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Psychological characteristics and colonialism: Where the deep roots of international inequalities were shaped

“It is you who chose to linked your history to ours”
– Lettre à la République 2012, Kery James (French Rapper born from Haitian parents. In this song, he addresses the French Republic and urges it to face its responsibilities regarding its colonial past and the situation of migrants descendants )

The task of linking inequalities and development might seem obvious at first sight. The truth is: it is obvious. The challenge here, lies in the deeper connections that are to be found between these two measures and the leverages, that once triggered, can affect one another. Moreover, it is intriguing to focus on how a specific area performs in those measurements and trying to find out the causes.

In the very specific case of this essay, I have decided to track the social long term influence of colonization on the colonized territories (whether they are now independent or not). For it’s peculiar situation and quite anonymity (even for metropolitan French citizens), I will refer, at times, to the French territory of New Caledonia.

The question that will lead my analysis is “Why do we witness this behavior of domination towards others and how does human selfishness leaves very little space to live in a fair and sustainable society ?”

In order to bring a complete answer, I will expose why some cultures were more prone to colonialist aspirations, technological advancement left aside. Why some colonies were initially more successful economically than others and what impact it had on nowadays societies.
Then, I will give a quick overview of New Caledonian History in order to better grasp the issues. It will be followed by a broad insight of the current level of inequalities worldwide and in New Caledonia.

And finally, this paper will expose how most favored nations are negatively influencing development and inequality reduction in poorest areas of the world. And why all nations must cooperate and take action in order to tackle development and inequality issues globally. That is why few recommendations ( Recommendations inspired by 2019 Oxfam Report ‘Public Good or Private Wealth’) will be given regarding how inequalities can be dealt with and the impact of such measures. 

Part 1
In this first part, I will develop some of the reasons explaining the longing of European Nations for domination and expansion. Then I will expose the features of an economically successful colony and the evolution of their societies. Finally, I will give an example showing the deep roots of colonialism in our society, and its link to racism.

Individualism is at the heart of our modern western societies. And the fact that we would rather cite other features (on purpose or not), such as ‘developed’, ‘rich’ or ‘advanced’, is a symptom of this very characteristic itself. It is the essence of an individualist culture to reward sociological behaviors like introspection, competition, personal achievement but also self-focus attention, (“Cultural dimensions and social behavior correlates: Individualism-Collectivism and Power Distance” Basabe & Ros, 2005). A research has shown that individualism in a society tends to be witnessed when human rights are respected, inequality is low and income is high (“ Cross-cultural correlates of life satisfaction and self-esteem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology“, Diener & Diener, 1995. The sample studied is composed uniquely of college students, which questions its representativity.). As a matter of facts, countries that fit the most this description are western Europe nations and North American ones. Nowadays’ more individualistic cultures are the ones where social inequalities are supposedly the lowest. In addition to its individualistic criteria, western societies are also mainly entering the group of Masculinity. It is pretty logical since an individualistic society promotes competition, a masculine one presents preferences for achievement, heroism, assertiveness and material rewards for success. These components give, in fine, a more competitive society. But in order to achieve heroism or get a material reward, it needs to be taken at the expense of someone or something else (whether it is a person, group of person or the environment). This behavior will inexorably lead to depletion and, with time, to the need of finding other sources.

It seems clear now that given the characteristics of their culture, western European nations were more prone to show aggressiveness towards others but also towards each other. The USA and Canada show similarities since they are a transposition of European societies rather than the modification of an existing one. Their situation will be discussed in the next part.

After showing the extent to which a nation is already predisposed to become a colonizer, it is now time to expose what made some colonies more successful than others, how it evolved and what it led to.

During the colonization process, European civilizations were inevitably led to alter the composition of the colonized populations. This change might be one of the most significant effect, on the long term, of colonization. It’s by bringing new diseases, but also new mindsets and societal organization that Europeans modified these population mix. In the process of colonizing America, colons discovered very different conditions and lands depending on where they landed on the continent. In colonies such as Brazil and the Caribbean, they encountered favorable conditions (soil, climate) for the production of sugar and other crops that were produced for a low cost at the time (17th to 19th century). This gave them a comparative advantage and brought a quite fast economic development, making them an important global trade corner. However, being an important agricultural producer at this moment of history meant a need for workforce. Workforce then provided by African slaves. These arriving flows of slaves increased the heterogeneity of the population in term of status, race, roots, culture, traditions and social position.

The dominant colonizing strategy was almost always relying on a relatively small batch of colons. They were sent overseas to occupy the Elite positions of the society in order to govern and administrate (politically and military) a large indigenous population (widely used as cheap labor force or slaves). The consequences are then perfectly summed up by Engerman & Sokoloff (“Colonialism Inequality and Long Run Paths of Development” Engerman & Sokoloff, 2005) “When political power or influence is concentrated among a small segment of the population, that group is able to shape policies or institutions to its advantage. We expect members of such elites to act in their interest, for example, by inducing the government to make investments and provide services they favor”. Therefore, a small, favored part of the population hold the means to comfort their position. This leads the biggest share of the population to poor social recognition and political consideration. Once forged, inequalities keep rising, creating less and less equal societies until today.

On the other hand, we tend to witness today fairer and financially healthier societies when, back then, the colons were moved to territories quite empty or depopulated. “Labor scarcity with land abundance inhibited the concentration of power. The need to attract more settlers and encourage them to engage the colonial economy led to the evolution of more egalitarian institutions in the North American colonies” (“Long-run Causes of Comparative Development: An Interpretation of the Recent Evidence“, Smith, 2007).
The impact of colonization on occupied territories and their natives from the early stages of colonization up until now (whether these territories are now independent or not) is clear. In order to conclude this first chapter, I would like to give an example showing the still ongoing impact of colonization and its link with racism.

In 1993, Canadian peacekeepers were sent on a mission in Somalia. However, during this mission, murders, torture and other acts of violence have been performed on local population. These acts were performed publicly, with witnesses, pictures were taken, videotapes recorded. Some soldiers were even posing with a freshly tortured Somalian. These actions publicly revealed in the international press shocked the public. However, their behavior was explained accusing the rough environment, depicted as primitive, without laws, police and security. It brought the inner violence and evil out of a few number of rogue soldiers at the bottom of the command chain whereas the majority of soldiers are ‘well-intentioned’, erasing the racist feature of the case. This example demonstrates how, still today, minds are set to imagine that it is brave and heroic white men’s duty to bring civilization and progress to poor black inhabitants of underdeveloped ‘third world’ nations that live in an evil place. Place capable of changing the behavior of even the bravest, so it is not surprising if natives already succumbed to it.

Part 2

In this second chapter, I expose briefly the History of New Caledonia. Given its relative anonymity it seems essential to give an overview in order to better grasp what is at stake. Next I will provide a situational analysis providing data and examples showing the ever growing inequalities worldwide and in New Caledonia.

Archaeologists revealed tracks of human life on the three main islands of the archipelago based in the South Pacific dating up to 3 300 years ago. These populations, originating from actual China, evolved into the Kanak civilization whose society is based on clans and tribes, organized under a hierarchy based on family lines and connections. Very little strong fortified places were discovered which testifies of the few expansionist aspirations and a society where large scale wars were pretty unlikely among tribes (Possibly because of the custom system of exchange and compensations. This doesn’t exclude tensions among clans). First French colons arrived in 1853. When they met the Kanaks, a civilization quite preserved from western influence so far, it ended up brutally. Diseases and slaughters during repressed revolts brought the number of natives to reduce by half within less than 70 years of colonization. The alteration of the population was launched and irreversible.

After WWII (Also corresponds to when Kanak natives became French citizens (1946)), high resources in nickel (After WWII, demand in nickel is high due to Korean development and Japanese reconstruction), French investment and US military equipment left in New Caledonia gave a certain economic prosperity. However, natives, less educated and skilled and living in reserves on the outskirts of the main island didn’t benefit much from it. This part of the population which is the most fragile is also the most exposed to nickel prices fluctuations. During the 70s a strong independentist stream grew in New Caledonia. After tensions escalated gravely between independentists and loyalists, they ended up collaborating. The two parties signed the Matignon Agreement in 1988 that established the recognition of the different populations, the transfer of political competences to New Caledonia, economic re-balancing policies in favor of native populations and the organization of a self-determination referendum.

However, besides its very peculiar status of being a Country and Overseas Territory of the European Union, New Caledonia is still considered as a colony (See list of Non-Self-Governing Territories of the United Nations).

The introduction to New Caledonia history being done, let’s now move to a broad situational analysis of development and inequalities worldwide and in the context of New Caledonia.

Former IMF (International Monetary Fund) Managing Director Christine Lagarde declared in October 2018 that there were “a need for a multilateral system that is more inclusive and delivers results for all (Even if partial, it is an important step that such an international organization recognizes its failure to have the expected effect)”. The issue of inequalities worldwide has not been tackled properly by governments and multilateral organizations which policies to address the issue failed. Even if inequalities between countries have been reducing over the last 15 years, they have been rising between individuals (OECD, 2015). This tendency also jeopardizes the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals that both the World Bank (WB) and the IMF are committed to reach.

The first dimension regarding inequalities are income ones. They are mainly due to the liberalization of international commerce that shifted the demand for unskilled workforce to developing countries. Ever cheaper labor for ever greater profit. There are today more billionaires than ever before and their wealth keep growing ($2.5bn/day). On the other hand, we have 3.4 billion people living with less than $5.5 a day. This situation is not sustainable from an economic point of view, and from an environmental one. Indeed, only an income increase of the 20% poorest would have a positive impact on medium-term growth (IMF 2015). With a higher financial capacity, the poorest would invest more in education which would eventually lead to a gain of productivity. Nevertheless so far, numerous structural adjustment policies project were aiming at re establishing the macroeconomic balance. In other words they were paradoxical. They were only aiming at reestablishing a preexisting situation that was economically and environmentally unsustainable. Where is the logic ?

A strong economic disparity fitting a geographical one is observed in New Caledonia. Europeans live in the wealthiest part of the archipelago, whereas the poorest is occupied by natives (Le Monde, 2018). The Gini Coefficient in New Caledonia is around 0.42 whereas it drops down to 0.26 when observing the entirety of France territories. Even if the average income is slightly higher in New Caledonia than in metropolitan France, the richest 10% of the archipelago earn 8 times more than the 10% poorest.

The second dimension is the delivery and use of public services such as health and education. In a report from 2006, Oxfam stated that 4.25 million more health workers and 1.9 million more teachers would be needed in order “to provide basic health care and education for all”( OXFAM, 2006). However, pushed by institutions such as the World Bank, governments with failing services tend to turn toward the private sector. It can work (Korea achieved significant welfare improvement with a high involvement of the private sector.) but providers privately held are hard to regulate and bring inequalities, high prices and exclusion for the poorest that cannot afford the costs. What’s more, research (A. Marriott, 2014) has shown that Private Public Partnerships are not a viable alternative to government delivery services. With an economy now in bad shape, New Caledonia relies more and more on the French central government for the financing of its public services. France supports now the cost of half of the bill (A. Dayant, The Interpreter, 2018). Furthermore, the Caledonian resources of water relies only on surface water which is vulnerable to scarcity during dry periods, that will tend to be more frequent and last longer due to global warming and climate changes. This could bring up the issue of private provider of water which has shown to be a bigger issue for the least financially comfortable people (Deprived of public water services, poor consumers have to buy water from private traders. In Nairobi, slum dwellers can end up paying up to 40 times more for their water than those in wealthier areas of the city who have access to piped water. See 3).

The third dimension, women, is in some ways linked to the second. An example: fees introduction for maternal health services brought the number of women to die in childbirth to double in a Nigeria’s district (Nanda International, 2002, p.129). “Across the developing world, women are more likely than men to fall ill, but less likely to receive medical care. They are expected to care for sick family members, but are often the last in the family to be sent to school and the first to be taken out when money is short. And it is […] girls and women who lose much of their day to hauling buckets of water over long distances”, the report said (See 14). Kanak society is very traditional and women do not make exception to the trend witnessed above in developing countries.

The fourth and last dimension is tax. When income taxes and consumption taxes are both considered, we can observe that the 10% richest are paying a lower rate than the 10% poorest in some countries. This shifts a bigger burden upon the poorest. Plus, tax evasion represents huge amounts. In developing countries only, it is estimated that $170bn per year are hidden from tax authorities. This trend leads to a weakening of the social system that jeopardizes democracy. Indeed, Inequality creates frustrations which feed political conflicts and violence (Badie and Vidal, 2016). New Caledonia is now on the grey list of tax havens established by the EU in 2017. Considered as a country that wasn’t “meeting international standards and hadn’t made sufficient commitment to change their ways” the EU said.

Part 3

The current tendencies seem pessimistic and with low expectations of improvement in the future. I will give here a non-exhaustive list of successful initiatives showing brighter days might come. Afterwards I will give recommendations to achieve a sustainable level of inequalities worldwide and for New Caledonia.

Remarkable results are achieved and inspiring initiatives are taken around the world. Nowadays, primary school enrollment is almost universal and benefits as much girls and boys. 2.6 billion people were given access to improved drinking water since 1990. And since this same year, the number of children dying before 5 diminished by 50%. This has been possible mainly thanks to the commitment of developing countries. Costa Rica, Thailand or Sri Lanka (Sri Lanka has 60% less income/capita than Kazakhstan, but a Kazakh child has 5 times less chances to reach the age of 5) have proven that developing nations can afford universal public services.

Smaller scale entities initiatives are also to be highlighted. It is the case of the Commons, concept widely developed by Elinor Ostrom (Economics Nobel Prize 2019). Commons are defined by a resource, a community and a set of rules. They could be a credible political alternative to privatization of resources, goods and services that generated inequalities. Indeed, Ostrom demonstrated that “a number of natural resources can be generated locally by communities who define and set up ad hoc norms and institutions with the specific aim of avoiding the collapse of resources”.

Things are moving. Research and experimentation are made in order to tackle inequalities.

Developed nations are supposedly the less unequal ones. It would then be logical if they would take the lead in the fight against inequality. However, it’s the complete opposite. For instance, it is in the purpose of controlling rather than helping the ones in need that western nations’ institutions developed International Law. Indeed, international law, is Eurocentric and by definitions bears the characteristics of the institutions that developed it. That is to say, the ones of individualism and of masculinity developed earlier. The opening to formerly called ‘Third World’ countries was merely a way of expansion for capitalist aspirations and to counter communism.

Lately, western nations have been driven by the promotion of democratization, peace or even human rights. Enforcing these values through financial tools. If less advanced countries want more weight in international relations, they must meet the requirements set by West Centered institutions. A 2006 study found that for 18 out of 20 countries receiving WB and IMF loans, privatization was a condition. In addition to this institutional root, there are also cultural ones. When the wealthiest man on earth states about his fortune “The only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel. That is basically it.” (Jeff Bezos 2018), it says it all. Expansion and, then, the rest.

To end inequality, the first transformation must be in term of mindset. Jose Luis Samaniego (Chief of the Division of Sustainable Development and Human Settlements of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean) puts it perfectly : « You have very different consequences if you stop tolerating inequality or whether you stop tolerating poverty ». Recommendations of the WB and IMF have failed, they should change. Policies targeting poverty missed their target, they should stop. Targeting inequality reduction must be the cornerstone.

Plus, all services that provide for basic human needs must be free. They should be accessible, neutral, transparent, reliable and secular. Thus, health, healthcare insurance, education, access to clean water, electricity, transport must become universal public services. Developing nations achieving free public services prove its feasibility. Furthermore, rich countries must meet their commitment to give 0.7% of their income in foreign aid. 1% of Jeff Bezos fortune represents the entire health budget of Ethiopia (105 million inhabitants) for a year. The argument of a lack of financial capacity is void. To finance such action, a better redistribution of wealth is required. Anthony B. Atkinson proposed 3 axis to diminish inequality. A progressive taxation of income (Accompanied by efficient anti tax evasion policies) -the richer you are, the more taxes you pay-, an efficient social protection and a wider distribution that also includes guaranteed income and employment. The more redistributive instruments (taxation, social security, education) used, the better the effect on inequality reduction. Half of the inequality reduction observed in top Latin American inequality fighter countries are due to public expenditure on health and education. Ensuring the good functioning of public services through higher taxes for those who can afford it.

Eventually, better inclusion of women thanks to the financial support of both rich countries and high tax payers. Investment should be done in services supporting and empowering girls and women. Promoting them as workers and supporting them as public services users. What is more, they should be protected from abuse and legal reforms and improve their status in the society.

All combined, I am convinced that these measures, even if perfectible and non-exhaustive, would bring tremendous results. With values closer to collectivism and femininity, the human society as a whole would be more inclusive, fair and offer brighter future for children no matter where they were born. Moreover, we would live in a more sustainable environment. Indeed we would need an economy 175 times bigger than the one today to offer decent living conditions to everyone with the current level of inequality. This would destroy our planet (« Inequality and Poverty Eradication in a Carbon-Constrained World. World Social and Economic Review », D. Woodward, 2015)

Then what about New Caledonia and its population? For too long the country has been influenced by European streams, making it economically dependent and sluggish. If France supports so much the Caledonian public sector it is because it’s still a French territory, but especially to slow down its wish for independence. Forced to follow their lead, natives even came to think like Europeans. A stunning example, the mining of nickel. As if a fluctuating and environmentally harmful resource would be their only way to exist on the international map. Should New Caledonia become independent ? Yes.

In 1988, Jean-Marie Tjibaou (leader of the independentist movement) was asked by a journalist “Do you see New Caledonia independent in 2000 ?”. He answered “Yes … but with everyone”. This is the way to follow, including rather than excluding.

So what now? Independence is the first step to regain a fairer society in New Caledonia. As a whole, they should do better and differently than what the French brought them. The Kanak culture is corrupted, and its re-appropriation would never be fully possible. It doesn’t matter and it’s even better like this. They should develop a new one. Because after all, even if history repeats it self, it is how civilizations evolve and the only way of improvement. Not burning everything to the ground and starting all over. But taking down what doesn’t work and bringing up new pieces to build something stronger and more sustainable. So yes the Kanak civilization is dead but it leaves place for a new one to emerge.

Colonization was inevitable. When a society, with all its cultural attributes (individualism, masculinity) grows at the expense of its environment, this leads to the search of a new space to grow. Colons were sometimes ‘lucky’ to find favorable lands and docile indigenous to gain a quick economic growth. However it marked the doom of culture diversity and the starting point of rising unequal societies. Colonizing nations are the origin of most of the high disparities we witness today. Furthermore, it seems they use every way they can to keep the situation as it is. This results in unequal societies that are more stressed, less happy and have higher levels of mental illness. Encouraging initiatives observed come too often from developing countries and small communities. But there is hope and research and experiences gain more and more visibility. We are now perfectly aware of what needs to be done and how to do it. All we need is a bit of goodwill.

New Caledonia, for now, is in a dead end. Not really independent but nor autonomous. This country needs now to embrace its tormented recent history to build a future as a nation. Otherwise, the division of the population will only bring a growing unequal and segregated society.
To conclude, I would like to share a thought. I frequently work with children. It happened once during lunch time that one came to me complaining. Saying his comrade had more food in his plate. And to my question “Do you also want more ? Because there is more if you want.” He said no. This makes me wonder, does inequality exist also because we think it exists? Because after all, don’t children always speak the truth?

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