Tag Archives: Third World

Postcards: The League of Nations lives on in Addis Ababa

High up in the dome of Addis Ababa’s Holy Trinity Cathedral, two murals depict the Ascension and the Second Coming, the latter, complete with a green horned devil and flames licking upwards to surround the masses. Below the dome, a semicircular lunette presents the Crucifixion. At the moment of my visit, the late afternoon light slants through the cupola windows to strike Jesus’ figure on the Cross, and light up the bright vivid colours that so characterise Ethiopian Orthodox iconography.

Ascension and the Second Coming, dome of Holy Trinity Cathedral

Ascension and the Second Coming, dome of Holy Trinity Cathedral

The Crucifixion

What catches my eye, however, is the lunette opposite, where rows of desks of suited men recede towards a dais of a further three suited men. Amidst the sacred – the cathedral windows are also filled with some rather splendid stained glass of biblical scenes – this decidedly secular scene forces a pause. Upon seeing the puzzled look on my face, the cathedral guide tells me, matter-of-factly: “That? That’s the League of Nations”.

The League of Nations, Holy Trinity Cathedral

The League of Nations, Holy Trinity Cathedral

Tomb of Emperor Haile Selassie, Holy Trinity Cathedral

Tomb of Emperor Haile Selassie, Holy Trinity Cathedral

Most visitors to the cathedral are drawn to the tombs of Emperor Haile Selassie and his wife, just a few feet away in a side alcove, in imposing Aksum-cross-shaped granite sarcophagi. While Selassie died in 1975, a year after being deposed, he was not entombed here until 2000, in the cathedral whose construction he had initiated. Outside, the cathedral grounds contain monuments to war heroes and other Ethiopian luminaries – among others, English suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst and former prime minister Meles Zenawi.

In history books everywhere, the League of Nations is labelled as a ‘failed’ project of the 1919-39 inter-war period, an expression of both the potential and limits of Wilsonian liberal internationalism. Near the top of its catalogue of failings, if not at the top itself, was its impotence in halting Mussolini’s 1935 annexation of Ethiopia – or rather, Abyssinia, as it was known then. League sanctions were limited in their scope, and even then were not fully implemented by the other ‘great powers’. At the same time, France and Britain were hatching the secret Hoare-Laval Pact that would have partitioned Abyssinia and kept Italy on side against Hitler’s growing ambitions.

So what is particularly striking, and forces me to linger for a moment, is its commemoration especially here, in the cathedral whose completion Selassie had overseen in 1944, just a couple of years after his return from exile and the liberation of his kingdom from the Italian occupiers. Why would Selassie choose to depict an institution that he had hoped, upon Abyssinia’s accession in 1923, would protect its precious independence from colonial designs?

In the left of the mural, Selassie is standing addressing the League in June 1936, a king without a kingdom after having to flee to England via British Palestine and Gibraltar. His plaintive ‘Appeal to the League of Nations Assembly’ is the epitome of the hopes vested in international organization in the tussle between order imposed through force and the justice of sovereign equality:

“I assert that the problem submitted to the Assembly today is a much wider one. It is not merely a question of the settlement of Italian aggression…It is collective security: it is the very existence of the League of Nations. It is the confidence that each State is to place in international treaties. It is the value of promises made to small States that their integrity and their independence shall be respected and ensured. It is the principle of the equality of States on the one hand, or otherwise the obligation laid upon small Powers to accept the bonds of vassal ship. In a word, it is international morality that is at stake…

“…Apart from the Kingdom of the Lord there is not on this earth any nation that is superior to any other. Should it happen that a strong Government finds it may with impunity destroy a weak people, then the hour strikes for that weak people to appeal to the League of Nations to give its judgment in all freedom.”

His New York Times obituary described this speech as “was a moment in history that few who witnessed it ever forgot”, but all for naught, with the Italian fait accompli gradually being recognised by the great powers and other League members.

On the throne of justice: see no Abyssinia, hear no Abyssinia, speak no Abyssinia”. David Low, Evening Standard, 24 July 1935


A couple of days before, in the hills immediately surrounding Aksum, in Ethiopia’s north (of which more in a different post), my guide had been keen to point out the jagged line of hills in the distance where the Battle of Adwa had been fought in 1896 (and beyond which lies Eritrea). There, the Abyssinian army successfully beat off the Italian offensive, forcing an Italian retreat and Italy’s recognition of Abyssinia’s sovereignty in the Treaty of Addis Ababa, a rare military success against a European colonial power by a non-Western state. As every taxi driver and guide I encountered during my weeklong stay was keen to impress on me, Ethiopia was the only African country to resist European colonisation and preserve its independence, an achievement made possible by Adwa.

View towards the Adwa mountain range, from the monastery of Abba Pantaleon, just above Aksum.

View towards Adwa, from the monastery of Abba Pantaleon, just above Aksum.

Forty years later, that sovereignty was again challenged with the force of arms by Italy, with Mussolini’s empire-building ambitions in Africa also determined to erase the humiliation of Adwa. Even though the League had seemed to fail Abyssinia’s expectations, perhaps even after defeat and exile Selassie still deemed his vision of collective security and international sovereign equality to be crucial to Abyssinia’s continuing survival. The inauspicious circumstances in which he pronounced them at the League in Geneva were, perhaps, secondary to embedding them in the national narrative via a mural at the centre of the Ethiopian church. These principles remain necessary, the mural seems to say, for how else are small states to be anything other than the playthings of the great powers?

In 1963, Selassie was to return to this theme in his address to the United Nations – part of which became the lyrics to Bob Marley’s ‘War’. With the decolonization movement in full swing, Selassie had just hosted the first meeting of the Organization for African Unity in Addis, drawing on Ethiopia’s special history of independence from external interference to urge pan-African regional unity. At the UN, Selassie decried continued colonial exploitation and (not unusually for an imperial autocrat of the time) professed the equality of all mankind, challenging the nations gathered at the General Assembly to possess the will to act:

“The goal of the equality of man which we seek is the antithesis of the exploitation of one people by another with which the pages of history and in particular those written of the African and Asian continents, speak at such length. Exploitation, thus viewed, has many faces. But whatever guise it assumes, this evil is to be shunned where it does not exist and crushed where it does. It is the sacred duty of this Organization to ensure that the dream of equality is finally realized for all men to whom it is still denied, to guarantee that exploitation is not reincarnated in other forms in places whence it has already been banished.”


The coda to this train of thought that began with a glance towards the dome of the Holy Trinity Cathedral came rather unexpectedly a few weeks later, while in Geneva for a conference at the Palais des Nations, the League’s physical home. Transferred to the UN after the League’s dissolution, the Palais is a glorious Art Deco pile completed in early 1936, just months before Selassie’s appearance before the League Assembly.

Up on the wall of Salle XXII, a mural titled ‘Construttori’ by Massimo Campigli depicts men at work during the laborious construction of the Palais. This ‘building’ of the League of Nations was one of the great experiments in global governance of the interwar period, but swept away by countervailing political forces of the 1930s. Small irony then, that far from Geneva, the League’s imprint is still to be visibly found in the sacred space of the one country where it was tested, and found lacking.

'Costruttori' (1937), Massimo Campigli, Salle XXII, Palais des Nations

‘Costruttori’ (partial view), Massimo Campigli (1937), Salle XXII, Palais des Nations

All pictures (apart from the David Low cartoon) by Nick Chan.

Tagged , , , , ,

Drawing the ‘real’ map of the world

The Guardian – The separatist map of Africa

‘The government in the distant capital doesn’t care about us. We’d be better off ruling ourselves’. This refrain continues to echo the world over as secessionist groups press for autonomy and independence from existing states. The grievance is often historical, but in the here and now, also has much to do with the quality of governance. A better life, secessionist groups argue, comes when we rule ourselves.

The Guardian has a recent interactive graphic that redraws the map of Africa to realise the dreams of all the continent’s secessionist movements – from unmaking modern Libya back into east and west, to the various de facto bits of what was once Somalia. This sort of exercise – accompanying a piece on the Mombasa Republican Council, which calls for the separation of the Mombasa region from the rest of Kenya – often alludes to the artificial character of much of African state creation, inheriting colonial boundaries and having to cope with the multi-ethnic animosities of this new creature. Underneath and criss-crossing these straight lines, the common conception goes, lies the ‘real’ political communities on which more robust states should be built.

But perhaps artificialness is what one makes of it. For as much as some of these separatist groups hark back to a pre-colonial political entity, demarcating these is never straightforward (where did that earlier entity come from, anyway?) and building what we call the modern nation-state is a process that unfolds over time and subject to political compromises. ‘Who is part of the nation’ is little more than an idea, the result of a process of constructing a social group that may be more or less stable at different points in time, but can never be static or fixed.

And this is as true for Africa as it is for the ‘old’ Western world where the nation-state as the political unit that marks modernity came into being. A million-strong march in Barcelona to mark the 300th anniversary of the siege of Barcelona has provided a reminder of the continuing political resonance of the cause of Catalonian independence; a referendum on Scottish independence is due sometime in 2014. The same logic is at play: ‘we’re better off alone, as we once were before’. Ongoing events, in this sense, challenge just how ‘real’ either of these states are: are Spain or Great Britain any more real states than Libya or Somalia? It probably didn’t seem like it in the early days of a united Britain and united Spain, and resolving the question of unity or separation has often come through violence and civil war.

Catalonia’s independence rally – 12 September 2012. Credit: BBC and AP

Tagged , , , , , ,

Italy: still better than any developing country

Or so goes the implied message of some commentary and reporting about post-Berlusconi Italy. In offering useful scenarios about the kind of government that might emerge in the coming days and weeks, The Guardian’s Rome correspondent John Hooper lapses into some pretty undisguised, patronizing disdain for governments of the “developing world”, presenting some types of government as simply being unbecoming of Western industrialized democracies. Good enough for the Third World, but not good enough for a European country, so goes the sentiment.

In two of the options, he writes (emphasis added):

“A cabinet of technocrats
This is the way out favoured by the markets and the Italian centre left: a government filled with specialists who could pass the unpalatable legislation needed to revive Italy‘s flagging economy without having to worry about re-election. It is the solution more commonly associated with the young democracies of the developing world, but it has had success in Italy…

The grand coalition
Otherwise known as a government of national emergency or salvation. This too might be seen as a developing world solution. But with the interest rate on its sovereign bonds heading for the fateful 7% mark and the Milan bourse dipping south, Italy certainly has an emergency and needs salvation. Could its notoriously querulous politicians agree to govern together, though? It would probably need a politician – and a deft one – to run such an administration….”

Should some possible forms of government, because they are “developing world solutions”, be ruled out for European societies? Underpinning this claim is an attitude that posits an essential difference between the Western and non-Western worlds, one which gives the former a unique status as the model for the latter to emulate; the non-Western world is judged in terms of how closely it conforms to the ideals and standards of the Western world, even if these are always only ever imperfectly met in Western liberal democracies themselves.

Not so long ago, towards the end of the 1980s (and still ongoing to this day), international donors and financial institutions championed what became known as ‘good governance’: a demand made conditional to development assistance that recipients of aid had to meet certain standards of governance, emphasizing civil and political rights, such as multiparty elections. A failure of governance was identified by donors and international agencies as the reason why the structural adjustment policies of the 1980s had failed to work: the problem weren’t the economic policies, they were the economies and societies themselves, which had to change, and made more receptive to the paradigm of economic neoliberalism.

Without rehashing this whole history (for that, see Rita Abrahamsen’s Disciplining Democracy), the simple point, made in the current context of Italy and the eurozone’s monetary and political crisis, is the continued construction of “difference” between the West and the rest. For too many commentators, the West is still the best, the end-point of the roughly linear progress of human history, presuming to know – and dictate – how the rest of the world should live. And some types of governance, it seems, are just not good enough.

Tagged , , , , ,

The long tail of decolonization

Apparently, this is the Third International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism, as the UN General Assembly declared last year. I didn’t even know there was a First or Second decade, which have now receded into the immediate past.

Sixteen ‘non self-governing territories’ form the list that occupies this committee’s time – the remnants of the original bursts of decolonization in the 1960s and 1970s. These span the globe, from Western Sahara and the British and U.S. Virgin Islands, to Gibraltar, the Falklands and Guam. Kudos to the Associated Press for a little bit of reporting on this dusty corner of the UN machinery:

“The committee is one of the few forums in which colonialism’s last remaining subjects can make themselves heard. Its latest annual meeting, in June, featured voices as disparate as lawmakers from Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, a headman from a cluster of New Zealand-ruled islets, and a spokesman for a Saharan territory that has been fighting for independence for 35 years.

“Some may see the U.N. committee as an anachronism, little noticed by anyone other than those who attend its meetings: two dozen ambassadors of countries with a direct interest in the decolonization process, and representatives of the territories in question.

“But Ahmed Boukhari of the Polisario Front, which seeks the independence of Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, says its existence is vital.

“Not only do we need the committee, we need to enhance it,” he told The Associated Press. “For the people of the territories, it’s an essential element in their struggle for self-determination.”

The long history of this committee casts a fascinating light on how new states have been created over the past half century, and how we’ve moved to a world of 193 states. The special committee that takes up this question of decolonization finds its institutional forebears in the League of Nations’ mandates system, and the UN’s trusteeship scheme, but it was the 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples that effectively turned independence, or national liberation, into a goal in and of itself, rather than some means to a higher end.

This is the establishment of self-determination as a right, irrespective of the political or economic state of that territory – and self-determination on the basis of colonial boundaries and definitions of what the ‘state’ is in territorial terms. The consequence, with which all these decolonized states have had to deal with in the decades since, is a presumption against the further secession or division of the territory, which has proved problematic for the many multiethnic groups contained within states aspiring to statehood of their own.

As K.J. Holsti pointed out (in The State, War, and the State of War, 1996):

“Having been a colony was sufficient qualification for attaining immediate membership of the United Nations. There was to be no scrutiny of post-colonial political arrangements and practices…

“The process of decolonization produced a single format – the Western territorial state. The heterogeneity of political forms that had existed throughout man’s organized history has now been reduced to a single form…It is clear, however, that the universalization of the territorial state format does not mean that all states share the same characteristics. In particular, artificial states – the creation of colonial authorities and international organizations – are in many ways fundamentally different from states that grew slowly through an organic process involving wars, administrative centralization, the provision of welfare entitlements, and the development of national identities and sentiments.”

And so the sixteen territories on the list are a snapshot of a previous time when they, like much of the world’s surface area, would have been organized into colonial empires. The list is itself a reminder of that historical moment when norms about what constituted statehood and claims to sovereignty were transformed, and its existence today the long tail of the wave of decolonization.

For newer secessionist struggles or movements over the past two decades – as most recently in South Sudan – the Special Committee on Decolonization has little to say. “Finishing the job” of decolonization, as its website has it, only extends to previously recognized colonial boundaries, and not to anything in between. The world map, for any would-be new states, looks frustratingly stable – and their battles detached from the particular label of ‘decolonization’.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

The past as present on climate change (Notes from the Bangkok climate talks)

Last week’s session of the UN climate change negotiations that I attended in Bangkok, Thailand, certainly didn’t make for very good headlines: “feud”, “stall”, “division”, “bickering” and “deadlock” being common descriptions. The disdain of one report is barely hidden in its opening lines:

“Nineteen years after the world started to take climate change seriously, delegates from around the globe spent five days talking about what they will talk about at a year-end conference in South Africa. They agreed to talk about their opposing viewpoints”

It certainly didn’t seem like a very productive use of time when the agenda over what to actually negotiate about wasn’t agreed until the last evening (particularly for the technical experts who had little to do but twiddle thumbs in the meantime). But 3 days of deadlock over the meeting agenda is perhaps unsurprising because this divergence of views is as much about what to do now, as it is about what road it is that has been travelled on to get here. And where we’ve come from tells us quite a bit about where we are going, or want to go.

In this specific part of the negotiating process (the Ad-Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action; AWG-LCA), competing draft agendas took their starting points from two related, but different places. One draft, prepared by the chair, focused on the elements of what was agreed to at last December’s Cancun summit; the other, prepared by the G77 and China coalition, focused more expansively on the areas set out in the agreement made at the 2007 Bali conference (which was intended to culminate at the 2009 Copenhagen conference).

This debate about history (i.e. are we taking our lead from Cancun or Bali) sets out different tasks to address. An agenda based on Cancun turns to various questions of how to design new institutions for adaptation support and technology, and how to ensure some common framework for monitoring and keeping track of global mitigation actions. But an agenda that uses the original Bali point of reference puts priority on what actions developed countries are going to be taken to bring down their greenhouse gas emissions, as well as ‘enhanced’ action on adaptation and finance issues.

Perhaps a historical footnote to current negotiations lies some 15 years ago, in the negotiations that resulted in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. That only reached a climax at that particular point in time, because the task to agree on a legal instrument that included quantified emission reduction commitments had been agreed to at the 1995 Berlin conference, in what became known as the Berlin Mandate. The Mandate set out that the focus of negotiations would be on the emission reduction commitments of developed countries; and over the next two years, as the USA tried to force a discussion on the commitments of developing countries, this was resolutely resisted by developing countries who pointed to the Mandate’s limited scope.

Imperfect as any historical analogy might be, there are parallels here in the justifications that developing countries present for continuing to turn to the Bali agreement as the mandate for the current set of negotiations: “We are negotiating about x, and x only, because we agreed to this a few years ago.” The fear expressed by developing countries is that the larger vision of Bali will be subsumed by the specifics of Cancun, and that the latter will be the ‘ceiling’ to collective global action on climate change. The extent to which the recent Cancun Agreements mesh with the earlier Bali Action Plan is what underlies apparently circular and procedural disagreements on the agenda – resolved in some way by the finessing of diplomatic language on the agenda that was indeed agreed, but which will remain alive for the rest of this year. Watch this space.

Tagged , , , , ,

When being a ‘developing country’ is useful

While the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’  categories are still common labels applied to dividing the world’s countries, dispute over where exactly these dividing lines are drawn frequently generates criticisms of their antiquated nature.  This is more than an academic exercise; as David Bosco at Foreign Policy writes, there are some real economic consequences at stake:

“But it turns out that wanting to develop and wanting to be classified as “developed” are two quite different things. Particularly when it comes to international trade, there are pocketbook reasons that a country might prefer to remain “developing” long after economic data and common sense remove it from that category. Some of the key international trade agreements underlying the World Trade Organization, in particular, offer special benefits to developing countries…

“For its part, the WTO has no classification system. Instead, countries declare their status and, consequently, their eligibility for the trade benefits accorded to developing countries. They often do so à la carte, claiming developing country status for certain agreements but not others. This murky honor system produces some odd results.  South Korea, Mexico, and Turkey are members of the elite G-20 and the OECD (traditionally thought of as the rich-country club) but when it comes to WTO matters, they sometimes claim to be developing. Israel is another OECD member that has taken advantage of developing-country benefits…

“Not that there’s much Washington, Tokyo or Brussels can do about it. The practice of self-declaring is by now built deep into the WTO structure, and attempts to reform the system have gotten nowhere. For the time being, a developing country at the WTO is whoever claims to be one.”

Self-declaring is also built into the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change structure, in the division between Annex I and non-Annex I parties, which generates different obligations and commitments over reducing emissions, contributing finance, and so on.

This apparent anomaly is a familiar theme on this blog, and my occasional posts on this subject constitute a mini ‘Not Quite the End of the Third World’ series. As before, my purpose is simply to suggest that our understandings of what developing countries are is not something that can be reached through purely objective (i.e. statistical) means.

In a parallel universe, the dividing line between the developing/developed labels would simply be in crossing some statistical line – some measure of per capita income, or emission levels, or so on. Deciding what the measure is may be contentious – but once the process is settled on, then it would seem to work pretty smoothly. In our current universe, one method may be via the Human Development Index, which produces neat, comparable scores and allows for a high/medium/low division in terms of human development.

But almost any sort of label matters more than just what it describes, because the label itself is related to some sense of identity – a statement about what that state is, and what it is not. Who are my friends, and who are my enemies? Different benefits and costs come into play, ones that aren’t reducible to statistical claims.

Yes, there may be some instrumental exploitation of these categories, taking advantage of the material benefits offered by falling into one category and not another. But I’d suggest that there is also some pull created by a particular identity claim upon a state, which is why from the perspective of a given state, it still seems entirely unsurprising that it might continue to describe itself as a developing country as opposed to a developed one (even if it does so inconsistently from issue to issue). Normative reasons can exist alongside instrumental reasons.

For all the suggestions that the developed/developing distinction is irrational based on the economic data, or beyond common sense, then – these categories are likely to be with us for some time yet.

Tagged , , , ,

Pressing reset on new states

My secret dreams of becoming an urban planner were nurtured by the computer game SimCity, and my secret plans for world domination, by Sid Meier’s Civilization. Both these games have gone through various iterations since the late 1990s when I first started playing them, but the challenge of turning a randomly-generated landscape into a bustling metropolis or cultural hegemon has always been a mischievously alluring one.

For the European adventurers in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries traversing uncharted seas to map Africa, South America and Asia, huge swathes of the map were considered terra nullius – like my randomly-generated computer game landscapes, empty land, upon which claims of possession could be made. ‘Civilization’, in the minds of the colonizers, would begin afresh in these lands.

But as they found then in their relationships with local peoples, and as we find now in the creation of new states, little starts from scratch. As the referendum in south Sudan heads for the conclusion of the count, with independence the expected outcome, wrestling with its historical legacies throws up new challenges for the would-be rulers of the world’s would-be newest state.

Some of these can seem rather prosaic, but matter hugely in the long-term. One is the name of the new country itself – the popular shorthand has been South Sudan, but a range of other possibilities exist:

“The easiest option would be to stick to what people call it now — South Sudan or Southern Sudan.

“But there are some serious branding issues. Say “Sudan” to most outsides and they will immediately think of a list of nasties — Darfur, the never-ending north-south civil war, military coups, militancy and crippling debt.

“A new nation might be grateful for a new name with a clean slate.

“Equatoria has a nice ring to it. But that would associate the entire diverse territory with just three of its current states — Western and Eastern Equatoria, together with Central Equatoria, the home of the capital Juba.

“New Sudan is catchy but perhaps a little presumptuous. Old Sudan would not be happy.”

And so on. Names do matter – and not just if you’re Sarah Palin, confusing North Korea with South Korea over which is the US ally. How differently would we think of Bangladesh if it remained, after independence, as East Pakistan? As statements of identity, names reflect a particular history or geography, conjuring up their own political resonances that seem especially significant for nascent efforts at nation-building and forging a new national identity.

But another illustration of Sudan’s past confronting its present lies in the red and black on Sudan’s economic ledger. Sudan’s oil future, and the potential bonanza to the south, has been well-discussed, but less so has been the state of Sudan’s debts. Jubilee Debt Campaign raise this point, asking how the $35bn of external debt held by the Sudanese government might be distributed between the ‘original’ Sudan and the new state.

The claim against the new state assuming part of the original Sudan’s debt liabilities is at least partly a moral one – debt incurred by a government unrepresentative and unsympathetic to the south, as three decades of civil war testify to. Arguments of ‘odious debt’ are made with regards to debts incurred by dictatorial regimes that now fall on the post-dictatorial government to repay, and there seems at least an intuitive fit with regards to south Sudan. The practical claim may be, additionally, that if a new government starts with a considerable burden to international debtors, its independence may be simply legal and symbolic, rather than substantive. But we’ll leave that element of how substantive sovereignty has to be to be meaningful (or even as a condition for statehood) for another time.

So the difficulties that south Sudan will face in the coming months and years relate not just to how the ethno-religious mixture of its population get along, or how its resource endowment is to be managed, because these can’t be fully grasped without the deeper, broader legacies that its history bequeaths. There is, alas, no reset button (unlike a computer game session when I royally mess things up). Looking towards a new, independent future in the tomorrow, will still have the hand of yesterday on its shoulder.

Tagged , , , ,
%d bloggers like this: