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Rethinking Humanitarianism | ‘Give us the money’: Aid as reparations

‘This is not novel. It's been done before.’

podcast cover with portrait of all the interviewees

The call for reparations, which has long reverberated in former colonies, is now gaining momentum in the aid and philanthropy sectors, too.

 

It’s a call that rejects the idea of aid as charitable giving, and instead reframes it as justice for the ravages of colonialism and imperialism.

 

But like similar conversations in the United States around slavery, the idea of international reparations for colonialism is a political hot potato. This, despite the many precedents for reparations programmes, including German reparations paid to Holocaust survivors.

 

Can international reparations be a way forward towards a more equitable world order, or are they too politically charged to succeed, perhaps even counter-productive?

 

To discuss these thorny questions, Rethinking Humanitarianism host Heba Aly is joined by Uzo Iweala, CEO of the Africa Center; Thomas Craemer, associate professor of public policy at University of Connecticut; and Kizito Byenkya, director of campaigns for the Open Society Foundations. 

 

 

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TRANSCRIPT | ‘Give us the money’: Aid as reparations

Nikole Hannah-Jones: I stand before you, the great grandchild of enslaved me and women born here in the United States of America – part of the millions who lived and died under the brutal, immoral, and inhumane system of chattel slavery [...] It is long past time for reparations for the transatlantic slave trade and all the devastation that it has wrought and all the devastation that it continues to reap.

 

Heba Aly

Reparations: the act of making amends for past wrongs.

 

It’s a long-standing political idea in the United States in the context of victims of slavery, but it is increasingly being demanded at the international level to compensate countries that were colonised for the extraction of resources and of people, and for the devastating knock-on effects of colonialism in many countries in the Global South: poverty, a lack of sovereignty, and in some cases, conflicts fuelled by resource extraction.

 

Dr. Shashi Tharoor MP: The fact remains that many of today's problems in these countries, including the persistence, in some cases the creation, of racial and ethnic and religious tensions were the direct result of the colonial experience. So there is a moral debt that needs to be paid.

 

Aly

And this call for reparations extends to the aid and philanthropy sectors too.

 

Nwamaka Agbo: This conversation, the call for reparations in philanthropy, requires us to confront the damning contradiction that the very existence of our sector, the sector of philanthropy, one that seeks to do good, benefits from and reinforces inequities. And it benefits from the growing racial wealth divide and structural racism that disproportionately impacts Black and Indigenous communities.

 

Aly

Proponents say reframing aid as reparations would radically change the donor-recipient binary. But while the reparations movement is picking up steam in many quarters, in others, the mere mention of the “R-word” is enough to stop a conversation dead in its tracks. Can international reparations be a way forward toward a more equitable world order? Or are reparations too politically charged to succeed, or perhaps even counter-productive?

 

From Geneva Switzerland, This is Rethinking Humanitarianism. I’m your host Heba Aly.

 

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Reparations is most associated with African-Americans calling for the US to right the wrongs of the brutal transatlantic slave trade and its modern-day manifestations. That includes financial compensation for hundreds of years of unpaid labor, estimated to be as high as $97 trillion. To put that in context, that is the equivalent of one year's global GDP.

 

That call for reparations has long reverberated in former colonies and is now part of a larger conversation in the aid and philanthropy sector too. It’s a call that rejects the idea of aid as charitable giving, and instead reframes it as justice for the ravages of colonialism and imperialism, and it’s gaining some momentum. But like the conversation in the US, the idea of reparations at the international level is a political hot potato.

 

To discuss this tension between the merits of reparations and the feasible paths to achieving it, we’re joined by three guests.

 

Uzodinma Iweala is the CEO of the Africa Centre in New York, and a Nigerian-American filmmaker and author who has written and spoken extensively about the need for philanthropy to adopt a reparations lens. He joins us from New York City. Uzo, welcome to Rethinking Humanitarianism.

 

Uzo Iweala

Good to see you Heba.

 

Aly

Craemer is an Associate Professor of Public Policy at the University of Connecticut, and his personal experience with his native Germany paying reparations paid to Holocaust survivors was the beginning of a research journey that took him to the US, where he now studies how implicit and explicit bias impacts policies like reparations. He also joins us from New York. Welcome, Thomas.

 

Craemer

Thank you for having me.

 

Aly

And Kizito Byenkya is the Director of Campaigns for the Open Society Foundations, and part of his work involves funding organizations that are campaigning for reparations. He joins us from Washington D.C. Welcome, Kizito

 

Kizito Byenkya

Great to be with you.

 

Aly

Uzo, I want to start with you because the inspiration for this episode started with a speech that you gave in Geneva back in 2017 on rethinking philanthropy as reparations.  Walk us through the basic argument that you made in that speech.

 

Iweala

What I was really frustrated by was this idea that one set of folks was perpetually begging to be recognized as human within this whole situation. This idea that philanthropy is set up,  that we are better than, and therefore we are giving to you who need this help. When you actually go back and you think about where all the funding where the money came from in the first place, it's like, folks came in, decided to jack you for all your stuff, and then we're like, ‘Alright, let me give you a little bit of it back’. And that dynamic is what really frustrated me and formed the core of what I was writing about. In the speech. I mean, to be more concrete, I remember, I was actually traveling with my mom. She and I happened to be in London at the same time. And we were driving down, I think it was Whitehall, all the fancy buildings and like grand structures. And I think I said something like, ‘Nigeria needs more of this kind of monumental architecture,’ just as a comment, an aside. And my mom just looked at me and said, ‘You know, we paid for all of this’. And so, when you start going back, and you think about the origin of the funding, and you think about the way that that money flows, it becomes pretty self-evident to me that you have to have a reframing of exactly how that money is moving back to the people who are “being helped”. And it's not being helped, it's actually a repayment for past wrongs, is the way that I look at it. Or another way to think about it is that it's essentially calling the principle on a no-interest loan that was given to wealthy countries, right? It's just “Give us back what was taken”. You could look at it in that simple way. Again, these are very reductive ways of looking at it. And the point of giving a speech, to a certain extent, is to sort of make a bold statement or make a bold claim. And obviously, the discussion on reparations is more nuanced in many ways. But the basic principle is, you cannot go to somebody's place, take them, meaning the physical humans, as properties, take their resources, and then make a whole life off of that, and then come back and tell them that you're helping them with a fraction, a sort of incomparably small fraction of what you initially took.

 

Aly  

And so I can understand that argument when it comes to governments that were directly colonial powers. How do you apply that to philanthropy or philanthropic organizations?

 

Iweala

The line is pretty direct. So many of the folks are these, whether we call them charities or philanthropic organizations, are either tied to industrialists or wealthy folks who benefited directly from either direct extraction of resources or relationships to these governments that made them phenomenally wealthy. You don't - again - need to be the sort of most intense economic historian to go back and see how some of these ties are put together. And so, I think when you actually draw some of those lines, right, you begin to see how capital flows, how it moves from the place where it's extracted, whether it's to government, or to an individual who's made a ton of money off of industry or whatever. And then, again, through a certain amount of washing and then finally back in a pittance to the people who it was extracted from.

 

Aly

You say these words with a lot of confidence. I think for some people listening, the idea of countries, let alone individuals, paying reparations to those they colonized or to those whose suffering they benefited from seems really far-fetched. But actually, reparations have taken place in several instances historically. So I'm just going to list a few of them to help bring this to reality. In the 1980s, the US gave $20,000 checks to Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War Two. In 2013, the UK promised to give payouts – and I say promised because I'm not sure it's actually happened yet – but they totaled £20 million to Kenyans who were tortured by the British colonial forces during a Mau Mau uprising. Just last year, Germany agreed to pay € 1.3 billion in reparations – over several decades, but still – in acknowledgment of a genocide in which up to 100,000 Herero, Nama, and San people of Namibia were killed in the early 1900s by Imperial German forces. So there is a precedent for this and the largest and said to be the most comprehensive reparations program ever implemented was German reparations to Holocaust survivors. So, Thomas, I want to turn to you because you have first-hand experience of that. What was your introduction to this reparations programme?

 

Craemer

I basically grew up in Germany, in post-World War Two Germany, and always felt incredibly ashamed of our history. I learned about it in every high school subject about the Holocaust. And I always dreamed of being able to express to a Holocaust survivor how ashamed I felt. And of course, I never thought this would be possible. Until one day, I met a Holocaust survivor in my hometown, Tübingen in Germany, who had resettled from Israel to Germany of all places in his retirement. And our two families basically became friends. And we traveled together to the place where he was born and where he suffered. He survived five concentration camps and a death march in his youth. And he showed us the places where he suffered. So that was amazing because I was able to express my feelings. And I was always stunned that he had the confidence in Germany, as a country today and also in a German like myself, after all he went through. And it's only after he passed away, unfortunately, in 2015, that I learned from his widow that he had received a reparations pension from the 1970s until 2015. And he received that pension from the West German government while he was living in Israel, and then later on in Germany, from [the] reunited [government] of Germany. And it was small, it was a small pension of about $2,000 per month. And I'm not saying that this is the reason that he resettled to Germany, or that his views changed. I don't know. I don't want to put anything into his mouth. But I am sure it certainly didn't hurt for him to see Germany in a different light. And it gave me the feeling that my feeble powers at the time were not enough to pay reparations to him as an individual, I could only express my shame towards him, and I felt relieved that my country had made at least a symbolic gesture. Of course, those $2,000 per month are not addressing at all what he went through in his youth, that he lost his entire family. He was the sole survivor. So all this loss is not addressed, but it's a symbolic gesture, and it is basically giving words of apology more meaning. And I think that's what reparations – that's all that reparations can be a symbolic gesture, but an important one. It has to be meaningful, it has to make a real difference in people's lives.

 

Iweala  

And just to follow up with Thomas's saying two things. One, this idea of actually, compensating someone, you can never compensate for the atrocity, right, but you can acknowledge that that person is human. And I think one of the things around reparations and why people are unwilling to acknowledge or consider reparations in certain cases is because we have a fundamental problem in this world, which is certain sets of people are still not really considered human. So if you think about victims of the British during the Mau Mau rebellion, it took so long for the British to fundamentally acknowledge that there was a wrong or that there were wrongs committed there. I mean, you can read Caroline Elkin’s book, “Imperial Reckoning”. And even at the end when they offered this nonsensical sum to compensate these folks for everything that happened to them, there was still a trying to kind of wriggle out of fully acknowledging that there was wrong committed. That's one. Two, that I just want to put out there, is that you didn't mention in some of the list is the fact that folks have paid reparations to, for example, slaveholders. The British government compensated British slavers for their loss of “property”. The Haitians, who are dealing [with] so much stuff right now, spent years compensating France for whatever, you know. It's so hard to even talk about it because it's so insulting to those folks who have seen generations of lives disrupted by this. And then finally, I think that thing that should bring it home for people is that, you know, we're talking about Germany. Germany paid, after World War One, compensation for everything that happened during that war. You can also talk about what's being discussed right now with Ukraine and Russia, this idea that on the table there should be some form of compensation for any damage that's done after all the destruction that happens in that part of the world. So people are aware. People recognize that this is a way of writing past wrongs, both the acknowledgment and the financial contribution. My question is: why when it comes to Black victims of this, whether it's in the United States or on the continent of Africa, why does it always become an academic discussion? Why does it always become so impossible? That's the thing that I wanted to just put out there.

 

Aly

I see you nodding Thomas.

 

Craemer

I totally agree with what you just said. The argument is often made that it's too long ago, and there is this assumption that inheritance, inheritance is diffused over time, and this just somehow goes away. And I would say that's not the case. The capital that was created during these injustices actually exponentially increases over time. It diffuses in more and more hands, but it exponentially increases, it's still there. And other reparations that Uzo just mentioned have taken over centuries to pay back. For example, Haiti paid from 1825 to 1947. Two years after World War Two, Haiti was still paying the descendants of French slave owners for the abolition of slavery.

 

Aly

And for its independence, it also was in debt to France.

 

Craemer

That was the deal that they that their independence would be acknowledged, but the money went to the slave owners and their descendants.

 

Aly

And you could argue that actually, many of the crises that Haiti finds itself in today are a result of that.

 

Craemer

And Great Britain paid reparations from 1833 all the way to 2015. They literally just got done paying off the loans that they took up to pay for it. So the idea that this is long ago, or that we can’t pay over centuries, is just not true. It's been done in these cases.

 

Aly

And your argument, Uzo, that this is about recognizing the humanity of people, I want to touch on for a minute. And actually it was mentioned in a recent announcement that Germany made that it was also giving Holocaust survivors extra payouts during COVID. And they described it as ensuring the dignity of survivors in their final years. So this idea of restoring humanity to people. Thomas, what did you see in Germany, in terms of the impact that reparations were able to have, in that sense. n terms of the impact that had on the people, on the country, on reconciliation. Walk us through both how it affected you personally, but also more broadly?

 

Craemer

Well, the strange thing is that the fact that Germany has paid reparations for the Holocaust is little known. I didn't know about it until I actually met Mieciu. And even when I met him, it took until he passed away that I learned that he had received this pension. It's not considered a big deal. It's more that Germany has grown a culture of memory that grows from the bottom up so that people are actually… this was after generations of being totally opposed to looking at it  like the war generation and the immediate post war generation kind of ignored the whole fact. But in the 1960s, and the 1970s and 80s, people started looking at their local archives, looking at businesses that used to belong to Jewish people, and ask questions. Where are these people now? They started laying stumbling blocks, which are little cobblestones made out of brands, with the names of Jewish owners that used to own properties there, or people that live there, and they research what happened to them. And so it's visible on the pavement. That's just one of those bottom up initiatives, and there's many. And then they build Holocaust memorials and maintain the concentration camp memorial site. So there's a lot of interest in it. Also documentaries: There's no day that goes by without Holocaust documentaries that people are actually interested in watching and discussing. So it's grown into a culture. And of course, we have our 10% Holocaust deniers and Neo Nazis. But overall, there is an active culture of memory. And I think that's what's needed in the United States with regard to slavery, and internationally with colonialism where I think the feeling of guilt has not even started yet, because people view colonialism still as a civilizing act, rather than a gross injustice. So the consciousness that an injustice has been perpetrated has not filtered through to the general person I would say.

 

Aly

Kizito, I want to come to you. Part of your role is to develop a kind of strategy to build momentum around reparations. Tell us a little bit about how that's going.

 

Byenkya

What we're looking at is, we're looking at different movements across the world taking for different issues as it relates to reparations. And so what I do, what we do, and part of our team is to see where we're able to support this work that's relevant, but also effective in advancing the larger issues at hand. So you have with one side, groups that are looking at the financial side, how can you advance the financial reparations? And what are the opportunities to do so. So part of that strategy is looking at what's the political opportunity at hand for us to make some of those changes. And so we had a big one a few weeks ago within the climate community with what happened with the loss and damage. And so that provided now an opportunity and a pathway for 200 plus countries to make commitments around providing reparations towards loss and damage related to climate activities. And so in this sense, we have a few groups now that are looking at seeing how you can advance that movement to do the same thing for financial reparations. Another side is you have what's happening with restitution, and you've had a lot of development on this movement within Africa and Europe. You have a number of countries, especially Senegal, that's been doing so with France, in terms of returning stolen artifacts that have been looted from the African continent. And so this has been advancing really over the last five years, and is developing into more, in terms of bringing in other countries and other continents on board. And then you have another side that's looking at, how can we look at the decolonizing agenda. So providing a localizing agenda, bringing in infrastructures that have been extractive in terms of what's being taken out of the continent, if we're looking at Africa, and bringing some of that back. That’s part of the reparations conversation, as well. And so in this sense, especially within philanthropy and the humanitarian side, you have a lot of groups that are providing support, but doing so in a way that's extractive and so you don't have the local structures being built, let's say on the ground, that can do the same thing. So you have a conversation that's blooming to be able to build out on the ground as part of a larger reparations conversation. And I say this, because this is going in different ways. And so for philanthropy, like us, we have to decide and see where are the openings for us to be able to advance the conversation to the end goal, which is providing the justice as well as restorative justice for the communities that have been injured - whether that's through financial reparations, whether that's the decolonising agenda, or through efforts like restitution or building an infrastructure on the ground. And so we're concerned with seeing where we can advance this across multiple spaces. So it's not just one strategy that is, let’s say, one answer to solve everything, but where there is a realistic impact for us to be able to move that forward. And so now you see that opening, for example, around loss and damage that's providing some momentum around the financial reparation side that we'll be looking at it more strongly, and others going forward. So looking at this also, in terms of the sequence of time what’s good to bring now versus later. That's the journey that we're looking at here.

 

Aly

So where are you seeing the opportunities?

 

Byenkya

So the opportunities I would say would be with restitution for sure.

 

Aly

But I really don't get that, like the attention focused on bringing artifacts home when you don’t.. compared to the much bigger issue of people who were killed and exploited. It seems very disproportionate attention. But I suppose you'd have to start where it's easy.

 

Byenkya

I agree with that. And it's not saying that that's the answer. It's the opening. It's the opening to shape the narrative in terms of what we need to return that's been stolen, what's been taken away. So you see huge momentum there that's helpful to be able to advance to other issues, and that's why I bring up the loss and damage conversation, and that's why I say that that's also another opportunity in a political opening as well now. There's been very scant attention paid on this issue that our colleagues have brought up. If you look at where we are now, we're in pretty much in the last year of the International Decade for People of African Descent. What has been done over the last 10 years? Have we been able to move on these issues? No. And so the community is really looking at seeing how we can bring attention to what we need to at the end of the day, by pulling out these openings where we see them happening. And so that's where restitution can bring that in. But it's not, of course, the be-all and end-all. We have to be really serious about this, and to do so these openings help us get there.

 

Iweala

The restitution thing is interesting because I think it can feel like a bit of smoke and mirrors. But it goes back to this thing that I keep getting at, which is this sort of centrality of do you think the person you're dealing with is human or an equal? You can't steal from somebody you don't think has any agency or any power, right? And so by saying ‘No, this is mine,’ and by advancing that sort of like commentary and discussion, it's… you have to do it on all fronts. So as much as you asked for the financial compensation, whether it's for slave labor, or for whatever, you also have to say, like, ‘Hey, man, you can't come into my house and take my paintings. You just can't do that.’ And what's worse is, you can't come into my house, take my paintings, put them up on your walls, and when I come through, be like: ‘I don't know anything about that.’

 

Aly

More so: please pay a $50 ticket to look at your painting.

 

Iweala

Right, to come and see it. And the thing is, at some point in time, you have to resolve the idea of insult. And that's one of the things, you have to acknowledge that there has been an insult. If you do not acknowledge an injury, like if you're a doctor, and you're trying to treat something, but somebody comes in and you're like, oh, I don't see any stab wound when somebody has clearly been stabbed, that is idiocy in like its finest form. And I think we have to be very direct about these things. And then, you know, I recognize that when it comes to actually negotiating this stuff, there's the rhetoric around it, which I think needs to be aggressive in some circumstances. And then there are the solutions around where you have to think politically right, and where can you have the most impact? Is it loss and damage, right? Is it restitution? Is it something else where you have to create workable solutions that advance the discussion? But if you don't have that initial acknowledgment of, one, that there was wrong done, two, I'm a human, and three, I have a right. And that's one of the things that I think is really important. It's like, I have a right to speak about the wrong that was done to me, which oftentimes when we get into all this stuff, people want to try to go around it somehow, and not have you express the fact that you are angry about what was done to you or your ancestors, and that there's real pain involved in that, whether it's generational pain. We talk a lot with Holocaust survivors of inherited trauma, that's also true of other populations, right? You know, these things have to be acknowledged if you're going to advance any kind of discussion, because if you don't acknowledge that, as a human, I feel pain, you won't get to the next step of okay, how can we deal with your pain? Right? In what way can we deal with your pain?

 

Aly

Let me push back a bit on the aspect of being really direct about this. Because if you are trying to be strategic in your goal, we have seen certainly that using the term reparations will immediately, in some cases, really shut shut the conversation down. You, Uzo, and Kizito as well, both attended a convening we hosted about decolonising aid in which reparations was raised and met with skepticism, not because people don't think it's the right thing to do, but because they think it's a topic that just won't be palatable to many. And I'll just give you a bit of insight into some of my conversations, and I'm sure you've had your own. I spoke to a former US government official who said reparations will be easier to cut by the right than aid, for instance. Following that convening that you attended, there were some reactions from someone in the foundation world – and this is someone who's very committed to the idea of locally-led aid and decolonization – and he said, it is a non-starter, it will never get traction from boards, you will never get traction from larger pools of money from bilateral governments, and we are worried that if you use this approach, locally-led development will be attacked from the right as a waste of money. Already, there's a fear that it's going to be attacked and this kind of activist reparations framing will be weaponized and will not be productive. So how do you react to that?

 

Iweala

Two things. One, people said loss and damage was never going to be part of the dialogue.

 

Aly

That’s right.

 

Iweala

It took, what, 30 years or so, and yet people are talking about it. It's a kind of simplistic discussion at this point, and yet it's a starting point for that discussion. That's one. Two, when it comes to tactics, people act like there's going to be some one singular hero in this whole discussion, and that's why people are like, ‘Oh, you can't say this, you can't say that’. Think about this: we're all watching the World Cup right now. If you're trying to score a goal, you need to state what the goal is. You need to show where the goal is: it's on the other side of the field. That doesn't mean that you just charge straight through and put the ball in the goal. There's a finesse to it.  You pass the ball around. Somebody makes a run towards goal, and then you pass the ball to the other side of the field. It's about the larger game, right? And so you have people who are to be more vocal, and keep reminding you this is the goal. This is the goal. This is the goal. We need reparations. We need reparations of this amount, etc, etc. And that message has to be restated in multiple forms. And then you have to have the people who are smart about what they're doing in terms of the tactics. So is it that we discuss it through loss and damage? Can we get $100 billion, $5 trillion, $20 trillion, $90 trillion through loss and damage? Is it that somebody says, ‘Okay, we're going to talk about restitution first, because what we need to do is create these articles that get people to acknowledge that there was a wrong done, there was a wrong done, there was a wrong done’. It's not one person is going to solve this problem. And I think what people want to do, especially on the other side, is try to put it on one person, or make it about one single drive. And that's not the way that these things work.

 

Aly

So if you're the person, Uzo, who is stating the goal, Kizito, you are one of the people trying to use the tactics to get there, what have you seen in practice, in terms of the reactions? Is this - in this terminology - something that people and governments have shown themselves open to. And frankly, Open Society Foundations as well, because if you're also rethinking philanthropy as reparations, in your experience, is that something the stakeholders are prepared to do?

 

Byenkya

For sure. And I very much agree with Uzo and what he said there, because you have to look at this in different ways. And so it's not that we, as Open Society, or other philanthropies are taking on the whole problem. We know where we are able to do our part, but also where we are able to bring others on board. So the first thing that's very clear for me always is: don't mess with a narrative. And so it's very clear around the double standard that's been done with reparations. And you know, being apologetic or getting away from that just to be able to appease others to make this more palatable is a problem. But that doesn't mean that you have to do that to be able to get what you want and, and do it to be able to take forward the right tactics. And so for us and others, there's different ways that we're able to, we can invest that. We've done a lot, for example, on the side of restitution, and I brought that up, because that's been able to tell the story of how these artifacts have been stolen from Africa, but how they're being able to be brought back and how they add to the larger conversation that needs to be taking place around reparations. On the financial side, we've been able to discuss that around loss and damage. But then if we look at what's happening around the decolonising agenda, not only just the role that we have as philanthropy, but also our role ourselves in decolonizing our systems is also important. So there's different parts of this where we could come to. And so, to Uzo’s point, we know our role, and we're trying to be able to be better at that and advance that and bring others on board and being able to take forward the work that needs to be done. But for the larger narrative in how we discuss these issues, that needs to remain, because that's the end goal and where we're trying to get to. But we have our tactics to be able to advance the issue regardless. It doesn't mean that we throw all everything in one bucket and we fail. No. We have to be smart about this. And that's what we're trying to do.

 

Aly

We’re just going to take a short break and we’ll be right back after this message.

 

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Aly

On the last episode of the podcast, we spoke to Avinash Persaud, the architect of the Bridgetown Agenda in Barbados, which is pushing to restructure debt and unlock trillions of dollars, really, to pay for climate response, among other things. But we asked him a question around reparations. And I just wanted to put it to you because it speaks really to what we've been discussing.

 

Aly: So one question would be: why focus on repaying debts at all, and not lobby for reparations or something that challenges the entire system and the reason you have to pay these debts in the first place?

 

Avinash Persaud: Because we're focused on five achievable things that will meaningfully withdraw the system. We do not believe it makes sense to dig our heels in on something that will not happen, because it may be the righteous thing to do, or the right thing to do, or the just thing to do – because it's not going to happen. They're hardly writing checks for their own people today, far less the idea that they would write a check for foreigners. They are there deporting foreigners, deporting refugees, they’re not expanding the ODA budgets.

 

Aly

So Uzo, what do you say to that argument that it's just futile?

 

Iweala

That clip is, I think, not even giving Avi and PM [Mia] Mottley the real credit for how they're approaching this. Avi is a banker. He's a finance person. He knows terms. He's taking a tactical approach. But if you listen to what Prime Minister Mia Mottley says, oftentimes she's pretty vocal about this idea that there needs to be some kind of compensation for past wrongs. Again, you're gonna get out there, state the problem, and then you’ve got to find solutions to that problem that are workable within the political context that you occupy. I think they're a prime example of doing that. And I would say that it's a little bit disingenuous to try to suggest that what Avi is doing is completely taking the idea of some kind of compensation off the table, because his boss is not.

 

Craemer

I would also warn to never say never. This idea that reparations are so impossible that you can’t even bring it up, that existed initially when Israel asked for reparations, as well – and they asked only for a small amount. And because there was a political environment – there was the Cold War and everything, Germany wanted to be recognized again. So there was there were political reasons, but the reparations did happen, and they set a precedent. And I think that it can happen again. I think it's important to emphasize that reparations should not be pitted against humanitarian aid or development aid, but that it's both and. That we help those that are weaker for whatever reasons, or that go through disasters – we as an international community help them. But in addition, old debts have to be paid back. And that's the key part, I think.

 

Aly

Okay, so let's never say never. And let's say we have managed to make reparations a reality. Now, how do you manage them? Because governance often becomes one of the roadblocks that is thrown up. I had one person say to me: ‘Well, what are you going to do? Are you really gonna give Museveni a whole bunch of money and tell him do what you like with it?’ So how, how does this money – if it was to be repaid – get managed? Where does it go? To whom?

 

Iweala

I just want to say something because this rankles me to no end as well, this idea that you would… Again, just think about it in very simple terms. You come into my house. You steal $100 from me. I'm like: ‘Hey, man, you took $100 from me. Can I have my $100 back?’ You didn't know what I was going to use that money for in the first place. I could want to light that money on fire. Maybe not the most productive use, but it's my money to light on fire. Right? So now you're like, ‘Ah, homie, I don't think I can give this back to you, you want to light it on fire.’

 

Aly

I get that argument, but does that money belong to the government? Does it belong to the people? It does get complicated.  

 

Iweala

Yes, I understand that. And I said earlier that this thing is more nuanced than what I'm saying. But you have to break it down in these simple terms, otherwise, people will try to distract you with all this foolishness. The thing is, if you're talking about the sum of $90 trillion, let's talk about that. Like, if we're going to use that as a benchmark sum for how much is owed, in the case of what the world owes African-Americans or descendants of slaves or whatever. Think about the amount of waste that just generally happens in a $16 trillion economy. In a $25 trillion economy. There is so much waste that happens and nobody talks about it because things move. Because there's so much money, it's negligible in a sense. And so it's only in situations where you do not have enough that the impact of slippage becomes really, really apparent. Now, if you have a $100 trillion infusion across all of these countries on the continent, you're not going to notice. And I'm not advocating that anybody just take here, or that things get misused here, but this is the nature of an imperfect world. You try something. It doesn't work. Not everything is graft, not everything is corruption. Some things are just general inefficiencies, except for in the case of Africans, where everything gets billed as: you're stupid, you're dumb, you're corrupt, you're dishonest, you’re whatever.

 

Aly

Okay, let's put aside the corruption. Does this go into a fund? Does it get paid out in checks?

 

Iweala

Heba, we're talking [about] the wrong thing. Just give the money. You give us the money. People have accounts. People have transferred large sums of money before. Do you what I’m saying? This is not that difficult to figure out logistically. Give us the money, then y'all can worry about your own thing, we'll worry about the rest. And you know, the thing is,  it would leave everybody in a much easier emotional position, because then after that if you actually get to the right sum, after that, if people start complaining, you can say: ‘Homie, I paid you. I gave it back to you.’ Now you're having a very different discussion. I'm gonna stop because I'm getting a little animated.

 

Aly

Kizito?

 

Byenkya

Definitely, [I] very much agree. Give the money. You have to look at this in a holistic way as well, too. So restitution. So to the point that Uzo is making, you’re restoring the victim to the state prior to the injury, including return of property, assets, liberty, and place of residence. How will you calculate that? When we look at that, we say compensation. So, acknowledging the loss, moral damages, including loss of economic opportunity and future earnings. How do you quantify that as well, too? And then the satisfaction: the public apologies, commemorations, truth commissions, a space to center the truth and lived experience of the injured community. Then rehabilitation. Is there a medical, psychological care, including legal and social services? And then guarantees a lot of non-repetition. And this is what the UN General Assembly has said, when we're looking at the issue of reparations, we have to look at it in this holistic way. That's one part of it. The second part of it for me is that, it's important to see, there's so much that's been stolen. So we've been talking about artifacts, we've been talking about money, [but] we haven't talked about land. And we haven't talked about those shifts as well, too. So how do you also look at that? So it's a large problem. But the issue really, for me, at the end of the day is the double standard. And so if we go back to what we've been discussing around Germany and Namibia, and the reparations that have been provided. That has to be done with the injured community, at the end of the day. Governments have to be able to work with them. The reparations here that were provided were in the form of development assistance. Is that the right answer at the end of the day, compared to the financial assistance that's been given to other injured communities? And so it's not fair in terms of what's happened. And we have to really be serious and look at this in a holistic way.

 

Iweala

When people are talking about ‘Give directly’, and they're talking about ‘We're gonna give directly to people in villages who don't have bank accounts’, somehow, someway, this doesn't this is not an issue for people. People are like, I just want to give directly. when people are talking about, okay, we're going to give money back to X country, you would never ask, I don't know, like a European person or a Swiss person, how am I going to get you this money? You're just going to get the money. So if somebody wants to give money and somebody wants to receive money, there is a way to move money from one place to another; it happens all the time. It is really not that big an issue. There are ways to move small amounts of money, and there are ways to move really large amounts of money. We do it daily, in fact, every second. It's one of those things that people bring up as a stalling, or, ‘How do we make sure that this can't work?’ as opposed to ‘how can this work?’ If you want to move money, you can move money.

 

Craemer

I think it's also helpful to look at the precedent of German reparations. They were paid to Israel, to a country, to the government to use as they saw fit. It was given to individuals, as they saw fit. The decision was not made by Germany [as to] how this money should be spent. You know, only use it for medication, or only use it for education. The decision was by the person that suffered the harm. And I think that has to be the same in colonial reparations.

 

Aly

And I think what I'm asking is: if we separate the technical “How do we do it”  from the vision? What is the vision? For Uzo, you’re Nigerian. Kizito, you’re Ugandan. What would you want to see in terms of how that money is channeled to you? Assuming whatever it is, we'll find a way to do it.

 

Iweala

Heba, I'm gonna tell you what I've always said: I want to see it in my account.  That’s what I want to see.

 

Aly

Right, but would it be a $90 trillion fund that would reimagine how we do development in these countries to make up for all the harm? Would it be each person decides at an individual level?

 

Iweala

I think you're getting too complicated with it. Let's see the money move, and we can decide all that stuff after. And again, I also recognize that I'm being very simple about it, but I'm being very simple about it for a reason.

 

Aly

But move where? Where should the money move to?

 

Iweala

If you want to be even more technical, let's help the perpetrators out and say, open a bank account for every single African person in Europe, and just start paying the money. No restrictions on how that money moves, whether it's within sort of like a Western financial system or out of it. If you don't feel like there's enough capacity on [the] ground in say, Nigeria or Uganda or wherever, yeah, create the capacity. Just make these bank accounts possible. People are talking about the need to open accounts every single day. These things are not hard. They're just not that hard. Think about all the African banks which keep talking about we want to open bank accounts for the unbanked. Think about all the things people have done with digital banking. It is not hard to do this.

 

Aly

I'm not saying it has to be hard. I'm saying the choice of two possible things which was: channel it to individuals, and they do what they want with it, or group it collectively so that you have a massive amount of money that you can do some transformative things with, which would be more attractive?

 

Iweala

I think it’s both. Thomas just said it. And there are examples. Again, the thing about this is this is not novel, it's been done before in multiple cases. You can have reparations that are paid government-to-government. You can have development funds set up. You can have individual cash transfers. These things are all very possible. You can look at legal frameworks in the United States for when people sue for environmental damage, and all this sort of stuff – things get paid out to communities, things get paid out to municipalities, things get paid out to individuals. There's nothing new under the sun, all these mechanisms exist. It just becomes really difficult, for some reason, when we're in the uncharted Heart of Darkness that is Africa, because everybody is a savage and we don't know how to spend money. That's all I'm saying. We just have to be honest about the discussion that we're having. And the discussion is twofold. One is about the money and the actual harm that was done – so give us the money. And the second is about people's inability to acknowledge us as thinking, rational, feeling humans. I'm being pointed, but it is to show, in a sense, when folks outside – whoever the government officials or whatever that you've spoken with – raise these points, how obtuse they're being. They’re being willfully obtuse. This is not… it's not that hard. It's just not that hard.

 

Aly

I want to put one more argument to you, and I'm putting these arguments to you because I think this is what people think out there. And hearing, as you very eloquently laid out, the response to them helps move the conversation forward, I think. And this one comes from someone in the Global South. She's an independent researcher and policy analyst, her name is Themrise Khan. And she says “reparations are yet another ploy in the Northern toolkit to temporarily assuage itself and the Global South about its commitment to make amends for past wrongs,” and that this is kind of being co-opted yet again by the North. Reactions?

 

Craemer

I don't understand this comment at all. But if I try to give it meaning, maybe there's a risk that the reparations debate could be co-opted by the Global North in the sense of dominating what should be done with the money and stuff. And I think that that is a real danger that happens. So we should not be talking about reparations or no reparations, but what form of reparations, and they should be clearly reparations where the people of the Global South, the harmed people, are in charge of the decision-making on how that money is spent.

 

Byenkya

And just to call out the double standard. Why are we still questioning ‘Is this right or not’? You know, it's kind of ridiculous, honestly, because we don't put that same question for other reparations. And so, you know, at this late stage where we are just trying to put take forward the strategy to make things work, if we're not winning the narrative at the end of the day it’s a problem. So keep calling out the double standard, because it doesn't work for others.

 

Aly

Well since you have all defeated every attempt I've had at pointing out the possible obstacles, Uzo you keep saying this is doable, it is possible. And Uzo, you've argued that reparations is the art of the possible. So maybe a near-final question for all of you, what does a reparations framework make possible in a world of ever-growing crises and humanitarian crises in particular?

 

Iweala

I mean, I can answer it in one word, which is survival. That's what this is about. This is sort of like insurance against annihilation. That's essentially what loss and damage is about. And so if you want to talk about what does it make possible, one, it's the recognition that you are human and you have as much right to survive on this earth as anybody else. And then two, it provides you the financial means to build the infrastructure necessary for your survival, which is exactly what folks were doing when they stole all this stuff in the first place: they were stealing the financial means to make possible their survival. And so, we can either steal it back – or not even steal it back, I can't believe I said that. You can take it back by force, which is not a great way to go, or we can have some kind of arrangement where we all recognize that we are fundamentally human, we all have a right to survive on this planet. And we can work together to do that. And reparations is one huge step in reordering the global structure to allow us to do that in a productive fashion.

 

Byenkya

I would say, justice, healing, and restoration. What's also important for me here is that the answers are there. For the reparations journey, unfortunately, it has to be resourced to be taken forward. We have to be able to provide the capacity, the resources, and the strength, and connect the different partners who are working on ideas all across the world to do so. If you look at the African Union, for example, through the different departments of Political Affairs, Peace and Security [PAPS], their Citizens and Diaspora Organizations Directorate [CIDO], the Economic, Social & Cultural Council [ECOSOCC], and the African [Union] Commission, they have taken for a series of initiatives on a common position on reparations for Africa and have a campaigner looking at reparations from former slaveholders and colonial powers. If you look at the Caribbean, since 2013, the CARICOM Reparations Commission has been actively looking at reparations for Native genocide and African enslavement, and they have a 10-point plan where these ideas are there and what we need to be able to do. But we're at a stage now where these ideas need to be resourced as well as supported. But we also have to bring together the different parts, whether it's in Africa, whether it's the Caribbean, whether it's the US, whether it's in Europe. In Europe, for example, many countries have to go forward with National Action Plans of antiracism by 2024. What's happening? And so it's really important to bring together this global movement, resource it because the answers are there, but there's a lot of potential.

 

Aly

You both answered at a kind of structural level. Thomas, you mentioned to my colleague that – and when she told me it really struck me t– hat the Holocaust survivor that you met, when he saw you, he said that your face reminded him of an SS guard, and that he didn't think that someone like you could have feelings. And so when I think about what reparations makes possible, it also opens up this whole other space of connection between groups that may have otherwise just never seen themselves as reconcilable.

 

Craemer

Right. That's true. That actually happened during a dinner when he opened up for the first time and told us about his journey through five concentration camps in a death march. And I was in tears. And he was speechless that a person looking like me could have feelings for his suffering. I think it opens up the possibility of real equal-to-equal empathy and restores the relationship. Reparations, it repairs the relationship between former adversaries. And I think that's an important aspect. And at the same time, it can be a form of redistribution of resources that's actually fair. And, in the end, everybody benefits from a global community that is organized more fairly. It reduces conflicts, and it increases living standards everywhere. So I think there's much to be said for the reparations framework.

 

Aly

And so final question then to all of you, which is one that we ask everyone on the podcast because these questions that we deal with are so big, nd often – although you've told us why it isn't the case – feels so remote. Where do you start? What is the first practical step towards putting a reparations framework into place at the international level?

 

Iweala

I think the first step is…

 

Aly

Don't say give us the money.

 

Iweala

I'm not gonna say give us the money. I actually wasn't gonna say give us the money. Although, I mean, you could still just give the money. What I was gonna say is: it's an acknowledgment that there was wrong done. That doesn't actually cost anybody anything financially.

 

Aly

Well they fear it does; that’s why they won’t do it.

 

Iweala

They fear it does, but I think what also people fear it does, more than the money part, is that if you say I wronged you, it means you say that I think of you as an equal and like I did harm to you. And if you say to somebody, I think of you as an equal, if you have a system, like a whole global economic system that is built off of the idea that some people are not equal to others or that some people are better than others, your whole system starts to collapse, And I think it's more than just the money. I think it's a psychological, emotional, and even an epistemological thing. People can't do that, because then you have to completely reorder the world. But I think the start is, I'm sorry. And then from there, you know, I don't know, I don't know what the issue is. I feel like people [thinl] if they say I'm sorry, then all of a sudden, you get a Black president in the United States, and then suddenly, everything's over. Like, that's kind of what I feel like people's literal line of thought is, which is why some of these things are so hard to do. But I'm sorry would be a great place to start.

 

Aly

Very clear.

 

Craemer

That's exactly what kept Germany for a long time from acknowledging the genocide of the Nama and Herrero in Namibia. And that's also why they billed the $1.34 billion that they did agree to pay as development aid rather than reparations.

 

Aly

Right.

 

Craemer

Because they said they didn't want to set a precedent. And so I did some digging and I found out that the precedent was actually set in 1896 when the German Empire demanded reparations from the Nama and Herero for an uprising they had staged. And they had to pay 12,000 heads of cattle, which I calculated would be worth $8.8 million in 2020 dollars.

 

Aly

Wow.

 

Craemer  

So the Nama and Herero were paid reparations to the German Empire. And this was not the only case – this happened repeatedly. So I would say to my own country, Germany, that the precedent has already been set. Reparations were considered a matter of course when white people were the recipients. So let's consider reparations a matter of course when Afro-descendants are the beneficiaries. So I think the first step to start is a podcast like this.

 

Aly

But might I say, I might quit the podcast to go become your research assistant because that sounds like fascinating research.

 

Iweala

That's really crazy what you just said, That's so wild and amazing.

 

Byenkya

It is. And it's very fascinating, It seems that in every case where a community has been injured, they've been paying reparations to their slaveholders, the colonial power for a long period of time. This is why I keep coming back to this double standard. So yes, as a first step, absolutely, be sorry, acknowledge what's happened, because that sets the stage. And maybe if I can add just a little step after that is the role of the injured community to themselves in being able to design and address the justice that needs to happen to them for what's happened. And so if you look at, again, in Namibia with the Herero and Nama communities, was their answer development aid, or was it the Namibian government negotiating on behalf of them? And so it's very important to have the communities be centered in the design of the justice that does happen. Say sorry, but then those who have been injured, they design the process.

 

Craemer

Right.

 

Aly

Uzo, Thomas, Kizito, this is a fascinating topic. And I am very keen to watch and see how some of the existing processes unfold and whether governments and others around the world take up Uzo’s calls to say: just give us the money. Thank you all for joining us and for sharing so much of your time.

 

Craemer

Thank you.

 

Byenkya

Thank you very much for having us.

 

Iweala

And thank you to The New Humanitarian for being brave to actually put this kind of discussion out there. It's not an easy thing, I know. So, very grateful for the chance to talk about it.

 

_____

 

Aly

Uzodinma Iweala is the CEO of the Africa Center.

 

Thomas Craemer is an Associate Professor of Public Policy at the University of Connecticut.

 

And Kizito Byenkya is the Director of Campaigns at Open Society Foundations.

 

If you’ve got thoughts on the idea of reparations, or in particular on the idea that aid should be reframed as reparations, keen to hear your thoughts. You know how to reach us: [email protected].

 

Today, we’ll leave you with a clip from Gideon Taylor, the President of the Claims Conference. Since 1952, the Claims Conference has negotiated for and distributed $90 billion in compensation from the government of Germany to Holocaust survivors around the world. You’ll hear Taylor explain that the work of reparations is a process, one that requires careful consideration.

 

This podcast is a production of The New Humanitarian.

This episode was produced and edited by Melissa Fundira.

Original music by Whitney Patterson.

And I’m your host Heba Aly.

Thank you for listening to Rethinking Humanitarianism.

 

Gideon Taylor: The Claims Conference was called the Conference on Jewish Material Claims. By definition, it was to bring together people to sit in a room to discuss, to plan, to take on the huge challenge of reparations. In general, the Claims Conference doesn't have an easy job. I sometimes think and reflect on the work of the organization. You take the perhaps greatest moral challenge that the world has faced, the Holocaust, all that came with it, the devastation, and what the Claims Conference does, in some ways, is translate that into something that's very hard to deal with: money. It's money. I sometimes call it the place where money meets morality, and that's not an easy place to be, because we don't have the luxury of being at 30,000 feet and opining on the issues of the day and speaking. We have to be part of the decision-making process. We have to fight to get the resources from Germany, and not in general terms but in very specific terms for this category of people, for that category of people, to bring in people. And then there's decisions to make. We have funds that we recover. How do we allocate those? How do we do it fairly and justly [for] people in different countries, people who have different experiences, people who are in different situations? It's not an easy job.

 

 

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