Imperialism is a word most often found in the mouths of green and hip college students, slung about in derision of cold-hearted, greedy conservatives that do little more than suck the life, vitality, and cash out of the world’s “bottom billion.”  Haughty sniffs and high blood pressure are usually joined with an emotional harangue lumping the appearance of McDonald’s in poor African countries, neo-cons, and the ubiquitously materialist suburban soccer mom in one streaming monologue of angst.  If you spend time with such young and activist youth in any capacity (or their trendy parents) try turning the tables on them and suggest it is groups like the UNICEF, Planned Parenthood, and numerous national aid agencies that are the true imperialists.  It is these compassionate aid groups that are truly and dangerously imperialistic in ways the conservatives and Christians never will be.

Webster defines imperialism as a policy extending a country’s power and influence through diplomacy or military force.  Used in the more popular sense, it most often means forcing and foisting one nation or group’s values on another through coercion.  Under this definition it is hardly the appearance of capitalistic icons like McDonalds, WalMart, or Starbucks that is truly imperialistic.  In fact, by definition these products of the free market can never be symbols of imperialism; after all, they have arisen out of the free trade between individuals and parties, being invited to meet a need identified by consumers around the world.  In contrast to these falsely derided icons, stand the true symbols of imperialism—the Roman imperial eagle, the European and American slave trades, South African apartheid, and the intentional coercion of the women of India, Pakistan, and numerous African states by groups like Planned Parenthood, UNICEF and others.

Did you catch that last item?  The stated goal of many aid and development agencies is to limit the number of children born in poor countries by handing out condoms, birth control pills, and abortion services.  Knowing that many of these reproductive practices will not be accepted by the vast majority of women in traditional and religious communities, these aid groups tie food and money to their “family planning” products, only assisting those women who comply with their demands.  Here is a perfect example of true imperialism—applying a foreign policy to a native group through force.  These aid groups seem little concerned with the fact their views of human life, dignity, and worth wildly conflict with the deeply held and cherished views of many non-Western women.

HT: In an afternoon discussion on Poverty in the Developing World: Good Intentions & Sound Economics at Acton University, Mr. Michael Miller laid out an incisive critique of current trends in dealing with the developing world highlighting the imperialistic tendencies of secular Western powers.

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Posted by Tex


  1. While I agree that forcing birth control upon women would absolutely be cultural imperialism in its worst form, I have a fair amount of experience working with NGOs/WHO overseas and I have never once seen women being forced to use birth control against their wishes. It is very well documented that birth rates fall as women’s education levels rise, no matter what the religious/cultural backgrounds of the women may be. Additionally, many cultures use herbal abortificants as part of their traditional medicine – it is by no means Western Culture introducing these concepts.
    Finally, it has been my experience in both Africa and Latin America that women want to use family planning and limit the number of children that they have, even if they may appear to conflict with their “deeply held and cherished views”


  2. Bigarme:

    Sorry to be so slow in responding. Here are some links that point towards the “imperialistic” tying of foreign aid to “population control” and suspect forms of family planning:

    A number of print source citations:

    A CATO institute article that hints at the use of coercion in family planning and population control by UNFPA:

    A CATO Institute publication on some negative aspects of family planning suggests that coercion might be lurking just below the surface:

    Thanks for the re-confirmation of the fact that family planning, smaller family size, etc are often tied to development, prosperity, and societies and people groups that are “moving up”, socially speaking. It is an interesting connection that bears examining further.


  3. Oh man, I’m so bummed I missed this discussion group!
    Another comment about contraception and abortion in refugee camps or poor villages: the UN Population Fund is prohibited to promote abortion as a form of birth control, but they hand out vacuum aspirators in the name of using them for miscarriages, and you can probably guess what they actually get used for. (“Cutting Off the Ultimate Resource,” World Magazine, Jan 26, 2008).


  4. I completely agree with you that enforced sterilization, abortion, and birth control are both major human rights violations and a very ugly side of imperialism. I am not certain if you are making the argument that offering the option of birth control is in itself an imperialistic act? It has been both my personal experience and my understanding of the issue that given the choice to have smaller families or not, most women (certainly not all)choose to limit the number of children they have. I see nothing imperialistic with the idea of offering women this choice. There is also the additional question of promoting the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV and other Sexually transmitted infections – is this also an imposition of values? I enjoyed reading the Cato Institute publications, and it certainly is good to try and think outside of one’s own understanding. I fail to see how providing birth control to women is the same as ethnic cleansing via forced sterilization.


  5. Bigarme:
    I don’t think that educating families on family planning and various birth control options is imperialistic, nor is providing birth control pills or abortions necessarily imperialistic.

    What I see as at least border-line imperialistic is promoting population control as a primary means to reducing poverty, especially when such promotion comes via direct forms of aid like food or other necessities when combined with the strong suggestion that women begin to practice abortions.

    The problem I see with this approach is that it short-circuits the (important process) of laying a foundation for values, patterns of thought, etc. that might provide substantial foundations for the health and population planning activities of the West.

    There are more ways to act in a heavy-handed and imperialistic way towards others than by the actual conquering and colonizing lands and people. Tying aid and assistance to acceptance of values and cultural practices seems to be one of those other ways.

    It also strikes me as questionable (at least) if the manner in which outside aid agencies offer women the choice of birth control is subversive, i.e., if it undercuts the accepted cultural norms of authority. If not imperialistic, there is something that smacks of arrogance for outside groups to come into a social group and discount everything they may have been taught or led to believe regarding women’s health and reproduction simply by awing people with the might, health, wealth, and choices of the West. Take the time to do the more difficult (but more rewarding) work of dealing with the ingrained thought and behavior patterns of the people.


  6. Tex,

    I hate it when people quote my words back at me so I apologize for doing it to you. I just want to answer two points directly.

    “Here is a perfect example of true imperialism—applying a foreign policy to a native group through force.”

    How is offering conditional aid forcing women to use birth control? Missionaries often to the same thing, providing material assistance as a means to open people up to Christianity. I guess it is the severity of need that makes such practices coercive but that is true in both cases.

    “These aid groups seem little concerned with the fact their views of human life, dignity, and worth wildly conflict with the deeply held and cherished views of many non-Western women.”

    At what point does this argument impinge on the proselytization of native peoples by Christian missionaries? Following this line of reasoning, the religious beliefs of those in other countries and cultures should be respected.

    But why bother to make the argument in one case and not in the other?


  7. i usually stick to natural birth control methods because i am a christian, natural birth control has no side effects too..;,


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