I read in the BBC News recently that the Gambia has withdrawn from the Commonwealth after 48 years of membership, because it states that it will not be part of a “neo-colonial institution”.
Neo-colonialism is generally viewed as a form of control a developed nation has over a country that used to be its colony, whether it be in the form of economic, social or political control.
I have brought this news story to your attention because it touches on key topics discussed in the human geography modules GY1012 Human Worlds of Difference B and GY2151 Environment and Development. These cover the expansion of empires across the globe, colonisation, and how this affected the development of colonised nations. In GY2151 one of the key references you might use to understand the various theories of development is a book called ‘Theories and Practices of Development’, by Katie Willis (2005). She talks about how neo-colonialism is currently expressed through global relationships which reflect the dominance of North over South, despite countries independence. This is explored in lectures when considering the inequalities in global trade, where the richer, developed nations dominate the system to benefit them at the expense of poorer, once colonised nations.
We also consider the notion in the debate around aid – many critics of aid say that providing aid to poor countries (but with unreasonable terms that can lead to their debt increasing), increases dependence of poor nations. This is a legacy of colonialism because the dominant countries believe they know how development should happen, so they are ‘helping’ nations from the South, but in fact they are reinforcing their importance and continuing dependency – key parts of neo-colonialism.
So, back to the news story… is the Commonwealth a neo-colonial institution?
The Commonwealth was formed in 1949 after a period of decolonisation, and the Commonwealth Foundation (which provides funding for projects to promote equitability, reduced poverty and sustainable development) was formed in 1965. Its member states are composed of former colonies of Britain, and it is run by the Queen, so yes, in theory it is a neo-colonial institution.
However membership to the Commonwealth is free to all former colonies, and countries are free to leave at any point, so they are not forced into receiving aid or adopting development programmes that may not be suitable for them. Instead, grants from the Foundation aim to help countries develop within their independence.
So in this sense, although the Commonwealth is a neo-colonial institution, I do not believe it fits into the negative view that generally comes to mind – therefore calling it neo-colonial, whilst correct, is very misleading.