War of Ideas

Lessons from the uncolonized

Colonialism is generally accepted as a stain on Western history, a centuries-long period of subjugation by European powers whose effects are still viscerally felt in the countries that suffered under its yoke. In recent years, a new generation has been investigating the effects of colonialism on the development of countries, but generally in shades of ...

-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images

Colonialism is generally accepted as a stain on Western history, a centuries-long period of subjugation by European powers whose effects are still viscerally felt in the countries that suffered under its yoke. In recent years, a new generation has been investigating the effects of colonialism on the development of countries, but generally in shades of gray: Did the French leave their colonies worse off than the Italians did? How much more damaging were the Belgians than the British? Few researchers have looked at countries that actually successfully resisted colonization. Where do they stack up today?

A new study by Jacob Gerner Hariri, a political scientist at the University of Copenhagen, compares the strength of pre-colonial governments in 107 countries with their current levels of democracy. Surprisingly, he found a "very robust negative association between precolonial state development and democracy outside Europe." In other words, places that were powerful enough to resist colonization or came under only partial European control -- think China or Iran -- are significantly less democratic today than countries that were colonized.

Take Ethiopia, the only sub-Saharan African country that was never colonized. "Quite a few historians attribute that to the fact that it has been a state for a while," says Hariri. "There was a different sense of unity there than in other places." That unity helped Ethiopia resist Italian military might at a time when other African countries were being swallowed up by European powers, but it may also explain why Ethiopia has never really embraced modern democratic government.

Colonialism is generally accepted as a stain on Western history, a centuries-long period of subjugation by European powers whose effects are still viscerally felt in the countries that suffered under its yoke. In recent years, a new generation has been investigating the effects of colonialism on the development of countries, but generally in shades of gray: Did the French leave their colonies worse off than the Italians did? How much more damaging were the Belgians than the British? Few researchers have looked at countries that actually successfully resisted colonization. Where do they stack up today?

A new study by Jacob Gerner Hariri, a political scientist at the University of Copenhagen, compares the strength of pre-colonial governments in 107 countries with their current levels of democracy. Surprisingly, he found a "very robust negative association between precolonial state development and democracy outside Europe." In other words, places that were powerful enough to resist colonization or came under only partial European control — think China or Iran — are significantly less democratic today than countries that were colonized.

Take Ethiopia, the only sub-Saharan African country that was never colonized. "Quite a few historians attribute that to the fact that it has been a state for a while," says Hariri. "There was a different sense of unity there than in other places." That unity helped Ethiopia resist Italian military might at a time when other African countries were being swallowed up by European powers, but it may also explain why Ethiopia has never really embraced modern democratic government.

The argument that there’s something inherently European about democracy is obviously a controversial one, and Hariri is quick to point out that the Old World can’t claim exclusive ownership of the rule of law and respect for human rights. But when it comes to the institutions we now understand as modern democracy — representative parliaments, national elections — "it’s fair to say that that’s a European invention," he says.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy  Twitter: @joshuakeating

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