During a guided tour with the organization Black History Walks in London's financial district, I reflect on the assumptions that exist in the language we use when discussing development issues. What do we really mean when we talk about "underdeveloped" countries? What does it mean to be underdeveloped? I find my own answers to these questions in the colonial history of England.
I'm standing on one of the central small streets of London, opposite an overwhelming building that appears to have sprung from a Jane Austen movie. The magnificent and decadent building Goldsmiths Hall is the headquarters of The Goldsmiths Company - formerly The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths.
In front of me is a guide from Black History Walks, an organization that has been organizing guided tours through the streets of London since 2008. The guides tell the story that has largely created, shaped and built the city I now stand in. The guide tells the group of curious University students about the London “guilds” - organizations of merchants and artisans who came together to raise prices and ensure the quality of goods they traded with. This made them major political and economic players who flourished in the 1300th century.
I think back on our trip so far. On the way to Goldsmiths Hall, we passed "the Worshipful Company of Cutlers" - a guild specializing in ivory cutlery. On their coat of arms we saw both the large African and the slightly smaller Indian elephant, and the guide asked us all if elephants are originally from England. It was a question we all knew the answer to. I noticed that he spoke incredibly pedagogically and calmly, and the tone of his voice made me understand that he is used to engaging with people who do not welcome the information he presents. I could imagine that it is such people who prefer to claim that the country's riches are a result of the English's merit and hard work. Although most of my English schoolmates approach the legacy of colonial power with a sense of shame and embarrassment, I have also noticed that there are still many who take pride in the country's colonial history.
As we now stand outside Goldsmith's Hall, the guide asks us if gold and diamond mines are common in England, and we say no once again. He says that the gold and diamonds are instead sourced from South Africa, Congo, Ivory Coast, Mali and Tanzania. He asks us to imagine how much money these guilds made thanks to these commodities.
Through this trip, I have not been able to let go of the thoughts from a course in global development I read a previous semester. Through textbooks and discussions, the concept of "underdeveloped countries" often emerged. In light of the history of blacks in London, the concept becomes not only misleading, but also arrogant. How can we continue to call these countries "underdeveloped" when it is so dazzlingly obvious that they are instead "overexploited"?