Nzilani Simu for GADN
Nzilani Simu for GADN

Reparations as a pathway to decolonisation

The term ‘decolonisation’ has made a surprisingly swift entry into the lexicon of the UK international development sector.

This follows decades of apparent oblivion towards the overwhelming impacts of European empires on how our sector works and understands the world. Yet as international development organisations begin to interrogate and apply the concept of ‘decolonisation’, there is a real danger that the term will become the latest buzzword devoid of meaningful challenge.

How do we ensure that this long overdue recognition of the need to make visible and address the ongoing legacies of colonialism finally leads to the fundamental transformations that are so urgently required?

One answer, explored in the Gender and Development Network’s latest briefing, could be to frame decolonisation efforts with ‘reparations approaches’. This would serve to redefine relations between colonisers and those who were colonised, starting with the responsibility of former colonisers to acknowledge and remedy past harm, and crucially, to end continuing injustices – while emphasising that those who have suffered and continue to suffer the most harm must shape the ways forward.

What are reparations approaches?

The need to recognise and remedy past and ongoing harms is gaining traction even at the centre of the British establishment. Much of the current discourse on reparations centres around the appalling harm caused by the trans-Atlantic slave trade. But the concept is just as relevant for examining and addressing the legacies of European colonialism, from deliberate economic devastation and deindustrialisation, violence, genocide and destruction of indigenous cultures and languages to the structural racism that continues to harm Black and People of Colour globally. The impact of colonialism on the climate crisis is also increasingly recognised, with calls to move from the narrower framing of ‘loss and damage’ to one of reparations – recognising the responsibility of former colonisers.

While there is no single definition of a reparations approach, there are common themes: acknowledgement and apology, financial compensation, and repair and prevention of repetition.

Acknowledgement and apology

Prime Minister Motley of Barbados argues: “For us, reparations is not just simply about money, but it is also about justice… I do not know how we can go further unless there is a reckoning first and foremost that places an apology and an acknowledgement that a wrong was done…”

As a first step, it is time the UK government acknowledged and apologised for the devastating impacts of the British Empire, following the example of the Dutch government last year, rather than pushing for proposals to ensure that the ‘benefits’ of empire are included in the curriculum. Principles already established by the UN in 2005 refer to the need for ‘satisfaction’ – with truthful discourse and acceptance of responsibility.

Anti-racism and decolonising: a framework for organisations

This free toolkit maps out how racism cuts across all areas of our organisations and shows the necessity of an anti-racist and holistic approach to decolonising our organisations to create a fairer, more equitable and racially just sector.

Download the framework

Financial compensation

Under these UN principles, compensation is due not just for material damage but also to mental and physical harm and lost opportunity. They echo demands for reparations in the 1993 Abuja Proclamation, given the “unique and unprecedented moral debt owed to the African people”. The Proclamation also called for debt cancellation, now seen by many as a first step in recognising the vast financial debt that is owed not by the Global South but by former colonisers.

There are many precedents of financial compensation for past harm. Shockingly, the British Government compensated former enslavers for their financial losses when the slave trade came to an end, requiring them to take out a loan equivalent to 40% of their annual expenditure.

Repair and non-repetition

Reparations advocates refer to the concept of ‘self-repair’ through which, as Professor Chinweizu explains, those who were formally colonised change “our understanding of our history, of ourselves, and of our destiny [and hence] our place in the world.”

‘Repair’ also refers to the creation of a more just world, rebuilding the global economic and political structures that continue to perpetuate colonial injustice. This concept extends the UN basic principle’s call for guarantees of non-repetition and is apparent in the Abuja Proclamation which calls for Africa to have greater power in international decision-making. More recently, in order to address the immediate financing needs, the Bridgetown Initiative also says, “We must also lay the path toward a new financial system”.

What next?

As international development organisations working in the UK and other former European empires, we are surrounded by and indeed benefit from, the colonial exploitation that our countries inflicted on others. Remaining silent while claiming to act in the interests of global equality and poverty reduction is no longer an option; while interrogating our practices, we also have a responsibility to hold our governments to account.

The exact nature of reparations must be driven by the demands of those who have been and continue to be harmed, and there are sufficient common themes to provide a pathway for action.

Calling for unconditional debt cancellation, alongside reform of global financial architecture so that former colonisers cede power to those who were colonised, could be a first step. Working to create political and analytical space for reparations demands from those who have been, and continue to be, harmed by the legacy of empires could start to bring real meaning to the term ‘decolonisation’.