The belt and road initiative is ensnaring vulnerable countries in debt via corrupt infrastructure projects. Slavery reparations from former colonial powers could help turn the tide
As Transparency International (TI) publishes their annual Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) this week, it will be interesting to see where certain countries land: 2021 has been a bumper year for corruption.
In Britain, corruption has been on the minds of journalists, academics and practitioners alike, as Boris Johnson tries to get himself run out, the only hope of him continuing his innings lying with Sue Gray.
However, in the ex-British territories of the West Indies this is not a popcorn moment. Similar scenes of state capture unfold in these islands and, to be honest, it is just not cricket. Very few politicians here play with a straight bat and even when caught out, the umpire is seemingly blind. Spectators are leaving in droves: a massive brain drain has weakened Caribbean economies significantly over the past five decades, alongside cronyism, state capture and procurement fraud. The politicians left behind to run these countries are the most unqualified and unscrupulous one can find, a state referred to as a kakistocracy.
Resources continue to be drained by corrupt infrastructure projects, while expenditure in health and education, critical to nation building, remains insufficient. But as these sectors fall behind the rest of the world, a new player has emerged in the Caribbean. In 2018, Trinidad and Tobago became the first Caribbean country to officially sign up to China’s $4tn global belt and road development initiative. Suriname, Guyana, Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada and even the progressive leadership in Barbados followed (“et tu Mia?”). Jamaica was last in to bat and did not put up much of a resistance.
So what is China trying to achieve? Neocolonialism? Cynics would say there is no such thing as a free lunch. Just ask Sri Lanka and Uganda. The Hambantota port development project in Sri Lanka, led by the China Harbour Engineering Company, was predicted to fail and lived up to that expectation. The new Sri Lankan government, after struggling to make payments on the debt, handed over the port on a 99-year lease, including 15,000 acres of land. More recently, China has been forced to deny reports that it will gain control of Uganda’s Entebbe international airport if the country defaults on debt repayments.
An old quote attributed to John Adams states that the way to subjugate a country is through either the sword or debt. China has chosen the latter
An old quote attributed to John Adams states that the way to subjugate a country is through either the sword or debt. China has assiduously chosen the latter. Debt deals have provoked criticism against Xi Jinping’s belt and road initiative and insinuations that his global investment and lending programme is nothing more than a trap, fuelling corruption and autocratic behaviour in struggling and vulnerable democracies.
Some believe that the intent is twofold: to gain strategic trade footholds in the Caribbean and Latin America through debt and duress and to snare allies in its escalating feud with Taiwan. Taiwan’s remaining friends include Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines. Much can be said for the rich kid who owns the bat – you can play as long as you are not mates with Taiwan. This will of course manifest in the UN arena as Xi buys more support though his use of corrosive capital.
One can argue that the Caribbean islands don’t have much choice – the pandemic has been merciless to their economies. Should they approach the International Monetary Fund, cap in hand, and be subjected to austerity measures that make governments unpopular with their people? Is there another option?
A recent photo of Clive Lloyd, captain of history’s most successful West Indies cricket team and one of the most successful test captains of all time, being knighted drew mixed reactions. The sight of Lloyd bending the knee, not in support of Colin Kaepernick, but to receive an affirmation from the monarchy of Britain, the ex-colonial masters, ignited fresh debate about reparations.
Could reparations be the strategic tool for Europe to remove China’s hold on the Caribbean, and for these islands to throw off the shackles of poor governance, underdevelopment and inequality once and for all? It could be pure genius.
In 2013, the Caricom Reparations Commission (CRC) was established by the Caribbean heads of governments to establish the moral, ethical and legal case for the payment of reparations by all the former colonial powers to the people of the Caribbean for the crimes against humanity of genocide, the transatlantic slave trade and the racialised system of chattel slavery.
To deliver the CRC’s mandate, the Caricom Reparations Justice Program asserts that victims and descendants of these crimes have a legal right to reparatory justice, and that those who committed these crimes, and have been enriched by proceeds, have a reparatory case to answer. The CRC’s action plan includes debt cancellation, alongside financing of programmes including technology transfer, literacy, health and indigenous people’s development. It could take a long time to get all the parties to the table – a frequent remark by an old professor of mine resonates: “If you want to not get something done … form a committee”. But it is an opportunity.
Transparency International’s 2021 index will reveal global corruption continuing to thwart opportunity, to hamstring countries’ abilities to protect public health and their economies during the pandemic. There has been no progress, only more allegations of Covid procurement fraud and corrupt contracts awarded to ministers’ friends and family.
Last year, Delia Ferreira Rubio, the chair of Transparency International, said: “It’s a corruption crisis. And one that we’re currently failing to manage.” It is a sentiment unlikely to have changed.
Kenneth Mohammed is a Caribbean analyst and senior adviser at Intelligent Sanctuary
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