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The West can leverage capitalist morality to do good in the world

How can capitalist morality be deployed in ways that cause minimal damage to societies and make a positive contribution to humanity?

In “the West lacks the moral basis for setting human rights standards,” I argued that the promotion of human rights is a moral endeavour that the West is ill-equipped to measure, let alone to provide a standard for. The capitalist ethos (i.e., the inability to assign value to human beings beyond material things) upon which Western morality is erected demeans human rights. As a result, how the West goes about the promotion of human rights undermines the credibility of an otherwise worthy cause. But if capitalist morality is what the West has to offer to the world, how can it be deployed in ways that cause minimal damage to societies and make a positive contribution to humanity, which the West claims to want to do in its engagement with the world (a force for good)? Asked differently: How can the West leverage capitalist morality to do good in the world?

But first, let’s consider the damage. Western NGOs and academics working in the area of “development” and human rights have for the past half-century relied on capitalist morality as a basis for encouraging and justifying the interference of Western governments in the affairs of African countries. They argue that as long as Africa is a recipient of western aid, western governments have every right to shape governance in African countries. In other words, they contend that Africa’s dependence invites the West to superintend over African affairs and ultimately to shape the direction that African societies take. At times, Africans themselves have, quite unfortunately, acquiesced to this dubious reasoning. Clearly, this claim is anti-human rights because it usurps a key human rights tenet: self-determination.

Boundaries of aid and self-determination

At issue, therefore, is to establish a demarcation that allows Western advocates to “superintend” or provide oversight over aid, without undermining the fundamental human rights tenet of self-determination. It should be obvious that this demarcation is premised on questions regarding whether aid is used for the purpose it was given; in other words, there is some justifiable reason for Western advocates to ask questions about the effectiveness of aid. The very act of African governments asking for/receiving aid is an invitation for Western advocates to inquire whether the governments that receive aid do use it for the reasons it was allocated.

By the same token, any interest beyond the financial management of aid is beyond the bounds of the invitation. In fact, remaining within these bounds would serve the West well since going beyond is an adventure into a terrain it is ill-equipped to pursue. Moreover, there is no reason to trespass into the terrain of human rights when a lot of good can be achieved on the terrain the West has mastered; that is, although the capitalist ethos is a deficient tool for measuring human rights, it is an excellent tool for enforcing accountability around aid, its effectiveness and transparency.

And since the West is the standard-setter of capitalist morality, it would be within its right to apply pejorative labels to those who have failed to live up to its expectations. Indeed, dictators would be those who have diverted aid instead of improving the lives of the people. By the same logic, the terminology would not apply to those who have channelled the resources to the intended purpose. This is the paradox of western advocacy: using the same (disparaging) terminology to refer to those who abuse aid and those who use it effectively but refuse to surrender policy space. The paradox exposes the real motives of western advocates, which is to usurp policy space by using aid as a Trojan horse.

The only exception to the rule

Western advocates who seek to trespass these boundaries of aid effectiveness into the terrain of human rights cannot at the same time maintain child-like innocence regarding the patterns of exploitation that are responsible for Western abundance and African poverty, starting with the unfair terms of trade that allow African resources to go to Western countries and a fraction of their value to return to Africa as aid. Similarly, they cannot claim to care for the migrants risking their lives on the Mediterranean without acknowledging that these young people are chasing after their wealth stolen over generations. In other words, the credibility to trespass requires interrogating patterns of exploitation that make aid necessary in the first place; it is this credibility that would elevate one from a mere advocate of capitalist morality to a genuine moral agent in pursuit of human rights and justice. Such agency is the pass to trespass!

The relationship ensuring that the need for aid never ceases half a century later cannot credibly be interrogated as a one-way street, as advocates of capitalist morality have done time and again. If improving African lives is a genuine aspiration of Western advocacy, engagement in aid effectiveness is the place to focus on instead of insisting on superintending in areas of vast moral deficiency on the part of the supervisors.

It is, therefore, not surprising that African governments resist the trespassing of Western expertise beyond the area of its comparative advantage. They see it as a desire to usurp the domestic policy space under the camouflage of democracy and human rights promotion, an area with demonstrable deficiency on the part of those “experts.”

This naturally leads to a confrontation between African governments and Western advocates over “political space”, which inevitably leads to recommendations for aid sanctions by the latter. However, this demand exposes the unstated aim of Western aid: a tool for controlling and dictating the direction that recipient countries must take. This desire, therefore, sustains the dependence on aid since development is not possible where the control of policy space has been lost to external actors. However, it is worth repeating that the demand for people to give up the right to govern themselves and for self-determination (policy space) in order to receive aid transforms aid into a tool that undermines democracy and human rights.

Healthy leveraging of aid

Naturally, this approach that attempts to blackmail those who refuse to surrender policy space lacks credibility and African leaders who resist it have the support of Africans who desire an independent and dignified path for the evolution of their societies. Consequently, the West needs a credible approach to leveraging aid, one that ensures accountability for it [aid].

As counterintuitive as it sounds, the West can leverage aid to overcome its reputation as a plunderer as well as the memory it carries amongst Africans as a force for savagery despite its claims to being an agent of enlightenment and human rights. The place to start is to observe the boundaries in line with its comparative advantage for capitalist morality. The second is to shift preference from docile governments without a sense of clarity – those with low self-esteem and low expectations for themselves and their people and are ready to be patronized and dictated to – towards confident leaders(hips) with a sense of clarity regarding the direction to which they wish to steer their country. The West’s historical preference for the former is a trap that locks it as a prisoner of its past who is unable to overcome its own inhumanity. In fact, President Macron has stated that the new generation of Europeans wishes to leave behind this past. Clearly, they don’t know how to go about it because of the weight of history.

African leaders who lack self-respect know that they can exploit the West’s irrepressible urge to appear to be doing something good. They indulge the West’s interference in their countries’ affairs as long as there is no accountability for the mismanagement of aid and expect no sanctions since they have conditioned everyone to low expectations.

If the West can muster the courage to embark on a shift in focus, strategy and policy towards embracing, rather than vilifying, confident and effective African leaders(hips), then a mutually dignified relationship with Africa could emerge. In this shift, the West can leverage aid along the boundaries of capitalist morality and, as a result, make a meaningful contribution to humanity.


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