What’s new? What we invest in now will affect the world our children inherit. The concept of intertemporality – that our actions today will impact the future, is well understood. But are we willing to acknowledge that the investments made in the not too distant past impacted the market structures and how we allocate resources today? That colonial investments were made to adhere to ethical standards?
Let’s dive into how our legacy can affect our investments and the planet’s future.
A Complex Challenge
We’d like to build an appreciation for the complexities of our challenge. Today, there is a growing awareness of the importance of sustainability and biodiversity protection, etc… but there’s also a fine line between providing active support and grabbing investment opportunities in underdeveloped territories.
Many businesses and organisations are now incorporating sustainability and protective ideals into their practices in order to ensure that they are having a positive impact on the environment and the communities in which they operate.
The real question: But are the standards much different to what existed before? Will the standards be enough to ensure that development is done in a responsible and sustainable way? In the past, ethical standards and regulations were supposed to structure and regulate the occupation of countries populated with indigenous peoples.
The earliest formalisation of such standards were arguably done by the International African Association (IAA), formed in 1876 who published a set of standards and ideals in the form of a “Declaration and Resolutions”. Here is a summary of some of the key segments of the declaration:
Purpose: The declaration stated that the purpose of the International African Association was to “develop trade and civilisation in Africa.” The Association sought to accomplish this through education, scientific research, and philanthropy.
Scope: The declaration identified specific customs that the IAA sought to abolish, including human sacrifice, cannibalism, and slavery. The IAA also opposed practices such as female genital mutilation, infanticide, and the killing of twins, which were common in some African and Asian societies.
Justification: The declaration argued that these customs were not only morally repugnant, but also hindered economic and social progress in affected societies. The IAA believed that by ending these practices, societies would be able to move towards greater prosperity, health, and enlightenment.
Approach: The IAA recognized that achieving its goals would require a multifaceted approach. It sought to educate the public, lobby governments to take action, and work with local communities to promote alternative customs and practices. Education was seen as a key tool for promoting the IAA’s vision of “European Civilisation”.
Sign me up to this
When reading the above, the “Declaration and Resolutions” of the IAA seems to represent a significant effort to promote human rights and social progress in the late 19th century.
The esteemed Royal Geographic Society (Britain) and the geographical societies of Austria, Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Russia, and the United States, all initially signed on.
Surprise? But do you know that the International African Association, was also known as the International Association for the Exploration and Civilisation of Central Africa, and had King Leopold II of Belgium, as President of the Executive Committee. And almost everyone is familiar with how the ambitions of the first project were quickly substituted with another to obtain territorial concessions on the territories explored…
… but not many know that King Leopold was well informed on matters Africa and actually held advanced liberal views, that Leopold looked to regenerate Africa.
… or that the new Haut-Congo Study Committee (Comité d’Études du Haut-Congo), which soon contracted Henry Morton Stanley, had no political value and was without the legal powers to establish stations and claim a right of occupation… and was actually dissolved in 1879.
Not many know of the role of a US native land speculator, the US media (in particular the New York Herald, the employer of Stanley), played that led to the broad-based European legitimisation of an essentially private venture.
Are we aware that Leopold II declared all grounds in the Congo not used by the indigenous population either as “vacant”, or “state” property? Do we know that Leopold “gifted” these “vacant” lands and many other rights to private companies that he created in 1906, prior to the Congo Free State converting to a colony? That these “rights” were upheld?
Are we aware that many of people managing the brutal initial private ventures, against which there was an international outrage, became the managers of the Congo’s Colonial Administration?
Are we aware that the commercial arrangements agreed before independence were sustained post independence? That specific companies continued to benefit from those market structures created prior to independence, or use their economic influence (with the help of governments) to perpetuate this?
There are many practices of others active in the partitioning and occupation phase of the ongoing exploitation of African indigenous peoples that were implemented under “ethical” standards, under banners of “moral capitalism”… This is less well known.
And it is crucially important that we learn more, so that we can draw the links between historical “agreements”, including those of a geopolitical nature, and current practices. So that in a not too distant future, we can hold our heads high, and say that a few didn’t just grab as much as they could at the expense of others… and be proud of the world our children inherit.
Over the next several editions, we aim to not only critique the legacies of colonialism apparent in “sustainability” practices of today, but to steer a path for responsible investors that are not only targeting “sustainability” of yield.