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Consequence of Colonialism in Developing Countries

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Published: 11th Sep 2017 in Politics

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Essay Question: With reference to relevant theories and examples, critically analyse the social, political and economic consequences of colonialism on developing countries.

Word Count: 2310 words.


One of the most important consequences of the World War II was the emergence of a new process of decolonization, which created a unique moment of opportunity for many developing states to achieve sustainable socio-economic development. In this context, it was widely expected that achievement of formal political independence for the former colonies would enable these states to advance an overall national progress with greater efficiency (Fieldhouse 1999, Krishna 2009, Reynolds 2000). In practice, however, the process of development has been highly uneven, sometimes leading to landmark achievements in some regions (Ricklefs et al. 2010), but more often accompanied with multiple economic problems and socio-ethnic tensions (Fieldhouse 1999, Rodney 1981, Reid 2009). This paper aims to examine complex social, political and economic consequences, which process of colonialism had on developing states.

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Using a world systems theoretical approach, advanced in works of Wallerstein (1974, 1996), this essay argues that colonialism as a process had far reaching impact on developing states in several ways. Socially, the creation and imposition of new fixed identities and Western principles had reshaped the traditional social institutions of the colonial states, often resulting in growing tensions and conflicts between competing ethnical and religious groups. Politically, although in some cases the inherited from the colonial times had largely benefit newly independent states to enforce development programme at the national level, in most of the cases colonialism had negative consequences, often resulting in vacuum of power, civil disorder or abuse of state institutions by the new national elites. Economically, the trade structures originally designed by metropole empires were largely retained in post-colonial period, often leading to high financial dependence of the new independent states on their former colonial masters. Thus, a thorough examination of social, economic and political consequences of colonialism from a "world system approach" can explain the existing pattern of "underdevelopment", which is common for many developing states.

This paper is structured as follows. The introductory section explains the world system approach. The main body analyses the social, economic and political consequences of colonialism process, using the above mentioned theoretical perspective. The concluding section summarizes the main arguments.

  1. World Systems Theory: An intellectual background.

World system approach (WSA) can be understood as a theoretical sociological perspective, initially articulated by Wallerstein (1974; 1996) and further developed by other thinkers (Fenelon 2016), which aims to explain why patterns of underdevelopment persist in developing states once the states were able to achieve political independence. WSA is founded on the principle that in order to understand a phenomenon of underdevelopment it is necessary to examine wider global economic and political dynamics, rather than focus exclusively on each individual region and state (Wallerstein 1974, Mishra 2013).

From this perspective, global history has been deeply affected by the emergence and decline of a specific world systems, which reflect to the existing form of production relations dominant at the global level within given time period  (Hobden and Wyn Jones 2017: 133; Wallerstein 1974).  The global capitalism as a contemporary world system with fixed  "structures, member groups, rules of legitimation"(Wallerstein 2011:374)  is driven by the principle of persistent capital accumulation (Wallerstein 1983), founded on the existence of a global division of labour (Nau 2014), whereby international system is dominated by powerful "core" and "semi-periphery" states, whose stable political and economic structures allow them to systematically exploit less developed "periphery states" (Hobden and Wynn Jones 2017, Hall 2000, Mishra 2013, Wallerstein 2011). Although powerful core states no longer can exercise control over developing states by an exclusive reliance on military conquest due to global spread of democratic values and principle of self-determination (Reynolds 2000), they are willing to resort instead to a variety of cultural, political and economic mechanisms in order to maintain an overall stability of the capitalist world system (Hall 2000, Hobden and Wynn Jones 2017, Mishra 2013, Wallerstein 1974, Wallerstein 1996).

As a result, despite regular occurrences of certain crises and structural inconsistencies, the world system displays extraordinary capacity to expand and reproduce its continual dominance, as long as it is able to guarantee stable surplus extraction and domination of the capital over the working classes (Lee 2011, Wallerstein 1996).Having defined WSA, the next section of the essay will examine social, economic and political consequences of colonialism on developing states.

  1. Economic  Consequences of colonialism

As noted earlier, the capitalist world system provided powerful core states with an opportunity to exploit less developed periphery countries through systematic through draining off the surplus production, often using raw materials and natural resources of the developing countries for personal capital accumulation at the expense indigenous population (Rodney 1981, Frank 1967, Headlee 2010:15, Wallerstein, 1983). In this context, the most immediate economic repercussion of the colonialism process was the need to radically transform the existing economic structures in order to allow greater national development once the colonizers left (Shillington 1989, Reid, 2009). The problem was compounded by the fact that basic economic and transport infrastructure in newly independent states was in a disastrous condition after decades of the prolonged use by colonizers (Shillington, 1995).

As a result, faced with strong electoral pressures and largely inefficient economic structures, national elites in the developing states were in effect forced to open their domestic markets to MNC'S in order to finance domestic financial reform programme (Shillington 1995, Rodney 1981, Frank 1967, Fieldhouse 1999).  Despite the fact that in some cases, like Hong Kong and Singapore, such policy was successful in creating sufficient structural conditions for these states to pursue sustainable economic growth (Ricklefs et. al. 2010, Manhubani 2009; Held  et. al. 1999, Mauze and Milne 2002), it is equally important to remember that in most cases it had multiple negative financial consequences, often reinforcing patterns of exploitation and dependence for the developing countries (Reid, 2009, Rodney 1981; Shillington, 1995; Frank, 1967).

For instance, once Ghana opened its economy to foreign capital, its key economic sectors were privatized by French and American corporations, making country politically and economically dependent on foreign investors. In this case, although formally independent, country's national economy, natural resources and commodities are still being exploited by the same powerful core states (Shillington 1995). The same patterns of exploitation affected the majority of former French colonies, where the France still was displayed the ability to have a decisive say on the direction of national economic development through mixture of French currency Union and the growing role of MNC'S in newly independent states (McWilliams and Piotrowski 2009, Young 2013, Shillington 1985). According to Frank 1967: 290, such policy also affected South American states, where national economies were heavily dependent on foreign capital, which took over the essential sectors of originally nationalised industry sectors. Furthermore, the former metropole states were able to exploit the national economies of newly independent states through policy of tariff and price imposition, which severely restricted national development opportunities for the periphery countries. Rothermund (2006:259) provides the example of postcolonial India, where the trade relations heavily benefit British firm and producers, often at the expense of weakening the influence of newly established Indian producers. The post-colonial states, which had refused to follow such policy, preferring instead an independent development path, were openly sanctioned, as in case of Vietnam, whose economic growth was restricted due to the sanctions imposed by the US following the Vietnam War (Kwon 2008). Thus, although nominally independent, the majority of post-colonial states were still exploited by powerful core states, which had negative repercussions for the developing countries, including the emergence of political crises, economic instability, heavy reliance on foreign capital and fragmentation of national economies, preventing newly independent states from achieving sustainable national development (Reid, 2009, Rothermund 2006, Shillington 1995, Meredith 2005, Frank 1967).

  1. Political Consequences of colonialism.

If colonialism had important economic consequences on the developing countries, then undoubtedly long-lasting political impact of colonialism process should also be thoroughly examined. However, the repercussions of the colonialism process for the newly independent states had differed depending on the methods of political control exercised by colonial control.

For instance, in case of Southeast Asian region, the colonialism had important positive impact on the developing states, since these states had inherited well-established bureaucracy and efficient administrative structures from colonial times. The classic example in this respect is case of Singapore where the governing elites   had benefited from powerful state apparatus, efficient administrative machinery and rule of law, which allowed the ruling elites to promote and enforce a comprehensive programme of socio-economic reform, transforming the country from one of the poorest, most underdeveloped and economically unstable nations of the world into the global investment hub (Ricklefs et. al. 2010, Mauzy and Milne 2002).

In contrast, the process of colonialism had different consequences on African region. The political control over these states during colonial times was exercised by a reliance on indirect strategies of political co-optation with "regional and local powerholders without transforming their bases of powers whose fate depended on that of the crown" (Tilly, 1992: 24).  Such political system was seriously discredited after former colonies were able to win their independence. This gave rise to a power vacuum in most African states, whereby new national elites, often with limited political experience, popular support and inefficient political structures, were required to exercise comprehensive administrative control over large territorial boundaries  with local populations "often mutually suspicious or antagonistic" (Deng 2008:65 as cited in George and Hilal 2013). As a result, it is possible to distinguish different political development dynamics within African states.  For instance, in countries like Egypt, Senegal and Tanzania, a generally peaceful economic transition and political stability was achieved, once charismatic and nationalist leaders were able to pursue a comprehensive programme of socio-economic reform often through a mixture of coercion restriction freedoms of political opponents groups (Reid, 2009; Osman, 2011; Hopwood, 1991; Shillington, 1989). In contrast,  the national elites in countries including Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea were unable to achieve sustainable political consensus, as their reform programmes was met by disobedience, fierce resistance and in some cases armed resistance from militant and guerrilla groups with an opposite ideological beliefs (Reid, 2009). In this context, political and social machinery of the state apparatus in generally is widely discredited in Africa, since political elites and existing institutions often are viewed as corrupt, inefficient and distant organizations with little interest in public affairs (Baker, 2009).

  1. Socio-Cultural consequences of colonialism.

Having examined political and economic consequences of colonialism, it is now necessary to briefly outline the cultural repercussions of this process. During colonial times, metropole states had largely imposed their principles and traditions through policy of institutionalized racism, systematic violence and social exclusion (Cohen and Kennedy 2013) in order to convince local elites and populations that "their own well-being is wrapped up in the survival of the [capitalist] system as such" (Wallerstein 1974:404). For instance, Christian beliefs and ideals were imported to the African states to replace customary and tribal religion with an overall belief that "only the Christian-Catholic religion is capable of changing native mentality, of giving to our Africans a clear consciousness of their duties, of inspiring in them spirit of loyalty towards" colonial masters (Roelens 1930, as cited in Young, 2003: 419). Such policy had severely weakened the prospects of post-colonial unity or coalition building, as the parties and social movements originally developed in response to imposed identities. For instance, in case of Ghana, the political system was very unstable during first several decades after independence, since main political actors were organized around traditional social divisions and cleavages, imposed by British colonizers during colonial times, viewing their competitors with distrust and hatred (Reid 2009). Likewise, French colonizers had largely ignored fundamental cultural, historical and religious complexities in Algeria, advocating instead a simplified history of country's development as an ongoing battle between civilized and progressive Berber population against violent, chaotic, radical and uncivilized Arab ethnic groups, which severely restricted the possibility of a comprehensive national unity during the first decades after the achievement of political independence (Brandt 2014, Pfostl  2014). The most vivid example in this regards is the case of Rwanda where the German and Belgian colonizers in an effort to maintain control over country's political and economic development had created an unequitable power distribution with one ethnic group, Tutsi, enjoying extensive administrative, educational and political privileges by systematically violating the fundamental human rights of other ethnic communities (Melvern 2009, Prunier 1997). Such policy had long lasting impact on Rwandan society, resulting in an intensification of inter-ethnic tensions between competing ethnic communities, which culminated in mass genocide in 1994, when approximately 800, 000 Tutsi civilians were massacred in 100 days (Melvern 2006, Nichols 2008). These examples suggest that principles, stereotypes and identities imposed by colonizers had long-lasting impact on the social dynamics of newly independent society, often resulting in growing ethnic tensions, societal fragmentation and in some cases, organized violence against the members of particular ethnic or religious group.


To conclude, this paper relied on world-systems analysis, articulated by Wallerstein, in order to examine and distinguish several economic, political and socio-cultural consequences of colonialism process on the developing countries. Economically, the colonialism process had resulted in growing dependence and reliance of the developed countries on foreign capital and investment. Politically, although in some cases the inherited from the colonial times had largely benefit newly independent states to enforce development programme at the national level, in most of the cases colonialism had negative consequences, often resulting in vacuum of power, civil disorder or abuse of state institutions by the new national elites. Socially, the creation and imposition of new fixed identities and Western principles had reshaped the traditional social institutions of the colonial states, often resulting in growing tensions and conflicts between competing ethnical and religious groups. The combination of these factors suggests that although formally independent, many developing countries continue to experience problems in the above mentioned areas due to persistence and importance of negative repercussions of the colonialism process.


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