Norms and Values
Neo-Colonial Practices and Global Digital Equality

In the 21st century conditions, practices that experts characterize as neo-colonial ones amount to more than just the widespread, usual problems which constrain socio-economic development. They also feature new aspects, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.

Bringing about global equality and guaranteeing the right to development are two of the key problems facing modern world politics and economics. The gap between the North and the South, between the “collective West” and the rest of humanity persists, despite all efforts to overcome during the half century following the collapse of the colonial system. Bridging this gap is now one of the important elements of the Sustainable Development Goals put forward under the auspices of the UN. In any event, many experts are pessimistic about achieving these Goals within the next decade. Thus, it may turn out to be just another utopia: beautiful and attracting the attention of world public opinion, but not achievable in practice.

Therefore, the imbalance between North and South persists in the inequality of access to resources, investment, technology, and, no less important, in the inequality of opportunities for the development of human capital and social infrastructure. All this sometimes leads to the fact that the term “neo-colonialism” continues to be used both in expert and political discussions. It has not disappeared anywhere in the half-century since its appearance. That is why the topic of inequality and neo-colonialism is in the focus of attention of the Valdai Discussion Club. The Club recently held a special international discussion on this topic.

Norms and Values
Neo-Colonialism of the Gilded West
On February 16, the Valdai Club hosted an expert discussion, titled “Russia and the Struggle Against Neo-Colonialism: The End of the Western Dictate?” The discussion’s moderator Oleg Barabanov, Programme Director of the Valdai Club, called the problem of neo-colonialism and the struggle for global equality one of the key issues in modern international relations.
Club events

Against this background, the activity of certain international structures, in which developing countries are widely represented and where their voice is better heard, is especially important. These include the G20 and BRICS, as well as many regional structures. Within the framework of the BRICS, its own system of values and political principles is being formed, aimed at achieving global equality and law and development. A similar approach has been put forward under India’s current G20 Presidency.

In the 21st century conditions, practices that experts characterize as neo-colonial ones amount to more than just the widespread, usual problems which constrain socio-economic development. They also feature new aspects. One of these is climatic and environmental. Earlier we have already paid attention to it. Countries in the developing world, which have historically made a minimal contribution to anthropogenic atmospheric pollution, now, under the influence of increasingly stringent and costly environmental restrictions, may become victims of global climate policy. You can often hear arguments that when the “collective West” countries developed their industrial base, they did not think about the environment at all, and it is they who are solely responsible for anthropogenic climate change. However, by imposing restrictive measures on everyone, they are actually depriving the world’s poorest countries of the right to development under the pretext of environmental concerns. Therefore, the topic of environmental inequality remains extremely acute. Again, the terms “carbon neo-colonialism” or “climatic neo-colonialism” can often be heard. Despite the fact that the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” in the fight against climate change is being promoted at the official level via international organisations, developing countries still fear that real practices will not comply with it.

This manifests itself in two ways: first, the provision of financial assistance funds by developed countries to developing countries for compliance with the climate agenda is woefully insufficient. Second, trends to limit or stop the use of traditional fuels (oil, coal and firewood) can, if they are unconditionally implemented in developing countries, increase the poverty and misery of the local population. The same applies to programmes to reduce methane emissions, which can affect livestock in poor countries. Therefore, developing countries are increasingly voicing their fears regarding climate platforms under the auspices of the UN, and in the G20 and BRICS.

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Bread riots, water wars, an influx of climate migrants, growing tensions in the world and the retailoring of the political landscape – all of these are potential consequences of global warming for world politics. Recognition of the importance of climate change and the need to counter it are considered to be the proprieties for politicians in all countries, but political considerations are preventing the formulation of global approaches to this issue. The first part of the Valdai Club’s project “Climate and Politics” describes how the climate agenda is affecting international relations.

Another important aspect of inequality is the digital divide between North and South. The term “digital neo-colonialism” is not rare. The essence of the problem is that one of the key challenges facing the global community in digital politics is the inequality of access to digital infrastructure between developed and developing countries, between rich and poor. The key here is the imbalance in the resources that developed and developing countries can allocate to this area. The high cost of access to appropriate technological solutions and the unwillingness of transnational corporations to implement the principle of open innovation and open patents perpetuate this inequality. At the same time, very often in the digital sphere, there is an actual situation where certain solutions, platforms and services are monopolised. All this reinforces the dependence of poor countries on rich ones. Therefore, we repeat, quite often one can hear the point of view that this situation is perceived as “digital neo-colonialism”. This may become the main form of neo-colonialism in the 21st century. There is also a grave danger that this global digital divide may only widen in the near future, also because a significant amount of resources (and financial assistance from rich to poor countries) is planned to be directed primarily towards green transformation. This may leave the digital agenda out of focus in the context of global solidarity. It is no coincidence that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi drew particular attention to this inequality when presenting the programme of the Indian G20 Presidency. According to him, “a fundamental mindset shift to benefit humanity as a whole” is needed here. Without achieving this, it will become practically impossible to effectively ensure equal access for all to Digital Public Infrastructure, as well as to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals as a result.

If we talk about possible mechanisms for solving this problem, then the key issue is related to the lack of funding and the imbalance of wealth in the world between developed and developing countries.

One of the solutions could be by analogy with climate policy, where developed countries are already committing themselves to financially supporting the green transition of developing countries. Therefore, it is proposed to establish a similar principle for developed countries to provide targeted financial assistance to the poorest countries to ensure effective equal access to digital services and digital transformation. The aforementioned “Common but Differentiated Responsibilities” (CBDR) principle formulated for climate policy should be extended to global digital politics.

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Another important topic in this context is the problem of access to patents and technology. It seems that it is necessary to actively promote the principle of open innovations and open patents in the digital sphere in order to ensure that all countries may access the latest digital technology equally. The theme of open innovation, which was previously generally perceived as a utopian illusion, was developed during the fight against Covid-19. At that time, many politicians and experts talked about allowing open access to patents for the production of coronavirus vaccines, due to the urgent need in promoting the common good of humanity. However, nothing went further than words and appeals.

All this makes the proposed steps to overcome the practices of the global digital divide also quite utopian. However, without their implementation, it will be practically impossible to solve this pressing problem. So, the epithets about digital neo-colonialism will never disappear from our lives. To prevent this from happening, according to Modi, a fundamental change in worldview is really needed. Although this phrase itself now seems utopian.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.