Murky beginnings of United Nations – White Man’s Burden

From William Easterly’s excellent “Tyranny of Experts”

The triumph of the technocratic idea of development was written into the charter of the new United Nations. On June 26, 1945, in San Francisco at the United Nations Conference on International Organization, representatives of the world’s countries signed the United Nations Charter, which reads in part: “We the peoples of the United Nations,” in order “to reaf-firm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and . . . to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,” have determined “to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples.”53 This sounds admirable, of course, but there is a fundamental omission. The UN Charter paid at least lip-service to rights and freedom, but it made no mention of independence for colonial peoples. Perhaps it helps to understand this contradiction to learn that the main author of the soaring language of the charter was Jan Smuts, the long-time South African leader and long-time advocate of white rule in Africa. At the conference in San Francisco, Smuts praised the United Kingdom as the “greatest colonial power” in the world. Smuts saw the United Nations as serving “men and women everywhere, including dependent peoples, still unable to look after themselves.”54 The “international machinery” to promote “advancement” of “dependent peoples” included the British Empire. At the time of the UN’s founding, the United Nations and the British Empire were mutually supportive international organizations.

W.E.B. DuBois accused Smuts and the other UN founders of “lying about democracy when we mean imperial control of 750 millions of human beings in colonies.”55

Friedrich Hayek had questioned the moral value of any real power given to an international organization in The Road to Serfdom in 1944. Hayek, with his realism about the Allies wielding such power and his suspicion of unchecked power at any level, reacted a lot like the left-wing anti-imperialist DuBois. He asked, “can there be much doubt that this would mean a more or less conscious endeavor to secure the dominance of the white man, and would rightly be so regarded by all other races?”56

Article 73 of the UN Charter said that some unspecified UN members have “responsibilities for the administration of territories whose peoples have not yet attained a full measure of self-government.” As Lord Hailey pointed out in the 1956 revision of the Africa Survey, this provision did not give “the organization of the United Nations any authority to intervene in the control of these territories.” The article requires such members to ensure for these peoples “protection against abuses.” This article thereby firmly required colonial powers to protect their colonial subjects against—themselves.57

When the United Nations published its first report on development in 1947,Economic Development in Selected Countries: Plans, Programmes and Agencies, it included plans for “British African Non-Self-Governing and Non-Metropolitan Territories” and “French African Overseas Territories.” The introduction to the report lumps together all “governments of the less developed countries,” including the European colonial rulers of these territories next to local rulers like those in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Poland, and Yugoslavia. The report declared that all members of this diverse group of autocrats, democrats, Stalinists, and colonizers shared the “ultimate aim in economic development” which “is to raise the national welfare of the entire population.

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