How Europe Underdeveloped Africa and the Caribbean: The Reparations Debate

Director's Series Ep 2

This year marks the 50th anniversary of SOAS alumnus Walter Rodney’s ground-breaking book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. In honour of this, Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, has published his own book, How Britain Underdeveloped the Caribbean. 

Professor Sir Hilary Beckles joined SOAS Director Adam Habib and SOAS President Zeinab Badawi for the most recent event of the SOAS Director’s Lecture Series, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa and the Caribbean.

Walter Rodney

Walter Rodney took his PhD at SOAS in the 1960s.

Walter Rodney was one of SOAS’s most distinguished alumni. He would have been 80 years old, had he not been assassinated in 1980. He was denied admission back into Jamaica in 1968 because he had started the process of teaching African history to the neighbourhood, that is, beyond the university campus, and thus was deemed to be a security risk.

The book has since served as a manifesto for a clarion call to Africans to reject the neo-colonial narrative of self-doubt. This was the critical moment, having struggled for sovereignty and independence and rejecting colonial structures to emerge as an independent African nation-state, the question then is what do you do now?

Walter realised that sustainable development can only be achieved in the context of reattachment to indigenous forms of development and knowledge. This highlights the point that it is important to discover your own literature, history, economics and to uproot colonialism from your institutions. This way, people begin to think indigenously as natives of a continent with a tremendously rich history – and that is what Walter insisted on. 

Development discourse

Among the topics discussed, it was highlighted that Britain implemented a model that laid the foundation for the institutional underdevelopment of the Caribbean, and has since benefited from free labour that has funded economic development. As a result, the government should be called upon to refund some of that development aid, because it is a direct result of their enslaved ancestors.

However, for over 100 years since emancipation, the Caribbean community has been continually calling for democracy and economic development – and the British response is via aggressive militarism, and to offer aid as opposed to real development funding. Development discourse is deeply rooted.

Double standards

The debate revolved around the double standards that have been displayed throughout history. African and Caribbean countries have been calling for reparations from European countries for years with many former colonial powers refusing to accept responsibility. The transatlantic enslavement of African people and unpaid forced labour generated wealth for the British Empire with cities like Bristol and London profiteering. European colonial powers built their empires with the wealth extracted from the territories and the people they exploited. After independence, many countries have faced suppressed economic development and the legacy of colonialism has left many descendants in poverty.

The has been clear evidence of double standards – for example, Britain was forcing Germany to pay reparations as a result of WW2 and was the recipient of a Marshall Plan to rebuild the economy, however, delegations from the Caribbean have been asking for reparations and a Marshall Plan agreement for years, with no luck. 

One message

The argument was made that the cause is undermined because the people of African descent and Africans are not united in one message. 

The Caricom Reparation Committee has been set up to outline the path to reconciliation, truth, and justice for the victims of slavery and their descendants. The committee has had success in the form of revitalising the movement in America, which has led to it being discussed in congress. Consequently, the current US administration has shown sympathies toward reparation in recent times. 

Watch the full interview below:

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Rachael Woodroffe is a SOAS Digital Ambassador currently studying a distant learning online Masters in Global Corporations and Policy. Rachael lives in the South West of England and works full-time in Corporate Affairs alongside her studies.

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