The New Colonialists

Only a motley group of aid agencies, international charities, and philanthropists stands between some of the world's most dysfunctional states and collapse. But for all the good these organizations do, their largesse often erodes governments' ability to stand up on their own. The result: a vicious cycle of dependence and too many voices calling the shots.

Even on their best days, the world's failed states are difficult to mistake for anything but tragic examples of countries gone wrong. A few routinely make the headlines -- Somalia, Iraq, Congo. But alongside their brand of extreme state dysfunction exists an entirely separate, easily missed class of states teetering on the edge. In dozens of countries, corrupt or feeble governments are proving themselves dangerously incapable of carrying out the most basic responsibilities of statehood. These countries -- nations such as Botswana, Cambodia, Georgia, and Kenya -- might appear to be recovering, even thriving, developing countries, but like their failed-state cousins, they are increasingly unable, and perhaps unwilling, to fulfill the functions that have long defined what it means to be a state.

What -- or who -- is keeping these countries from falling into the abyss? Not so long ago, former colonial masters and superpower patrons propped them up. Today, however, the thin line that separates weak states from truly failed ones is manned by a hodgepodge of international charities, aid agencies, philanthropists, and foreign advisors. This armada of nonstate actors has become a powerful global force, replacing traditional donors' and governments' influence in poverty-stricken, war-torn world capitals. And as a measure of that influence, they are increasingly taking over key state functions, providing for the health, welfare, and safety of citizens. These private actors have become the "new colonialists" of the 21st century.

In much the same way European empires once dictated policies across their colonial holdings, the new colonialists -- among them international development groups such as Oxfam, humanitarian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) like Doctors Without Borders, faith-based organizations such as Mercy Corps, and megaphilanthropies like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation -- direct development strategies and craft government policies for their hosts. But though the new colonialists are the glue holding society together in many weak states, their presence often deepens the dependency of these states on outsiders. They unquestionably fill vital roles, providing lifesaving healthcare, educating children, and distributing food in countries where the government can't or won't. But, as a consequence, many of these states are failing to develop the skills necessary to run their countries effectively, while others fall back on a global safety net to escape their own accountability. Have the new colonialists gone too far in attempting to manage responsibilities that should be those of governments alone? And given the dependency they have nurtured, can the world afford to let them one day walk away?


Dependency is not a new phenomenon in the world’s most destitute places. But as wealthy governments have lost their appetite for the development game, the new colonialists have filled the breach. In 1970, seven of every 10 dollars given by the United States to the developing world came from official development assistance (ODA). Today, ODA is a mere 15 percent of such flows, with the other 85 percent coming from private capital flows, remittances, and NGO contributions. Nor is this trend strictly an American phenomenon. In 2006, total aid to the developing world from countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) amounted to $325 billion. Just a third of that sum came from governments.

The expanding budgets of humanitarian NGOs are indicative of the power shift taking place. During the 1990s, the amount of aid flowing through NGOs in Africa, rather than governments, more than tripled. Spending by the international relief and development organization CARE has jumped 65 percent since 1999, to $607 million last year. Save the Children's budget has tripled since 1998; Doctors Without Borders' budget has doubled since 2001; and Mercy Corps' expenditures have risen nearly 700 percent in a decade.

The shift is equally apparent on the receiving end. When aid reaches developing countries, it increasingly bypasses the host governments altogether, often going straight into the coffers of the new colonialists on the ground. In 2003, the USAID Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance distributed two thirds of its budget through NGOs rather than affected governments. Between 1980 and 2003, the amount of aid from OECD countries channeled through NGOs grew from $47 million to more than $4 billion. One reason for the shift is the growing reluctance of rich countries to route aid through corrupt foreign officials. That has created an increasing reliance on new colonialists to deliver assistance -- and produce results.

But the new colonialists are doing far more than simply carrying out the mandates of wealthy benefactors back home. They often tackle challenges that donors and developing-country governments either ignore or have failed to address properly. International Alert, a London-based peace-building organization, monitors corruption in natural-resource management in unstable countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and serves as an early warning system to Western governments about impending conflicts. The Gates Foundation, which has spent more in the past decade on neglected-disease research than all the world's governments combined, has been so dissatisfied with existing international health indexes that it is funding the development of brand-new metrics for ranking developing-world health systems.

Seeing jobs that need to be done, the new colonialists simply roll up their sleeves and go to work, with or without the cooperation of states. That can be good for the family whose house needs rebuilding or the young mother who needs vaccinations for her child. But it can be a blow to the authority of an already weak government. And it may do nothing to ensure that a state will be able to provide for its citizens in the future.


The responsibilities the new colonialists assume are diverse -- improving public health, implementing environmental initiatives, funding small businesses, providing military training, even promoting democracy. But whatever the task, the result is generally the same: the slow and steady erosion of the host state's responsibility and the empowerment of the new colonialists themselves.

The extent of the new colonialists' influence is perhaps best illustrated in Afghanistan. The government possesses only the most rudimentary control over its territory, and President Hamid Karzai has made little progress in combating corruption and narcotics trafficking. The result is a shell of a government, unable to provide basic services or assert its authority. Today, 80 percent of all Afghan services, such as healthcare and education, are delivered by international and local NGOs. According to its own estimates, the Afghan government administers only a third of the several billion dollars of aid flowing into the country each year. The rest is managed directly by private contractors, development agencies, and humanitarian aid groups. Major donors such as Britain only briefly include the Afghan government in their aid agendas: Although 80 percent of Britain’s $200 million in annual aid to Afghanistan is dedicated to state ministries, as soon as the money arrives, it is swiftly handed over to NGOs like Oxfam or CARE for the actual construction of schools and hospitals. The transfers simply reflect many donors’ lack of confidence in Afghan ministries to distribute funds competently and implement aid mandates on their own.

Many of the gains that Afghanistan has made since the fall of the Taliban can undoubtedly be attributed to the efforts and largesse of the many thousands of NGOs that have set up shop in Kabul. But not everyone is thankful for their labor. Karzai has derided the wasteful overlap, cronyism, and unaccountability among foreign NGOs in Afghanistan as "NGOism," just another "ism," after communism and Talibanism, in his country’s unfortunate history. In 2005, Ramazan Bashardost, a parliamentary candidate in Kabul, sailed to electoral victory by running on an anti-NGO platform, threatening to expel nearly 2,000 NGOs that he claimed were corrupt, for-profit ventures providing little service to the country.

Many NGOs understandably resent such criticism, particularly as it lumps together a diverse lot -- private contractors, international aid agencies, local NGOs -- and ignores the important contributions some have made. But none of these groups is anxious to perform so well that it works itself out a job. No matter how well-intentioned, these new colonialists need weak states as much as weak states need them.

This kind of perverse dependency is on display in Georgia, where new colonialists have come to wield an inordinate amount of influence since the country emerged from Soviet rule. Today, its pro-Western president is supported by a steady dose of financial and political aid from abroad, and many state functions are financed or managed by outside help. In advance of the country's Rose Revolution, foreign political consultants advised the opposition’s campaign strategy. The American consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton has been hired to help rebuild state ministries from the ground up, recruiting new staff and retraining bureaucrats. These foreign technocrat-consultants participate in the day-to-day decision-making on critical national matters, such as political reform and intelligence sharing. But in Georgia, as well as other countries where these consultants operate, as they help mold state functions and prioritize development policies, they also write the complex grant applications that their home governments consider -- grants that effectively extend their own positions of influence. The result is a vicious cycle of dependency as new colonialists vie for the contracts that will keep them in business.

That isn't to say that the new colonialists don’t get results -- many do. And in few areas are the efforts of the new colonialists more impressive than in the public-health arena. When Cambodia emerged from more than a decade of civil war in 1991, the public healthcare system was nonexistent. Since 1999, the government has outsourced much of the country's healthcare to international NGOs such as HealthNet and Save the Children. Today, it is estimated that 1 in 10 Cambodians receives healthcare from such groups, which run hundreds of hospitals and clinics throughout the country and often provide far better care than government institutions. So reliable are these NGOs in providing quality care that it is difficult to imagine the government taking over responsibilities anytime soon -- if ever.

Many aid organizations will say that their ultimate goal is to ensure their services are no longer needed. But aid organizations and humanitarian groups need dysfunction to maintain their relevance. Indeed, their institutional survival depends on it. Although aid groups occasionally have pulled out of countries because of security concerns or to protest the manipulation of aid, it is difficult to find examples where these groups have pulled up stakes because the needs they seek to address are no more. And as these groups deepen their presence in weak states, they often bleed the country of local talent. The salaries they offer are not only better and the work more effective, but there are often no comparable opportunities for well-educated locals in their country's civil service or private sector. The new colonialists may depend on this talent to ensure their legitimacy and local expertise, but it further weakens the host government's ability to attract their own best and brightest, ensuring that they remain reliant on new colonialists for know-how and results.


There is no single global clearinghouse that coordinates, or even tracks, how these actors behave around the world. If new colonialists only pay lip service to local ownership and democracy, there is little to suggest that the cycle of mutual dependence will ever be broken. And if that is the case, the new-colonialist crutch may enable corrupt governments to continue to avoid their responsibilities in perpetuity.

Of course, there is another disturbing possibility that many observers do not like to countenance: Without the new colonialists, today's weak states could be tomorrow's basket cases. It speaks to the ubiquity of the new colonialists that this prospect seems remote. Nor can most weak states successfully resist their influence. When Cyclone Nargis struck Burma in May, the governing military junta initially resisted outside assistance. But state incapacity, corruption, and incompetence often make a defiant stance impossible. After several weeks, the regime's leaders had little choice but to accept the help of aid workers who were clamoring to gain access to the people in greatest need.

How then should the international community respond to the increasing influence of the new colonialists? Some observers argue that the market should take the lead in solving development challenges. Unfortunately, new investment often avoids failing states, and aid groups can rightly say that they do the work no one else is willing to do. Other observers think it is time to restore the centrality of the United Nations, at least as a coordinating force among these actors. But globalization resists the centralization of power, and the United Nations lacks the support of member states to take on such ambitious and expensive goals.

The fundamental challenge in this messy new landscape will be to establish a system of accountability. To earn a place at the table of global governance, the new colonialists will have to keep their promises not only to their donors and benefactors but to the citizens of failing states themselves. Competition among aid groups might actually serve to improve this accountability in the future. In many ways, the new colonialists are building a genuine global constituency, and, for better or worse, they may be the first -- and last -- line of defense for states sliding toward failure.


The Architecture of Autocracy

The skylines of unfree societies used to bring to mind images of endless gray Soviet apartment blocks. But today, some of the world's most innovative and daring designs are breaking ground in the least free nations. Why are the world's best architects taking their most ambitious plans to modern-day autocrats? Two words: Blank slates.

Daniel Libeskind is one of the world's best-known architects, designer of Berlin's Jewish Museum, the Denver Art Museum's very forward-looking new addition, and the early master plan for the World Trade Center site. He works everywhere -- or almost everywhere. A few years ago, he told me he would never work in China. Libeskind, who was born in Poland in 1946, lived for a time under the feckless regime of communist leader Wladyslaw Gomulka. It wasn't an experience that left him well disposed toward one-party states.

Libeskind's scruples on the client question weren't widely known until February, when he gave a talk in Belfast in which he criticized architects willing to offer their services to totalitarian regimes. "I think architects should take a more ethical stance," he said. "It bothers me when an architect has carte blanche with a site... We don't know if there was a public process -- who owns this place, this home, this land?"

Why did Libeskind speak up now? Because the topic is becoming unavoidable. For years, the biggest names in architecture have been flocking to countries where democratic procedures are a rare phenomenon. The world's largest and most daring construction sites these days are in places such as Russia, China, and the Persian Gulf states, where open decision-making, community input, and credible elections -- or elections of any kind -- tend to take a back seat to other matters, like a growing economy and the wealth of leaders.

China is the greatest magnet of all. An immense building boom and a ruling party hungry for prestige have combined to produce scores of prize commissions for famous foreign architects, including Rem Koolhaas's new headquarters for Central Chinese Television (CCTV), Switzerland-based Herzog & de Meuron's Olympic stadium, and Norman Foster's huge new terminal at Beijing Capital International Airport, which is the largest building in the world -- for now. It will eventually be overtaken by another Foster megastructure, this one in Moscow. Dubbed Crystal Island, a glass and steel "city within a city" due to be completed in 2014, it's one of several projects the firm is working on in Russia.

In the Gulf region, where the working conditions of migrant laborers have been a chronic human rights issue, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been recycling oil revenues into vast construction projects, like the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill-designed tower Burj Dubai, the world's tallest building, as well as various Koolhaas projects and a cultural district in Abu Dhabi with museums by architect superstars Tadao Ando, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, and Jean Nouvel. Oil money has also lured the British-Iraqi Hadid to design a cultural center for Azerbaijan, a place that doesn't exactly earn high marks from Freedom House or Human Rights Watch. For good measure, the center will be named for Heydar Aliyev, the former KGB officer who ran the oil-rich Central Asian republic with an iron fist before he died in 2003, when his son Ilham succeeded him in a poor imitation of a free election. Last year, a dutiful Hadid placed flowers on Aliyev's grave.


It's no mystery why architects find themselves in an equivocal relationship with power. They can't work without it. Every big building, whether it's in Manhattan, Dubai, or Singapore, is a triumph of the will, usually the client's -- whether that client is a developer, a museum director, or an authoritarian government. What architects prefer are fearless clients, the kind who commit serious money and laugh in the face of local opposition. How tempting it is, then, to build in places where an emir or a Vladimir can call the shots with impunity -- where cash is plentiful, ambitions boundless, and the local opposition more preoccupied with police surveillance or being thrown in jail.

Speaking of Vladimir Putin, the Scottish architecture firm RMJM won a competition last year to design the new Gazprom tower in St. Petersburg. For reminder's sake, Gazprom is the immense natural gas company once headed by Russia's new president, Dmitry Medvedev, Putin's handpicked successor. (Let the record show that one of the entrants in that design competition was one Daniel Libeskind.) The Okhta Center, as the tower is now called, has set off protests in Russia and abroad over its 1,300-foot height, in a city where the tallest building is a bell tower a third that size. The tower's opponents are numerous and prominent, including the St. Petersburg Union of Architects, the director of the State Hermitage Museum, and UNESCO, which has threatened to revoke the city's World Heritage status. But most observers are skeptical that the critics will count for much in the end. At the heart of the matter is whether Russia is the kind of place these days where a credible debate can take place over a building backed by the all-powerful company that the new president of Russia used to run. There is, you could say, a whiff of carte blanche in the air.

Make no mistake, even the oldest democracies are a work in progress, too. There will always be big projects in New York or London where public input is a sham and the powers that be do what power does. All the same, architects and developers in democratic countries contend with public hearings and environmental reviews, zoning boards and community groups, politicians and the media. Such interference is precisely what exasperates many of the biggest architects, who grumble that Western countries have lost the will to build great things. The new Terminal 5 of London's Heathrow Airport, designed by the firm of architect Richard Rogers, was subjected to a public inquiry in Britain that lasted nearly four years. That's about the same time it took for Foster's new airport terminal in Beijing to go from conception to completion. There was a feng shui consultant who needed to be satisfied, but no messy court challenges.

Still, it's surprising that the world's autocrats have developed a taste for modern architecture. Their preferred style used to be what you might call pachyderm neoclassicism, which lent even the wobbliest dictatorship the weight of enduring empire. Adolf Hitler ordered Albert Speer to reimagine Berlin as a hyperinflated Rome. Joseph Stalin left behind office blocks as pompous and imperial as his moustache. The notable exception was Benito Mussolini, who understood what modern architecture could lend his regime -- the authority of the future. And among the autocrats of our own time, it's Mussolini's outlook that has caught on.

Meanwhile, the architects rushing to their embrace have their own reasons. Precisely because their thinking is so new and avant-garde, some of them spent their early years wandering in the wilderness of "paper architecture," teaching, lecturing, and publishing influential books, but not getting much "real" work. The temptation to get what they can now, even if it's with dubious clients, is understandable. But there is more to it. In a profession long given to grand ambitions for remaking the world, the most adventurous architects don't merely want to work. They want to change the world. Architects like Hadid and Koolhaas are not just practitioners but polemicists, with an evangelical devotion to their own sophisticated thinking about buildings and cities. It's an outlook that can make cooperation with unsavory regimes seem like the kind of thing that history will forgive, because governments come and go, but buildings endure as ideas forged in stone and steel. In the final analysis, you can work for the Sun King if you leave behind Versailles. Or better still, something less suburban.


To that end, there is no architect more theoretically inclined than Koolhaas. He has become in recent years the enemy of conventional office towers, which is why his CCTV headquarters in Beijing performs a kind of structural backflip. Let's be clear: It has every promise of being one of the most fascinating buildings in the world. Whether it will also begin to strike people as a sort of Chinese version of Hitler's Reich Chancellery is another question. If there are protests in the Chinese countryside or more upheavals in Tibet, decisions about how to cover those events on Chinese television will be made in the Koolhaas building.

I once asked Koolhaas if he had any qualms about providing the headquarters for a government-controlled television news operation. He replied that China was evolving, and he hoped that its state-controlled media would eventually evolve "into something like the BBC." That may take some time. The BBC, whose newscasts are restricted in China, reported recently that when journalists at CCTV log on to their computers every day, one of the first things to appear on their screens "is a notice about what not to report."

The overarching defense for good architects working with bad leaders is that they bring enlightened ideas to places that need them. For instance, Norman Foster's firm, which is known for environmentally sustainable design, was able to use green methods and materials at the Beijing airport, a useful model for a country better known for its headlong indifference to the environment. This defense is effectively the argument that Will Alsop, another prominent British architect, made recently to a Web site that was collecting responses to Libeskind's talk in Belfast. "The thing about China is that it’s opening up," Alsop said. "It will change in the future and architects will be part of that opening up."

The people who offer that defense have a perfectly good point. But here's the catch. That position takes as a given the optimistic Western assumption that authoritarian regimes will "evolve" into something more like democracies. But if anything, Russia under Putin began evolving in the opposite direction. That may change under Medvedev, or it may not. The Chinese authorities probably think they have arrived already at a new model for society, one that mixes a quasi-free market economy with limited freedoms. And it's a model they are happy to propose to the rest of the developing world, impeccably dressed by all the best architects.

I should mention that in Alsop's remarks about working with dubious regimes, he felt obliged to add this: "I would probably draw the line at Burma." Should we take that as a sign that second thoughts about questionable clientele are catching on? If there's one thing an architect should know how to do, it's draw a line. With a little prodding, perhaps more of them will give it a try.