Jason Hickel
Jason Hickel

How the west destroyed the global south’s best shot at development

When it comes to international affairs, western politicians love to celebrate their devotion to development. In her flagship speech on development as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton offered stories about US aid transforming the lives of poor people in Indonesia, Nicaragua and South Africa. France’s minister of foreign affairs recently hailed his country’s commitment to development in the former colonies of west Africa. And at last year’s UN sustainable development goals summit, David Cameron spoke proudly about Britain’s record of providing “stability and security” to poor countries.

But this narrative of western benevolence only works by relying on our collective amnesia. The reality is almost exactly the opposite of what we are told to believe. For a slightly less fairytale-like version of the west’s relationship with development, we need to rewind to the decades following the second world war.

After the end of European colonialism in Africa and Asia, and with the brief cessation of US intervention in Latin America, developing countries were growing incomes and reducing poverty at a rapid pace. Beginning in the 1950s, countries like Guatemala, Indonesia, and Iran drew on the Keynesian model of mixed economy that had been working so well in the west. They made strategic use of land reforms to help peasant farmers, labour laws to boost workers’ wages, tariffs to protect local businesses, and resource nationalisation to help fund public housing, healthcare, and education.

This approach – known as “developmentalism” – was built on the twin values of economic independence and social justice. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked quite well. According to economist Robert Pollin, developmentalist policies sustained high per capita income growth rates of 3.2% for at least 20 years – higher than at any other time during the whole 20th century. As a result, the gap between the west and the rest began to narrow for the first time in history. It was nothing short of a miracle.

One might think western states would be thrilled at this success, but they were not amused. The new policies meant that multinational companies no longer had the easy access to the cheap labour, raw materials and consumer markets to which they had become accustomed during the colonial era.

Western powers – specifically the US, Britain and France – were not willing to let this continue. Instead of supporting the developmentalist movement, they set out on a decades-long campaign to topple the elected governments that were leading it and to install strongmen friendly to their interests – a long and bloody history that has been almost entirely erased from our collective memory.

It began with Iran in 1953. The democratically-elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, was rolling out a wide range of pro-poor reforms, part of which included wresting control of the country’s oil reserves from the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now BP). Britain rejected this move, and responded swiftly.With the help of the CIA, Winston Churchill deposed Mosaddegh in a coup d’etat and replaced him with an absolute monarch, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who reversed Mosaddegh’s reforms and went on to rule Iran with western support for 26 years.

The following year, the US did the very same thing in Guatemala. Jacobo Arbenz – the country’s second democratically-elected president – was redistributing unused portions of large private estates to landless Mayan peasants, with full compensation for the owners. But the American-based United Fruit Company took issue with this policy, and pushed Dwight Eisenhower to topple Arbenz. After the coup, Guatemala was ruled by US-backed dictatorships for 42 years, which presided over the massacre of more than 200 000 Mayans and one of the highest poverty rates in Latin America.

Brazil, too, was hit by a US-backed coup, they deposed President Joao Goulart for his land reforms, corporate taxes, and other pro-poor policies that western companies disliked, and replaced him with a military dictatorship that lasted 21 years. President Sukarno of Indonesia was ousted for similar policies and replaced by a dictator, who – with British and US support – killed more than one million peasants, workers, and activists in one of the worst mass murders of the century, and went on to rule for 31 years. And then of course there was Chile: the US helped depose President Salvador Allende, the soft-spoken doctor who promised better wages, fairer rents, and social services for the poor, and replaced him with a dictator whose economic policies plunged some 45% of Chileans into poverty.

In Africa, developmentalism grew strong in a number of countries, like Gamal Abder Nasser’s Egypt and Julius Nyerere’s Tanzania. In Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah’s successful attempts at developmentalism were cut short by a US-backed coup that installed a military junta and put the IMF in charge of the economy.

But most countries in Africa never even got a shot at developmentalism, western intervention was so swift. Britain and the US backed the settler colonial regimes in Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Kenya, and adamantly resisted democratisation. In Uganda, Britain raised the murderous Idi Amin to power, who crushed the progressive Common Man’s Charter before it could be implemented. In the Congo, Patrice Lumumba, the country’s first elected leader, was assassinated by Belgium and the CIA when it became clear he would restrict foreign control over the resource-rich Katanga province. Western powers installed Mobutu Sese Seko in his place, a cartoonishly corrupt dictator who commanded the country for nearly 40 years with billions of dollars in US aid. Under Mobutu’s reign, per capita income collapsed by 2.2% each year, ordinary Congolese suffered poverty worse than that which they had known under Belgian colonial rule.

Patrice Lumumba in 1960. (AFP)

Patrice Lumumba in 1960. (AFP)

In west Africa, France refused to cede control over the region’s resources after the end of colonialism. Working through the secretive Françafrique network, they rigged the first elections in Cameroon and handpicked the president after poisoning his main opponent. In Gabon, they installed the dictatorship of Omar Bongo and kept him in power for 41 years in exchange for access to the country’s oil. Very few west African states escaped France’s intervention.

We could rehearse many, many more examples: all the way up to the recent western-backed coups in Haiti. It is tempting to see this as nothing but a list of crimes – albeit one that casts serious doubts on the west’s claims to promoting democracy and human rights abroad. But it is more than that. It reflects an organised effort on the part of western powers to destroy the developmentalist movement that flowered in the global south after colonialism. They simply would not tolerate development if it restricted their access to resources and markets.

The legacy of this history is that there is now greater inequality between the west and the rest than there was at the end of colonialism. And a soul-scorching 4.2 billion people remain in poverty today. No one has been brought to justice for the coups and assassinations that destroyed the global south’s most promising attempt at development and crushed popular dreams of independence. Probably no one ever will. But we need to acknowledge that they happened, and stop pretending that the US, France and Britain are benevolent champions of the poor.


  • Kingsolver’s narrative indictment of colonisation: The Poisonwood Bible
    • Richard

      This piece is amazingly ideological. So many of these people have dubious reputations, but all were united in being very Left-wing and most were communist or communist-leaning.

    • Louise Vanderbilt

      Great piece. We need to be reminded constantly of the perfidy of the so-called free markets.

    • Sifiso Xolile Ndlovu Zgwanyanw

      What a great read! The truth is, it is far easier for some idiot to say – look at how Africans have destroyed everything the white man gave them, look at how African dictators are evil murderers and look at how the west is so advanced and so progressive. The lazy masses are not willing to put in the hours and do the work to go against the grain, to read and to research in order to form an intelligent opinion. The truth is far scarier and far deeper than the tales we are told today of black dictators ‘killing their own people’ and so forth.

    • Tee Money

      This is a fact and proves this evil part of human behavioural pattern, that they may want good for you but they will never want you to be better than them.

    • Bovril24

      People believe what they want to believe – especially Marxist dupes

    • Perry Dace

      Ah yes, because the right wing dictators they were replaced with were sooo much better.

    • Hydarnes Vidarna

      South Africa as a the most recent case study proves your theory completely wrong! The “West” helped the ANC to get rid of apartheid.

      The ANC, nobody else, turned SA into a failed state with a junk status rating.

      Dont use history as a window to judge others, use it as a mirror to judge yourself!

    • Jan Alleman

      Brilliant article by Jason Hickel. At last someone has the guts – and the insight – to point out the truth about the miserable failing of the current neo-liberal system throughout the world.

    • Alan Dean Foster

      Mr. Hickel is entitled to his argument, but he needs a new title. Guatemala and Iran, among others, are not in the global south. Australia and New Zealand are, and for obvious reasons do not figure in his piece.

    • Pieter Barendse Botha

      I cannot agree with the above interpretation !! Millions of Dollers were pumped into Africa but the African political and cultural dispensation combined with political greed as now happening in south Africa crippled economic growth !!Sorry Jason Hickel you need to do more research !!!

    • Richard

      That is not the point. The point is that these people were, in many cases, criminals. Why do you consider it ideological to point that out?

    • Richard

      Do your own research before believing the polemic in this piece. It is history viewed through a very particular ideological filter.

    • pieter steenekamp

      Maybe the global south must take responsibility of their own development and not blame the west?

    • Perry Dace

      It’s exactly the point. You were the one who suggested that “being left wing” some made their elections illegitimate.

    • Richard

      The author of this piece is ignoring anything negative in their behaviour because he shares their Left-wing ideology. At no point have I excused any actions through ideology. If you are honest, you cannot ignore actions because of ideology.

    • stan

      The destruction of Libya is surprisingly and conspicuously absent from the examples cited of brutal Western perfidy toward the global South.

    • Rory Short

      Another name for what lies behind the sorry catalogue of despicable acts by the governments of Britain, France and the USA is Capitalism. These governments were just serving as the agents of their multi-national companies. The toxic symbiotic relationship between governments and large capital still exists, it hasn’t miraculously disappeared except from public view because big media, also under the control of big capital, make sure it is never publicised. We live in pseudo-democracies.

    • Warren Jeremy Rourke

      Weekend Argus
      March 5 2016:6
      ‘Don’t play chicken, SA body warns’
      “The South African Poultry Association (SAPA) yesterday cautioned against the arrival of the first consignment of chicken products from the US, saying the imports had ‘higher food safety risks than products from other exporting countries’.
      The warning sounded by the association chief executive Kevin Lovell comes after an agreement that the arrival here of US poultry products is a pre-requisite for Pretoria to continue benefiting from the African Growth and Opportunity Act.
      The first shipment of frozen chicken legs from the US arrived in Durban last Friday.”

    • Toni Benoni

      Ah what nirvana if the ussr won teh cold war. No poverty, hunger or suffering. This piece is the usual “the usa made me do it” non sense. The strong beat the weak. All this so called anti USA “thought” leadership is little more than the politics of envy… ho hum.

    • heeeeei

      What a different way to look at history and reflect on cause and effect. First there was the west and now there is the east causing all sorts of effects on Africa. We Africans must take stock and cease to be effects and be the causes?????

    • Glade Shonta

      Important to remind ourselves of how good leaders are removed. What is perhaps more revealing, is as usual, the comments, who either take the stance that the writer makes his point well or attempt to paint the left as bad and the corporate/ right wing/ neocolonial as good and just. However a brief reading of these comments here underlines how poorly informed is this commentariat – equating the southern hemisphere with the global south (!), stating without any irony that the West helped the ANC come to power (anyone remember Regan and Thatcher, let alone the more recent leaders?), that anything left of centre is ‘dubious’…
      What I would like to know is whether these people think that the global (and S. African) inequality upon which the dominant system rests is one that supports socially, ecologically or even economic resilience? If they do then I rest my case.

    • Glade Shonta

      This is not true – for every dollar ‘donated’ to Africa, at least 2 leave through exploitation
      The capture of the S. African state by Zuptas is just one example – it takes two sides, corruptor and -ee.

    • YajChetty

      Excellent article. Brilliant. a timely reminder

    • Alan Dean Foster

      Maybe because it’s in the north?

    • stan

      “The West helped the ANC get rid of apartheid”? Nonsense. The Soviet Union helped the ANC get rid of apartheid. The West considered the ANC to be a terrorist organisation. Oh, and by the way, SA is not a failed state, nor does it have junk status rating, at least not yet. Get over it.

    • stan

      “Global North”, as everyone knows, is not a geographical term. It is a widely used generic term that refers to the industrialised countries of the world, primarily those in Europe and North America. Libya, in case you didn’t know, is not an industrialised country, so it’s situated in the Global South.

    • PierreAyc

      The main problem with this piece, is that it judges present societies according to what those societies did decades and centuries ago. If you deny the possibility that societies can have changed since the times of colonisation, then you deny them the right to decolonise themselves…

    • Bill D

      This a brilliant and sorely needed article, should be read in every high school, university and at the conventions of the American political parties and be used to expose Hillary Clinton and both parties for what they have done to the world’s people — most recently the murder of Gaddafi, the total destruction of Libya, and now the on-going attempt to depose and murder Assad, while totally destroying Syria and Europe at the same time.

    • Airis Dämon

      The real truth on the how and why socialism never took root and grew in the world.

    • Airbrush2020

      During America’s Roaring 20’s, Calvin Coolidge said “what’s good for business is good for America”. As seen in the attached video on the Mexican Revolution, the US went to great lengths to intervene in the affairs of foreign nations to support the business interests of the wealthy class…no matter how devastating that intervention was to the local population.


    • Airbrush2020

      Calvin Coolidge said during America’s Roaring 1920’s “what’s good for business is good for America”. There is nothing wrong with prosperity. Obviously, average Americans have benefited from a strong economic base. However, an unholy Greedy Alliance between the Wealthy Elite and the Government has led to a LONG pattern of domestic & foreign interventions, manipulations, and assassinations. The pattern is still the same. Behind every headline there is some degree of intervention and greedy manipulation. A lot of unsuspecting people are caught up in a game not entirely of their choosing.