It’s a known phenomenon: systems and structures, if robust, continue to work for as long as they are unchangedby Amal Chatterjee / June 3, 2019 / Leave a comment
Once upon a time, the Romans ruled a vast swathe of Europe, of North Africa, and of what is now called the Middle East. Where they conquered, they built towns and cities, many of which survive to this day.
Some wear their Roman origins conspicuously; others, like London and Paris, do so more discreetly. Between those cities the Romans built roads, infrastructure that made those places—many previously insignificant or non-existent—centres of influence. Researchers in Denmark have found that Roman infrastructure continues to exert a powerful influence on local, national and transnational economies.
Even today, Lyon is still connected to Avignon and north to the Rhine, superseding older Greek colonies and the researchers found there is “more economic activity in places with a greater density of Roman roads.” Not everywhere, though; the influence has faded outside Europe, in North Africa and the Middle East.
We’ll come back to that. First, let’s consider the idea that Roman infrastructure continues to affect the economy in Europe to this day. It’s a known phenomenon: systems and structures, if robust, continue to work for as long as they are unchanged. Norman names do, too: studies show that in modern England they still are indicators of prosperity, over-represented at Oxford and Cambridge. Norman focus on the south of England led to York’s economic decline, a fall in its population, and continued disparity in prosperity between northern and southern counties.
More recent empires have left legacies, too. The British, French and Dutch, for instance, built transport infrastructure—roads, railways, ports—to draw produce, people and wealth to their (often new) cities. Those centres, from Lagos to Mumbai, Hong Kong to Mombasa, Karachi to Kampala, play outsize roles in their respective post-colonial states. Often, they are the economic centres of their new nations.
But all is not well with them. Those nations too often fall to post-colonial diseases of corruption, oppression, dictatorship, to the dismay of some and the barely concealed told-you-so satisfaction of others. But why? Is it because—whisper it—these people are really not capable? Are they just not ready? Will they ever be?
Factors have been identified: unpreparedness, weak institutions, lack of education, even the Roman-style influence of persistent infrastructure. But there’s more. Propping up colonialism was an embedded, extensive framework, each element of which played a part in the exploitative system. When the colonisers withdrew—or were driven out, or were removed; however they left—those frameworks and systems remained.
Some might have shivered a little, flickered perhaps, but not much. Most carried on as if nothing had happened. Nothing much had, in some ways—the trappings had changed but the scaffolding and institutions persisted.
Take the case of Uganda. Barely a decade after independence Idi Amin, a colonially trained officer who’d served the empire before independence, seized power. First friendly to—and supported by—the former masters and their allies, he then went rogue, becoming almost a caricature of the worst kind of malevolent despot. Why?
Since the country was, like the army Amin had served in, an imperial construct, almost all of its dominant institutions and structures had been designed for imperial control and exploitation. Dominant among these and now directionless was the army. Larger than needed for defence, during colonial times its twin purposes had been internal oppression and external aggression. Imperial retreat had deprived it of both of these, but it itself remained, persistent, prepared—effectively, in need of a system that needed it.
Like rubber—a colonial staple, of course—persistence prefers the status quo. So it came to pass that the army seized power, replacing the post-imperial system with a version of what had been before: a kleptocracy for a few, one that relied on terror, torture and intimidation. This new establishment favoured and enriched a small group, this time chosen by Amin. It was a group that spirited its profits away, abroad. To Europe, just as in colonial times.
Such military domination flourishes in other post-colonial nations with colonial scale armies like Algeria, Kenya, Egypt. Other persistent structures, too, continue to play outsize roles: administrations dispatch young people to rule vast territories, carrying out the orders of distant masters, backing them up with security forces, while colonial-era cities—like the Roman ones—draw wealth to themselves and to a privileged minority.
Is that it then? Does persistence mean post-colonial failure is inevitable? No.
Remember, there were anomalies in the Roman case: North Africa and the Middle East. In those places, after the fall of the Roman empire others including the Ottomans, the French, the British again and the Italians built new networks to serve their empires, their profit. Even robust systems can be overridden, erased. In North Africa, for instance, France preferred ports that suited it so Algiers became a hub—others fell behind. Pre-colonial networks vanished in Mexico, new towns and economies replaced them.
In post-colonial times, Singapore has been actively re-invented, transformed from a transit into a hub while Aden—cut off from the shipping of Empire—has faded. Similarly, while Shanghai continues in its colonial role it is now matched by new cities built in the region, with the infrastructure, ports, railways, roads, hinterlands to complement and perhaps someday to challenge it.
Failure isn’t inevitable then. Corruption and despotism can be addressed, land re-distributed, electoral systems remedied. Child mortality, outside the scope of colonial interest and effect but an active post-war concern, has been dramatically reduced through challenging the fatalistic, and fatal, policies of the past. Similarly, the failure of states can be addressed by closing off routes for capital drain and money laundering, and by shutting down weapon sales. But change will only happen by actively recognising, understanding and responding to persistence. By building new systems and structures to serve a different group. It can be done, if we want. If.