeed be said to have contributed to the poverty of the Third World in two senses. But these differ radically from the familiar arguments.

The changes which have come about in much of the Third World through contact with the West have resulted in a significant decline in infant mortality and a greatly increased life expectancy for the population in general. That many more people in the Third World survive also means that many more poor people are alive. But if this represents a Western contribution to Third World poverty, it also represents an improvement obscured in conventional national-income statistics, which do not register health, life expectancy, and the possession of children as components of welfare. People, after all, prefer to survive and to see their children survive.

A second sense in which the West may be said to have contributed to the poverty of the Third World is through the politicization of social and economic life—that is, through the tendency to make everything a matter of politics. Thus in the terminal years of British rule extensive and pervasive state economic controls came to be introduced in the colonies, such as widespread licensing of economic activity, and state trading monopolies, including state monopolies over agricultural exports. This last measure was particularly important because it enabled the government to exert direct control over the livelihood of producers, and it has also served as a major source of government finance and patronage. In most British colonies, especially in Africa and in Burma, the ready-made framework of a dirigiste or even totalitarian state was handed over to the incoming independent governments.

Inefficient allocation of resources is a familiar result of state controls. Less familiar but more important results of these controls are restrictions on the movement of people between jobs and places, and also on the volume, diversity, and local dispersion of external contacts which are of special significance for the progress of poor countries. Still more important is the exacerbation of social and political tensions. The question of who runs the government has become paramount in many Third World countries, and is often a matter of life and death for millions of people. This is especially so in multiracial societies, like those of much of Asia and Africa. In such a situation the energies and resources of people, particularly the most ambitious and energetic, are diverted from economic activity to political life, partly from choice and partly from necessity. Foreign aid has also contributed to the politicization of life in the Third World. It augments the resources of governments as compared to the private sector; and the criteria of allocation tend to favor governments trying to establish state controls.

Many Third World governments would presumably have attempted such policies even without colonial rule or foreign aid, probably with the help of international organizations. But they could hardly have succeeded without the examples set by colonial governments or the personnel and money provided by Western aid or by international organizations, which in turn are financed largely by the West. Yet far from deploring these policies, the most vocal and influential critics of colonial rule and Western influence, both in the West itself and in the Third World, have usually urged their adoption and extension and have blamed Western governments for not having pursued them sooner and more vigorously.




I have already indicated my belief that it is the feeling of guilt over material prosperity which accounts for the widespread promotion and acceptance of the bizarre and insubstantial arguments on which allegations of Western responsibility for poverty in the Third World are based. A striking example of much Anglo-Saxon sentiment in this area is an article by the late Cyril Connolly published several years ago in the London Sunday Times under the title “Black Man’s Burden.” Connolly writes:

There is not a single country of which we can truthfully say that its occupation by a European power did it more good than harm. . . . It is a wonder that the white man is not more thoroughly detested than he is. . . . In our dealings with every single country, greed, masked by hypocrisy, led to unscrupulous coercion of the native inhabitants and worse, the culture and civilization which we brought was rotten to the core. . . . Cruelty, greed, uncertainty, and arrogance—the affectation of superiority exemplified by the color bar characterized what can be summed up in one word: exploitation. . . . We are to blame (I say we for nearly everyone has had some family connection with India, Africa, or the Far East).

This statement by a prominent intellectual is both ludicrous and characteristic. Actually only a tiny fraction of the British population ever had such contacts, and only a fraction of that fraction in any way misconducted itself toward the Third World. The article regards the population of Africa and Asia as much of a muchness (“the black man”), a treatment which is repugnant to millions of people both in the Third World and in the West, and especially so to the great majority of Indians, Chinese, and Arabs. The passage also suggests that incomes are extracted and not earned. And it well expresses the conception of collective guilt which has replaced individual sin in these discussions, thereby exonerating any single identifiable person of responsibility for immoral behavior.

Such feelings help to explain why Western governments support and endorse nonsensical, groundless, and offensive statements by leading Third World politicians, and why the West so often abases itself before governments (usually unrepresentative governments) whose countries are often sparsely populated by relatively small numbers of materially very backward people. It is sometimes suggested that such postures are necessary to keep the Third World outside the Soviet orbit. But with very few and rather doubtful exceptions, these stances have been counter-productive, and have not served the interests of Western political or military strategy (assuming that such a strategy exists). The references to political objectives are unconvincing ex-post-facto rationalizations of anomalous and baffling policies.




But it is not only an unfounded sense of guilt which is reflected in these policies. There is also condescension or even contempt. Economic conditions in the Third World are thought to reflect Western exploitation, compounded by current Western consumption habits, while its economic future supposedly depends on Western aid. Thus it is we and not they who, it is assumed, will largely determine what happens to these societies.

The image of the Third World as a uniform, stagnant mass devoid of distinctive character is another aspect of the same condescension or contempt. The stereotype denies identity, character, personality, and responsibility to the societies and individuals of the so-called Third World. When a distinct independent culture and set of values are recognized, they are often condemned, and their enforced removal is proposed on the ground that they obstruct material progress. For instance, compulsory transformation of man and society is a major theme of Gunnar Myrdal’s Asian Drama.

The most brutal maltreatment of minorities and the most extensive official discrimination on the basis of color, race, or religion in the Third World are often excused by saying that they have been inspired by the West. In fact, colonial governments have usually protected the minorities and not persecuted them; and discrimination long antedates colonialism. The view that these policies and attitudes have been inspired by the West implies again that the peoples of the Third World have no will or identity of their own and are simply creatures of the West.

Toleration or even support of the brutal policies of many Third World governments, then, seems to reflect a curious mixture of guilt feelings and condescension. Third World governments are not really guilty because they only follow examples set by the West. Moreover, like children, they are not altogether responsible for what they do. In any case, we must support them to atone for alleged wrongs, which our supposed ancestors perpetrated on their supposed ancestors. And economic aid is also necessary to help the children grow up. Similarly, the most offensive and baseless utterances of Third World statesmen need not be taken seriously, because they are only Third World statesmen (a license which has been extended to their supporters in the West).

The truth, however, is that the so-called Third World is a vast and diverse collection of societies differing widely in religion, culture, social institutions, personal characteristics and motivations, political arrangements, economic attitudes, material achievement, rates of progress, and many other respects. It is a travesty and not a useful simplification to lump together Chinese merchants of Southeast Asia, Indonesian peasants, Indian villagers, tribal societies of Africa, oil-rich Arabs of the Middle East, aborigines and desert peoples, inhabitants of huge cities in India, Africa, and Latin America—to envisage them all as a low-level uniform mass, a collectivity which moreover is regarded as no more than a copy of Western man, only poorer, and with even this difference the result only of Western responsibility.

The adoption of this stereotype and of the misleading terminology has been made easier by the lack of first-hand public knowledge of conditions in the Third World. Few people in the West know these countries, let alone the diverse policies pursued in them.

Yet had this travesty not suited certain influential interests in the West, it might never have succeeded in establishing itself. These interests have ranged from the churches seeking a new role for themselves to exporters seeking sheltered markets. Two categories may have been specially effective: the personnel and associates of the international organizations, and various disaffected groups who have come to dislike or even hate Western society.

Since World War II the people who work in one way or another for international organizations have come increasingly to consider themselves as agents and representatives of the Third World, a stance which has often suited their political, professional, and personal interests. They have helped to weld together at least superficially the representatives of extremely diverse, conflicting, or even bitterly hostile societies and countries into a bloc, united only by politically and materially profitable enmity to the West. This was achieved by preparing briefs for Third World spokesmen, by organizing meetings for the formulation of positions at international gatherings, and by other similar measures. The ideologies of the Third World and of the United Nations and its associated agencies have become largely interchangeable.

As to the second group—made up of people in the West who are sufficiently disillusioned with their own society to have become disaffected from or even hostile to it—some of them see the Third World as a useful instrument for promoting their cause in what is in essence a civil conflict in the West. The poverty of many Third World countries makes them more akin to instruments than independent allies. But whether as instruments or allies, their usefulness is enhanced if they are regarded as a homogeneous, undifferentiated mass or brotherhood united in opposition to the West.




Policies and activities promoted by a sense of guilt and by attitudes and interests related to it do not usually promote the welfare of the people they are supposed to help. Appeasement of guilt has nothing to do with a sense of responsibility. In the present context this is evident in the lack of concern with the conduct of governments which receive economic aid, or with the results of policies ostensibly inspired by humanitarian motives.

Thus the West supports governments whose domestic policies impoverish their own peoples and often inflict extreme hardship both on ethnic minorities and on the indigenous population. President Amin’s massive and explicit persecution and expulsion of Asians is only one of many instances. Another is Tanzania (Mr. McNamara’s favorite African country, as it has rightly been called) which receives large-scale Western aid while it forcibly herds millions of people into collectivized villages, often destroying their households to make them move.5 Western aid has conferred respectability on governments like these and helped them conceal temporarily from their own people the economic consequences of their policies.

Commodity agreements for primary products present another anomaly. They are proposed and implemented ostensibly to relieve Third World poverty. Yet these arrangements raise the cost of living in an inflationary world; they benefit the most prosperous countries and groups in the Third World, including expatriates living there; they often benefit Western exporters of the same products or their close substitutes (many rich countries are net exporters of primary products); they provoke political tensions within the exporting countries as well as between them; and they greatly damage some of the poorest groups in many Third World countries, especially people who are barred from producing the controlled products in order to raise their prices. Yet they continue to be advocated and established because any measure which appears to represent a transfer of resources to Third World governments automatically finds favor.



It would be a delusion to believe that the reasoning and evidence produced here, even if accepted as valid, could substantially influence the attitudes of those afflicted by a feeling of guilt or who profit from it, let alone modify the policies which it inspires. Argument and evidence will not affect conduct and measures which are rooted in emotion, often reinforced by the play of personal and political interests. Moreover, the costs and sacrifices of policies inspired by such feelings are rarely borne by those who so warmly advocate their imposition. They are borne instead by ordinary people, mostly of the Third World, who will go on being harmed so long as such feelings, ideas, and policies continue to hold sway.



1 Several remarkable ones were cited by Daniel P. Moynihan in his celebrated COMMENTARY article, “The United States in Opposition” (March 1975).

2 On the other hand, of course, there was the Atlantic slave trade. But horrible and destructive as this trade was, it cannot legitimately be claimed as a cause of African backwardness. Indeed, the slave trade to what is now the Middle East began before the Atlantic slave trade and far outlasted it. (It was also even more brutal because the young males were usually castrated, often with fatal results.) And as it happens, the most backward parts of the continent, such as the interior of Central and Southern Africa and most of East Africa, were relatively unaffected by Western slavery, while the currently most advanced areas, notably West Africa, were much affected by it. (Asia was of course altogether untouched.)

3 Although these observations differ radically from the ideas reaching the public in the West, they should not come as a surprise. Some years ago, Sir Arthur Lewis noted in an important address that in the 1950’s the terms of trade of primary producers were more favorable than at any time in the preceding eighty years (cf. “A Review of Economic Development,” American Economic Review, May 1965). Sir Arthur wrote before the subsequent upsurge in the prices of primary products and without reference to the favorable factors noted in the text. The exporters of primary products are far from the same as Third World exporters, but they are often identified in discussions of Third World poverty.

4 At an official level, a damaging international demonstration effect may indeed operate by encouraging the adoption of show projects and unsuitable technologies financed with public funds. But this is not usually what the exponents of the international demonstration effect have in mind. Nor is it appropriate to blame the West for the policies of Third World governments in adopting unsuitable external models.

5 See the Washington Post, May 6, 1975, for a report on this process.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link