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Aug. 25 2009 - 11:31 am | 83 views | 2 recommendations | 5 comments

Sorry, Newsweek – Portugal Wrecked the World

Much to my surprise this week, I picked up Newsweek to find it asking, Did Britain wreck the world?

It lists Britain’s former colonies of Sri Lanka, Iraq, Sudan, Israel/Palestine, Somalia, Nigeria, India and Pakistan, all of which are confronting “festering conflicts” as reasons to suggest it did.

As a journalist who spent five and a half years covering the post-colonial seismic transformations in a former Dutch colony, Indonesia – my colleagues and I had picked a different contender for Worst Colonial Power:  Portugal.

I mean, Come on – Mozambique and Angola are almost synonymous with civil war and land mines.  Equatorial Guinea? From what I’ve read, you could take that place over in a weekend. East Timor spent a long time as a rather unhappy place – and still hasn’t completely recovered.

So let’s do the math.

Foreign Policy magazine puts out an annual Failed States Index – and I’m a big fan.

The index uses a point system to take into account several variables to come up with its rankings. These are demographic pressures, refugees and IDP’s, group grievance, economic flight, delegitimization of the state, public services, human rights, security apparatus, factionalized elites, and external intervention.

The higher the points accrued, the higher the nation’s listing on the Failed States Index.  This year’s winner is Somalia, with 114.7 points.  On the other extreme is Norway, with a mere 18.3 points.

Let’s take the eight former British colonies listed by Newsweek, add up their points and take an average (perhaps not the most scientific method, but I’m sticking with it.)

Again, these are:  Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Iraq, Sudan, Israel/West Bank, Somalia and Nigeria.  The average comes to 99.84 points.

And let’s look at eight of Portugal’s former colonies:  East Timor, Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde, Sao Tome and Principe.

The average is 83.79.   So by that ranking, yes, Britain is the bigger boogeyman.

However, the British list is massively incomplete.  (While Portugal had many more colonial outposts than those I’ve listed, not as many of their former colonies became independent nations. For example, Goa is part of India. Macau is part of China.)

So let’s throw in a few more former British colonies.

How about the United States, Canada, Australia, Malaysia and Singapore?  Does that skew the playing field?  For good measure, let’s also throw in Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe and Burma.

Now, the average drops to 81.04 — meaning Britain screwed up its colonies LESS than Portugal – whose average is 83.79 (remember, a higher number means a higher listing on the for Failed State Index.)

Also, perhaps we should rethink Iraq.  After all, what has propelled it towards failed state status in recent years were not the fraying vestiges of colonial power, but a pre-emptive modern war with dubious motives.

If we take Iraq out of the equation, Britain’s average drops to 79.2.

Sorry Newsweek –  and sorry Portugal!  But this means if you’re a citizen of a nation that was a former colony  – as so many of us are -  you’re better off to have hailed from the British Empire, than a Portuguese one.

I’ll leave someone else to do the math on the French and the Dutch.


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  1. collapse expand

    It doesn’t really affect your overall Lusophobic thesis, but Equatorial Guinea was a Spanish colony, not a Portugese one.

    • collapse expand

      Jfruh – thanks for your comment.

      Equatorial Guinea was both a former Portuguese colony and a former Spanish colony – but you’re right, it was in Spain’s hands prior to winning independence.

      After doublechecking the math… Portugal remains the one to wreck the world.

      Taking Equatorial Guinea out of the line-up gives Portugal’s former colonies a an average of 83.15, compared to Britain’s 81.04.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    MP, would it be safe to say that imperialism wrecked the world? If we add the various imperialist scores instead of comparing them, we should get a picture of that. And in the Americas, at least, I wonder if those colonies that “succeeded” actually just got their unrest out of the way earlier, at the expense of their indigenous populations. In Latin America, the Spanish and Portugese mingled with the indigenous people. In Anglo America, the newcomers slaughtered them. The latter approach may make for a more stable state eventually (the U.S. looked a lot like a failed state in 1863), but it’s not like the U.S. doesn’t have its own share of wreckage. Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

  3. collapse expand

    Bad democracies might no better than bad dictatorships, but let’s remember that one-man rule lasted till the 1970s with Salazar in Portugal and Franco in Spain, long after France, the UK and the Netherlands had established shared-rule nations, if you accept my parlance.
    The saddest part is that the US seems to have been perfectly happy standing in for European colonialists nigh these last 50 years, having arrived late in the game with the Spanish-American War, just a century or so ago. A century or two from now we will easily take the cake, should there be anyone left around to vote.

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    About Me

    I'm a freelance journalist and writer who has recently returned to the US after 17 years living overseas, primarily in Southeast Asia.

    In 1992, I went to Cambodia – then at the height of the UNTAC peacekeeping mission - to cut my teeth on journalism.

    ….I was in Hong Kong, for the 1997 Handover to Chinese rule; and then it was off to

    …..Indonesia - for the fall of President Suharto in 1998, through the the reformasi movement; the East Timor conflict, its independence ballot and peacekeeping mission; the fallout from September 11th in “the world’s most populous Muslim nation” and the Bali bomb, and myriad points in-between during a five and a half year span;

    …. and onwards to India, where I was Voice of America radio/television correspondent for South Asia between 2003 and 2006, which included rotations in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with my “patch” of India, including Kashmir; Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh.

    I’ve freelanced my way in and out of Bosnia, Burma, Egypt, the Philippines, Pakistan, Thailand. I’ve also filed out of Vietnam and Malaysia.

    My name is Mary Patricia Nunan, and I vastly prefer “MP.” If you’ve heard me on the radio or seen me on tv – NPR, VOA, CBC, BBC or others -- it would have been as “Patricia Nunan.” I’ve never had much use for the “Mary.”

    See my profile »
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    Contributor Since: August 2009
    Location:New York City