Unequal Global Exchange: Colonization, Politics, and Economics
By Amy Bhatt, Women Studies, University
What can you learn from exploring this topic?
How do themes raised within postcolonial studies relate to Dr. Paul Farmer’s quest to “cure the world” in Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World?
- Briefly learn about the field of postcolonial studies.
- Understand what sorts of questions postcolonial scholars ask about the relationship between ex-colonies and former colonial powers in the West.
- Consider Dr. Paul Farmer’s perspective on the political and economic imbalances between ex-colonies and the West.
The term postcolonialism has roots in philosophy and literature as a theoretical approach to understanding the condition of nations that were once or continue as colonial possessions of another nation. While there is considerable debate over what constitutes the boundaries of the field of postcolonial studies, broadly speaking, postcolonialism refers to the study of interactions between European nations and the nations that have been colonized in the post-Enlightenment period of history.
European colonization can be broken into two general periods: first, with the early European explorers from the 15th to the 17th centuries; and second, in the latter half of the 19th century beginning with European imperial expansion and culminating in the “scramble for Africa” through the end of World War I. Decolonization refers to the process by which a former colony asserts its independence from its ruling empire. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, decolonization has largely occurred in Africa and Asia following World War II and the creation of the United Nations. It is imperative to remember, nonetheless, that several colonies remain today; for instance Puerto Rico’s status as a colony of the United States of America and the plight of native and indigenous groups in places like the Americas and Australia complicate any discussion of “post”colonialism.
Many scholars attribute the beginning of postcolonial studies to the publication of Edward Said’s book Orientalism (1978), though previous influential treatises such as Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1952) have long considered the impact of colonization on the psychological and living conditions of the colonized. Considering the long period of colonial occupation and the widespread reach of European empires, postcolonial studies grew out of an interest in the cultural, philosophical and literary production of those people within the colonized world.
Postcolonial studies has been interested in questions that consider how colonial powers have been able to gain so much control over large parts of the non-Western world. Postcolonial scholars have documented how Western culture, ranging broadly from the implementation of colonial education and languages to the importation of technology, science, and medicine, has impacted colonized societies. Some argue that colonization was not all negative; rather, the infrastructure built and maintained by colonial powers has helped poor regions of the world develop into more modern and industrialized nations. Other scholars argue that while some good did come from colonial occupation for some sectors of colonized societies, the impact of colonization has been fairly detrimental to existing indigenous social, economic and political systems. In particular, some postcolonial scholars and activists point to the question of how “free” ex-colonies can ever be from their colonizers. That is to say, some scholars contend that new forms of imperialism and domination constitute a neocolonialism that includes the spread of global trade, the development and aid industries, and military occupations. Such neocolonization has implications along gender, race, and class lines that impact not only the relationships between the West and the developing world, but also create new inequalities within ex-colonies themselves.
Contemporary scholars have considered how some development projects, intended to modernize former colonies (also called the “Third World”), carry with them traces of colonial missions. Development, or the transfer of ideas and technologies from developed to underdeveloped countries, is intended to help these disadvantaged countries that are mostly former colonies. Postcolonial scholars of development, such as Arturo Escobar, have noted that the era of development began as the era of colonization ended. The driving idea behind development has been based on the assumption that the rest of the world can follow the same patterns of industrialization as the West did to become developed. The problem, according to Escobar, is that this assumption ignores the historical conditions of colonization that have helped create “backward” conditions within the underdeveloped world. More than that, this assumption also does not take into account the unequal economic and political conditions between the developed world and developing countries, or the inequalities within nations.
As for ex-colonies such as Haiti, Mexico, and Peru, development has played a very important role in increasing access to Western medicines and technologies. Paul Farmer’s particular “quest to cure the world” might be considered by postcolonial scholars as an attempt to develop those areas of the world that have been the sites of historical and current imperial struggles, while also giving attention to the specific conditions that create deep inequality. At the same time, postcolonial scholars might contend that there are still legacies of colonialism, including the predominance of Western ideas and science over indigenous or local ideas, that linger in this particular “quest” as well.
Postcolonialism and Mountain Beyond Mountains
I think of myself more as a physician than as an American. Ludmilla and I, we belong to the nation of those who care for the sick. Americans are lazy democrats, and it is my belief…I think that the rich can always call themselves democratic, but the sick people are not among the rich…Look, I’m very proud to be an American. … I can travel freely throughout the world, I can start projects, but that’s called privilege, not democracy. (Paul Farmer, in Tracy Kidder, Mountains Beyond Mountains, p. 229)
Farmer’s philosophy of giving preferential treatment to the poor in developing countries is rooted in his understanding of the continuing legacy of colonialism on poor countries. More personally, Farmer’s recognition of his relative privilege as a citizen of a powerful nation combined with his identification as a physician first and foremost amplifies his concern for continuing inequities between rich countries and poor. Thus, Farmer’s prescription for correcting the imbalances in health between the West and the poor of the world would require attention to the postcolonial context.
Two themes related to postcolonialism stand out in Farmer and Partners in Health’s mission: the relationship between global politics and the perpetuation of poverty and the concentration of wealth in the West to the detriment of the world’s more needy populations.
Democratic Politics and Poverty
Paul laid out a comprehensive theory of poverty, of a world designed by the elites of all nations to serve their own ends, the pieces of the design enshrined in ideologies, which erased the histories of how things came to be as they were. And he knew the details for Haiti, a catastrophe covered with the fingerprints of the Western powers, most of all those of France and the United States.
– Tracy Kidder, Mountains Beyond Mountains, p. 73
Within the postcolonial perspective, understanding poverty in Haiti requires relating its current status to its legacy as an ex-colony of the French empire. (For more information on the colonial and postcolonial history of Haiti, see “Mapping Global Mountains Beyond Local Mountains” by Dr. Matthew Sparke.) For Paul Farmer, poverty cannot be considered outside of the conditions that helped create and perpetuate it.
Farmer’s use of the term “structural violence” points to the complicated relationships between the multiple factors that lead to negative outcomes for individuals living in poverty. More importantly, these relationships are not accidental but have specific histories and purposes that benefit some and hurt others; as Kidder notes, “these circumstances all had causes, and the nearest ones were the continuing misrule of the Duvaliers and the long-standing American habit of lavishing aid on dictators” (p. 73). Thus, Farmer argues that the political relationship between the United States and Haiti has had a detrimental effect on the health of the citizens of Haiti.
Economics and Unequal Global Exchange
“There are more billionaires today than ever before,” Jim declared. “We are talking about wealth that we’ve never seen before. And the only time that I hear talk of shrinking resources among people like us, among academics, is when we talk about things that have to do with poor people.”
– Jim Kim, in Tracy Kidder, Mountains Beyond Mountains, p. 164
Partners in Health and Farmer’s efforts to bring modern medicine to an ex-colony such as Haiti must be considered in the current moment of globalization, where countries are growing more interconnected and financially dependent than ever before. Farmer works extensively to bring down the cost of TB-related drug pricing. This struggle over pricing highlights the challenges faced by poor countries in an increasingly global market where most drug companies are protected by patent laws safeguarded by the World Trade Organization.
According to Oxfam International, roughly 14 million people in developing countries die each year from infectious diseases that could be prevented with wider access to medical treatments and medications. However, as part of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights agreement, the WTO has ensured that the patent regulations for mostly Western pharmaceutical companies should be protected over measures to increase wider availability of drugs to poor nations.
Thus, Farmer’s struggle to bring down drug pricing globally reflects another postcolonial concern: the inability of ex-colonies and the poorer nations of the world to effectively receive the same standard of care and access to medical advances as the rich. For Farmer, this is a problem of neocolonization, where wealth continues to be accumulated in the nations of the West, or the former colonizers, while poor nations, or the bulk of the colonized world, continue to suffer.
What does this mean for you?
- How might the political legacies of colonization shape our understanding of problems of health inequity today?
- Do current economic formations have roots in historical processes? If so, what sorts of solutions to addressing inequity might you suggest?
- Think about how the so-called “ Third World” is represented in the media and popular culture. What assumptions are made about why some nations are poor and others, like the U.S., have so much wealth?
- Has colonialism impacted your life and the lives of people you care about?
Resources for further study
Escobar, Arturo. Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Princeton : Princeton University Press, 1995.
Esteva, Gustavo. "Beyond Development, What?" with M.S. Prakash, in: Development in Practice, Vol. 8, No. 3, Aug. 1998.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove Press, 1967.
Kidder, Tracy. Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World. New York: Random House, 2003.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1978.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History
of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge , Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Young, Robert. Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture, and Race. New York: Routledge, 1995.
Emory University’s Postcolonial website: http://www.english.emory.edu/Bahri/index.html
National University of Singapore’s “Contemporary Postcolonial and Postimperial Literature in English” website: http://www.postcolonialweb.org/
Oxfam International website: http://www.oxfam.org/en
The Institute of Postcolonial Studies: http://www.ipcs.org.au
ANTH 310 Native North American
Traditional cultures of America north of Mexico , emphasizing diversity of North American Indian and Eskimo societies. Origins of Native-American culture areas and language groupings; subsistence systems; levels of social organization; European conquest and colonialism; and description of representative cultures from the ten culture areas.
ANTH 324 Culture and Politics of Africa
Introduction to African cultural responses to the slave trade, European colonialism, and globalization. Topics include an examination of Euro-American representations of Africa and how they are often at odds with African realities.
ANTH 341 Political Violence and the Postcolonial State in South Asia
Examines theoretical approaches to the analysis of collective, state, and anti-state violence in postcolonial South Asia through the study of specific cases of political violence in modern India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. Offered jointly with SISSA 341.
ANTH 423 Traffic Across Cultural Boundaries (5)
Focuses on the movement of cultural patterns and processes across boundaries, examining the "contact zones" in colonial encounters, moving to borrowing and blendings along ethnic and national borders. Examines border crossing of immigration and diasporas. Ethnographic examples from the Americas and Africa . Prerequisite: one 200-level ANTH course.
ANTH 471 Colonialism and Culture (5)
Explores the cultural, political, and historical implications of the power to colonize. Readings include ethnographic, historical, and literary works on colonialism, nationalist responses, and postcolonial positions.
ANTH 541 Cultural Aspects of International Development (3)
Emergence of development as an aspect of late colonialism and the decolonization process. Ways in which development came to visualize social change in sectoral terms like rural land use, cities, and education, while objectifying people in target groups. Relationships between development and modernity, and development and globalization.
ENGL 316 Postcolonial Literature and Culture (5, max. 10)
Readings of major tests and writers in postcolonial literature and culture. Surveys some of the most important questions and debates in postcolonial literature, including issues of identity, globalization, language, and nationalism. The cultural focus may vary, so students should check with the professor for specific details.
GEOG 208 Geography of the World Economy: Regional Fortunes and the Rise of
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Examines the relationship between the globalization of economic activity and regional development. Topics include international trade, colonialism, industrial capitalism, advanced capitalism, and the globalization of labor markets
GEOG 375 Geopolitics (5)
An introduction to both political geography and geopolitics, addressing the fundamental links between power and space. Topics covered include: theories of power, space, and modernity; the formation of modern states; international geopolitics in the aftermath of the Cold War; the postcolonial nation-state; and the geopolitics of resistance. Offered jointly with SIS 375.
HIST 245 Exploration and Empire: Science, Art, and Power, 1300-1800
Explores key moments in the history of exploration and empire, 1300-1800. Taking an interdisciplinary approach, focuses on scientific and artistic aspects of exploration, their implications for imperialism, and legacies in the postcolonial world.
HIST 254 European Colonialism in North Africa, 1830 to the Present
Examines European colonialism in North Africa, life under colonial domination, influences of Islam, rise of nationalism, struggles for independence, and the legacy of this relationship on contemporary conflicts of immigration, religion, and cultural identity. Focuses on Algeria and France, but also considers Britain, Germany, Italy, Libya, Morocco, Spain, and Tunisia.
HIST 485 Comparative Colonialism (5)
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HIST 530 Comparative Colonialisms: Methodological and Conceptual Approaches
Introduces students to the historiography of modern European/American colonialisms, focusing on Africa , Asia , and/or the Americas . Addresses methodological and conceptual issues by examining relationship between capitalism and colonialism; violence and routinization of colonial power; colonial categories of race, ethnicity, class, and gender; and resistance movements and nationalist politics.
HSTAA 282 Social History of Mexico (5)
Overview of Mexican history from late Aztec times until the twenty-first century. Emphasizes how women, campesinos, indigenous populations, free and enslaved Afro-Mexicans, and the urban poor experienced the past, challenged colonial and postcolonial rule, and shaped modern Mexican society and culture.
SISA 244 Imperialism and Anti-Colonialism in Asia
Introduction to Western imperialism expansion, conquest, and colonial rule in Asia; the anti-colonial, nationalist resistances they engendered; and the resultant cultural, political, economic, and intellectual transformations in Asian societies. Covers post-1800 violence, racial hierarchies, human rights abuses, postcolonial memories, persistent strategies of domination, and structural inequities. Offered jointly with HSTAS 244.
SIS 202 Cultural Interactions in an Interdependent World (5)
Cultural interaction among societies and civilizations, particularly Western and non-Western. Intellectual, cultural, social, and artistic aspects; historical factors.
SIS 325 Immigration (5)
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SIS 330 Political Economy of Development (5)
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SIS 390 Political Economy of Industrialized Nations (5)
Theoretical bases of various political economic systems of industrialized nations. Several major issues these political economies currently face; usefulness and limits of economic analyses within broader perspective of political economy. Prerequisite: ECON 201 which may be taken concurrently.
TSMIN 328 Third World Problems and Prospects
Examines contemporary issues and problems faced by the developing world. Considers economic development, resource use, and aspects of neocolonialism. Discusses selected topics relevant to individual Third World regions and presents case studies.
TSMIN 330 Globalization in Latin America
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TSMIN 340 War and Empire in the Middle East
Comprehensive analysis of Middle Eastern conflicts from WWI to the present time, from a political and economic point of view. Explores the encounter of Western culture and the Middle East through war and empire building, with emphasis on religious, ideological, political, and economic differences.
TSMIN 420 Theories of Political Violence (5)
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TIBCIN 456 Postcolonial Studies: African Perspectives (5)
Investigates postcolonial cultures located in Africa . Situates the political, personal, and historical dimensions of international and institutional hierarchies in Africa and the African Diaspora. Examines African philosophy, literature, art, folklore, and history as sources of postcolonial nationalism.
WOMEN 333 Gender and Globalization: Theory and Process (5)
Theoretical, historical, and empirical analysis of how current processes of globalization are transforming the actual conditions of women's lives, labor, gender ideologies, and politics in complex and contradictory ways. Topics include feminist exploration of colonialism, capitalism, economic restructuring policies, resistance in consumer and environmental movements. Offered jointly with SIS 333.
WOMEN 345 Women and International Economic Development (5)
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WOMEN 546 Gender and Colonialism in Eastern Asia (5)
Economic-political colonialization, post colonialism, and statist-gendered citizenship; intra-Asian subimperialism structuring domestic production, family, and gendered subjectivities; humanism and the New Woman; modern contests over new masculinity and new femininity; and the effect of war, imperialist occupation and colonial modernity on interregional flows of ideas, labor, capital, and jurisprudence. Offered: jointly with HSTAS 546..
WOMEN 590 Feminist International Political Economy (5) The focus of this course is on understanding feminist engagements with international political economy. Theoretical discussions will include feminist analyses and critiques of capitalism as a global system, of international development, and of globalization. Recent feminist theories such as Third World Feminism, Transnational Feminism, and Critical Development Studies will be considered. Assignments will include reading empirical trends and ethnographies that adopt particular theoretical frames. The final essay will be on the circuits theories have traveled and how they are deployed by feminists in one national context or in understanding one international social issue.
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