Decolonise the World Below

Translation of: “Dekolonisatie van de benedenwereld”, Vice Versa, Vol. 55, nr. 2, Summer 2021

White, Western and 'superior', power has not changed much – there is a neocolonial continuation of old politics, Jan Pronk sees, with the elites elsewhere. The exploited group is globalised: the upperworld rules the world beneath it. “Both worlds”, he writes, “are present in all countries, there are no exceptions.” And development cooperation perpetuates the system. Is salvation possible? Only with the awareness of civilization.


Through *We slaves of Suriname and *Colonial profit from unfree labour by Jan Breman, I showed in my previous essay that also Dutch colonial policy was deeply racist. This year, a new book by Breman has been published: *Colonialism and racism.

He completes this cruel and raw reality on the basis of two case studies: the east coast of Sumatra in the former Dutch East Indies and Congo, which was colonised by Belgium. He extrapolates to the present and advocates a civilisational offensive in response to the authoritarian temptation on the home front in our own country.

At the end of my essay, I asked whether the development cooperation has remained free of racial discrimination. At the start of it, in the forties, not everyone had the same goal. Several wanted to continue colonial relations but in a different form. Others sought a solution to the permanent poverty, hunger, unemployment and disease to which the majority of the population of non-Western countries was exposed.

Within the United Nations, a third objective was paramount: development cooperation as a means to end inequalities, injustices and discrimination in colonial oppression – and to counteract its effects in the new world relations after 1945.

I have always been sympathetic towards the latter objective. Has the practice of development cooperation served that purpose? To that question, I gave a tentative answer: "I'm afraid not. I am afraid that nowadays, discrimination and inequality are not combated with development cooperation, but perpetuated.” That warrants substantiation.


Colonial imperialism was a sequel to capitalism. Within the national economy, workers were exploited. Capitalist entrepreneurs sought raw materials that could be produced overseas at low cost.

This led to exploitation and oppression of the population there: land grabbing, human trafficking, slavery, forced labour, discrimination and racism. Indeed, also racism. Colonial oppression by white rulers from the West could not take place without discrimination against the non-white indigenous population.

The economic surplus created overseas was used in the West to finance economic growth. That was the core of the system: depriving colonies, transferring stolen colonial profits to give Western powers a head start in prosperity and using the superiority based on this to thwart the development of – former – colonies.

In this way, the Western advantage and supremacy perpetuated itself, even after colonialism had been formally abolished. That happened in two ways. First, by creating a global economy based on free trade and the free movement of capital, which could be invested wherever the benefit was greatest.

The capitalist world market began to operate as the national markets did before, but now with transnational power building and cross-border exploitation, while excluding populations that were seen as a burden. This exploitation or exclusion mostly concerned people of a different colour, ethnic background or race. Globalisation led to a system of global racist discrimination.

In the former colonies, power passed to elites who had benefited most politically or militarily from the acquired autonomy. They allied themselves with the West and enabled Western capital to finance an economic transformation: industrialisation, large-scale agriculture, urban centres for the rich, technological innovation of communications and capital movement. Both in these countries – the so-called developing countries – and in the West, the socio-economic underclass was pushed down further and further.

That was the second way in which the colonial lead perpetuated itself: transformation of the North-South dominance (or rather: West-South) into a system of global apartheid, in which Western economic powers increasingly excluded the underclass within the Western countries themselves from facilities and impoverished while forming coalitions with elites in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East who oppressed their own peoples.

They were deprived of their livelihoods, they remained doomed to poverty and forced to seek refuge elsewhere. Those who resisted were tyrannised, with those in power allowing themselves to be helped politically, economically and militarily by leaders in Western countries who shared the same interests as them.


The colonisation by the West of what was called the 'third world' gave way to colonisation by an upperworld of a world below. Both worlds, upper and under, are present in all countries, without exceptions. The global underclass is the new South.

They are exploited, excluded and expulsed. They have the same characteristics all over the world: poor, shorter life expectancy, less access to education, health care, social services and legal aid, poorly housed, without physical sources of livelihood, without steady and rewarding work, often wandering.

In the world below, people also share other common features: the skin colour is not white, but black or brown. They are considered to belong to a different race or caste, have a different accent, a different ethnic or national origin, a different cultural or religious background than the people in the upperworld.

They are descendants of indigenous inhabitants, who have been expelled by others. They have been uprooted because they had to migrate due to poverty, climate change, drought or other disasters. They have fled oppression, discrimination, war, violence or violation of their human rights.

Inhabitants of the world below, in contrast to the capitalists, who unconcernedly continue to accumulate financial profit, and the middle class, which continues to profit from the advantage once gained, without questioning whether it has been acquired rightfully and whether they are even entitled to the fruits of the advantage.

Shouldn't we use those fruits to support disadvantaged groups in their pursuit of protection, upliftment, advancement and development? Do we not have a moral duty to share the fruits of our advantage to fight inequality, combat discrimination, correct injustice and give priority to those who have been disadvantaged?

Anyone who takes this consideration seriously should not limit themselves to giving development aid, nor to improving trade relations with developing countries. Without thoroughly overhauling the international economic system, aid and trade help only a limited number of people, all only a little and only for a short period of time.

'Cooperation' in that way, ostensibly to help others move forward, is system-affirming. This does not lead to real development: self-development, based on self-chosen values and principles, without externally imposed restrictions. System-affirming aid and cooperation perpetuate inequality, dependence and discrimination.


When I first took office as Minister for Development Cooperation in 1973, I said at a press conference: “Development aid that functions as a cloak for the bleeding is pointless. If the disease is not controlled or if the wound is not healed, the bleeding will continue regardless of the wipes that are given.”

In other words, development cooperation must fight the diseases that plague the system, heal the wounds that the winners have inflicted on the losers.

For years this was the view many have held of development cooperation. Again and again, alternatives were suggested, which aimed to prevent a neocolonial continuation of the politics as usual. Those alternatives were certainly not intended to tinker at the edges.

The *UN Strategy for the First Development Decade (1960-'70), the establishment of the alternative world trade organisation *UNCTAD (1964), the negotiations on a New International Economic Order (1974-'75), the publication of the Brandt (1980) and Brundtland Report (1987), the fight against the *IMF adjustment policy in the 1980s, the adoption of *Agenda 21 (*UNCED, 1992), the Millennium Declaration (2000), the binding entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol to the World Climate Treaty (2005) and the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (2015) were all exercises challenging the international capitalist system.

The system has been the subject of debate and an ideological and political war to change it has been waged for decades. That war seems to have been lost. The transnational financial and economic powers have become stronger, inequality in the world has increased.

Discrimination between winners and losers has increased. The winners cherish certainties, safety and profit. The losers are even further behind. They are the same as before: black, brown, indigenous, uprooted, from a different lineage or background than those in charge. And they realise that their future is decided by powers beyond their control.


Why has development cooperation not been able to change the system? It wasn't just the aftermath that colonialism had once it was abolished. Change takes time, but if that was the only reason, then the system should have gradually weakened. That was not the case: it is stronger now than it was back then.

This is because Western economic powers sought to undermine the developing autonomy of the former colonies by controlling investment, technology and trade channels to safeguard their interests.

After the end of the Cold War, they were able to further strengthen their grip by proclaiming a new international order based on market-fundamentalist neoliberalism. The criterion of 'good governance' was used as a crowbar to give foreign capital preferential access to the economies of developing countries.

Development cooperation began to comply with the demands of the *IMF and the World Bank regarding the structural adjustment of developing countries to the new realities on the world market. There was insufficient awareness that these new realities were not based on economic laws, but rather on political choices.

The next step was that development cooperation became subservient to the neoliberal order. Poverty reduction was subordinated to economic growth, which was better left to market forces.

Development cooperation made easy compromises. The amount of aid went down. Aid was linked to the promotion of exports, not from developing countries, but from Western companies seeking to do business overseas. Aid was also used to stop migrants and refugees, by supporting authoritarian regimes and by financing border security. It was the exact opposite of what was originally intended.


It all fitted in with the white, Western sense of superiority, also in the Netherlands. In the 1970s, a whisper in the protocol department of Foreign Affairs sounded: “Here comes another monkey from Development Cooperation”, whenever an African minister came to visit.

In the 1990s, the Court of Auditors refused to accept that Indian accountants exercised financial control over Dutch aid projects. Dutch universities refused to accept the research priorities put forward by African partner universities in collaborative programmes.

These are just examples, but ten years ago the Scientific Council for Government Policy provided an ideological basis for the Western idea of superiority by defining the development process as a "modernisation [as] has been realised in the West since the nineteenth century."

The caveat that this Western progress in the nineteenth century took place at the expense of many in the South was not mentioned. The fact that growth in the West was at the expense of essentials such as climate, nature and biodiversity was ignored. The question of whether people in the South wanted to westernise was not raised.

Indigenous groups, nomadic ranchers in Africa or people who do not recognise themselves in the Judeo-Christian traditions of Europe and the US may think very differently about concepts such as modernisation and progress. But current Dutch politicians do not seem ashamed of such an ideological basis for development cooperation.

In the late 1960s, at a youth conference, I made a scornful remark about the ‘soccer war’ between El Salvador and Honduras: “Who makes war after a lost game?” My friend from El Salvador took me to task and he was absolutely right.

What did I actually know about the history of both countries and the background of the conflict? Where on earth did I get that arrogance, especially as a Western European, with a history filled with war and mass murder? I have since improved my life and consciously tried never to take such a biased position again.

Perhaps I overdid it when I agreed with representatives from the South upfront when they accused the West of discrimination, racism and wrongdoing. In debates with Bolkestein, this attitude led to the accusation of cultural relativism, but I preferred that over unjustly covering up the accusation or adopting a 'white perspective'.

I may have done more things wrong, but the memory of my first confrontation with a group of peers from non-Western countries, which I only understood after stepping out of my own 'bubble', has always stayed with me.

Personal introspection is important. This applies to everyone who works in the field of development cooperation: politician, civil servant, researcher, project leader, field worker. Those who do not realise this are easily impressed by fallacies ("without growth, there will be nothing to divide"), are lulled to sleep by false arguments ("it is their own responsibility") or look without seeing.

That is the ‘white perspective’ that obscures reality, so that the people in the world below – who have no power before us, no voice, no face, no name – are not seen. But more important than the personal attitude of the development worker is the structure of the society in which development policy is determined and implemented.

If that structure is fundamentally unjust and leads to institutional discrimination and racism, it must be reversed. That is the task of development cooperation: the decolonisation of the world below.

It requires different choices than those made in recent years: choose the needs and wants of the people who have been pushed down as a guiding principle, break down the barriers raised by the West against their self-fulfilment, distance yourself from elites in the South who impoverish or oppress their own population and welcomes people who have fled an unlivable situation into our society, which still reaps the benefits of the colonial advantage of the current time.

"Don’t hang anyone out to dry", was the election slogan of the party that has had special responsibility for development policy in recent years. Every time I saw that promise on my screen, images came to mind of people outside the fences of prosperous Europe.

We hung them out to dry.

Decolonisation of the world below is a requirement of civilisation, the civilisation that politicians and citizens of the upperworld pride themselves on.



Jan Pronk


See: “Dekolonisatie van de benedenwereld”, Vice Versa, Vol. 55, nr. 2, Summer 2021.