Colonial past or colonial present?

By Jessica Warren

British imperialism may have technically ended in 1997 with the transfer of Hong Kong to China, away from British powers. Yet, with a considerable lack of education on the widespread impacts of British colonial and imperial rule, there is an absence of discussion surrounding the prevailing scars left behind. As a journalist, it is important to recognise my own standpoint when discussing this issue. Yes, I am a white, middle-class woman from the UK, and amid recognising this, I am hoping to open-up discussion as to the privileges we experience, and the way our imperialist past still exists within society.

Recent revelations have found that aid workers from Oxfam had paid for sex workers, allegedly hosting sex parties with prostitutes whilst on the 2010 mission to Haiti following an earthquake. Embedded within this appalling revelation are themes of exploitation, oppression and domination; themes still remnant from colonial rule and western European slave trade. It seems the western idea of visiting a country with the intent to ‘help’ and ‘better’ it, as well as ‘modernise’ or even ‘civilise’ a culture has not lessened. Perhaps wrapped up in glossier packaging of ‘aid work’, the underlying message of helping a country because they are unable to help themselves rings reminiscent of colonial discourse.

The power behind NGO’s such as Oxfam is something to marvel at. With this recent revelation being one of a cover up, it is not unforeseen that further allegations of sexual abuse, bullying, harassment and intimidation in the aid sector soon followed. Whilst admissions of this nature are appalling, this is not the first, nor the last time behaviour of this nature will be revealed. Arguably, there is something intrinsically wrong with the system if behaviour of this nature is being covered up time and time again, rather than being dealt with in the appropriate manner. New International Development Secretary, Penny Mordaunt has stated that she will be writing to all UK charities which receive UK aid and is requesting they detail the steps being taken to ensure the existence and follow-through of safeguarding policies.

Stand-up comedian, and previous aid worker, Shaista Aziz described working for various NGO’s, with all of them sharing a similar culture of bullying, women being belittled, and casual racism. She argues that there is a “revolving door between many of them”, where male workers who have been picked-up as having unpleasant demeanour go from one agency to another. She says “it’s not a coincidence that most of Britain’s biggest aid NGOs are dominated by white men and some white women at a senior level.”.

The ‘white male’ is often referred to as having the highest level of privilege possible within society, and it is important to question why many of our biggest corporations as well as NGO’s are run by more men named John than women, and come from this advantaged background. When we talk about embedded imperial power dynamics within society, this is where we must look. Capitalism is a huge enforcer of these relations, with the connectedness of globalisation resulting in pollution being exported to countries such as China, up until they recently put their foot down. Outsourcing production to “developing” countries, and I use the word developing in inverted commas, as it is an unfair definition from the west, seeking to measure another country against their own standards, has only led to wage exploitation. With the exception of a few countries, the world has only become more unequal in the last century.

Where colonialism has ended in its previous form, the power relations still remain, and it has taken on a new face. As western society, we are exploiting the environment at levels previously unseen, and with the advancement of newly industrialising countries, more of our population will be tapping into these limited resources. Not only are we exploiting various populations, but we are exploiting the very planet we live on. As such, colonial behaviours; a behaviour characterised by exploitation, oppression and domination is only spreading further afield, both literally and figuratively.

The recognition that we buy new clothes instead of repairing them, we get a new phone every year, and that we mindlessly consume western ideals until they become ingrained in our behaviours is essential. In order to recognise the prevalence of colonial and imperialist doctrine, we must question every aspect of the society in which we live, first looking at ourselves.

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