European governments were unlikely to be pleased to hear the call for reparations issued by Caribbean Community (CARICOM) heads of state last month. The Caribbean countries jointly released a statement calling for forward action on a plan to pursue reparations for “repairing the damage inflicted by slavery and racism.”
Is this really the best path forward to encourage development and future investment?
Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer of Antigua and Barbuda seems to think so. He argued that “nations that have been the major producers of wealth for the European slave-owning economies during the enslavement and colonial periods entered Independence with dependency straddling their economic, cultural, social and even political lives.” Based on that principle, the CARICOM nations have enlisted the counsel of a British law firm as they seek to gain reparations from Great Britain, France and the Netherlands.
The basis of the grievances leveled by the CARICOM states are hard to argue with, but the conclusion that they draw—that reparations are the solution for economic, social and political problems—would appear to be a non-starter. A primary argument against reparations is that CARICOM states already receive over $450 million per year in foreign aid from Europe, a good portion of which comes from the three nations being targeted.
Should CARICOM be successful in its bid for reparations, one unintended and likely consequence is a scaling back of foreign aid from the target countries. Another likely outcome is that European nations and the United States would pull back on their regular contributions to regional economic and social development.
Caribbean officials have yet to name the specific amount of money being pursued, but unless the desired payment was in the tens of billions of dollars, the whole push for reparations is unlikely to make financial sense. Additionally, while no sum can ever repay the damage done by a government that condones and encourages slavery, the British government has historically made an effort to right some of its wrongs. A graphic appearing in The Guardian in September 2012 showed the distribution of British foreign aid and highlighted the emphasis placed on assisting those regions that they took advantage of in the past.
Colin A. Palmer, in Eric Williams and the Making of the Modern Caribbean, spends an entire chapter documenting the British government’s dealings with states that were about to embark on independence from the crown. At the time, the government of the United Kingdom offered what was coined a “golden handshake”—a combination of grants, loans and gifts to assist colonies in developing social and economic infrastructure that would be needed once freed from British rule.
This historical British policy makes the reparations demand from Great Britain an even harder case for CARICOM states to make than that levied against France or the Netherlands.
If, however, the reparation issue was settled by a sum that made financial sense for the CARICOM states, it may still be a short-sighted victory.
A reparation settlement would be another blow to a European economy struggling to recover. Further, since the EU is the second-largest trading partner with CARICOM, anything that negatively impacts the EU economy will most assuredly harm Caribbean economies.
There are other issues, grievances and arguments that opening up the Pandora’s box of reparations may release.
Without a doubt, the historical period of European slavery in the Caribbean has left a permanent mark on the region, and some of the institutional problems left behind after colonialism are very difficult to overcome without assistance. But rather than reparations, assistance should involve the expansion of social development aid packages from foreign governments, forgiveness of portions of International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan debt, and aid in developing renewable energy programs throughout the Caribbean—a development project that many experts point to as a unique and valuable opportunity.
Dialogue that focuses on development needs stands a much better chance of bringing about a fruitful outcome for those Caribbean nations that need help in development. This should be the course forward rather than reopening old wounds in a fight that is unlikely to produce the end result that CARICOM states desire.