Skip to content

Why understanding ‘reparations’ should be on everyone’s agenda

A member blog post by

Lewis Ryder-Jones

Oxfam Scotland

Calls for countries to make reparations – such as those related to the transatlantic slavery which were made last month by Judge Patrick Robinson of the International Court of Justice – are longstanding, but have mostly remained on the periphery of mainstream debate in the UK.

Over the past few years, however, more and more institutions and organisations have begun serious interrogation of their past, and their links to slavery in particular; the Guardian’s recent work is a pertinent example. This is bringing calls for reparations much more clearly into the mainstream frame. But what exactly is meant by ‘reparations’ and what does it mean in practice?

This blog is an attempt to explain why I feel it is such an important area for learning and reflection.  And based on my early learning, I’ll share some key points about reparations as a concept and as an approach, while also reflecting on what this means for me personally and my work here in Scotland. And as my journey of learning continues, I invite others to join me.

What does ‘reparations’ mean?

Broadly speaking, based on the framing adopted by leaders of the reparations movement, ‘reparations’ is about repairing the harm perpetuated by European Colonialism on Black and Indigenous communities and colonised nations. However, the call for reparations is not just about past historical harm, it is also about the continuing damaging legacies of colonialism, capitalist extraction and neo-colonialism, as well as about building systems that guarantee no repetition of this harm in the future.

Central to this – as put forward by organisations such as the Reparations Commission set-up by CARICOM, a community involving 20 countries from the Caribbean – is of course the transatlantic slave trade and the stark racial, social, and economic inequalities that it left behind for Africans, and people of African descent around the world.

A key Swahili term in the reparations movement is ‘Maangamizi’, which is used to describe chattel, colonial and neo-colonial enslavement and roughly translates as ‘African holocaust’. The severity of meaning in this term is an important starting point for me when thinking about this topic and the level of impact that colonial and neo-colonial slavery has had on the contemporary world.

However, reparations is also about restorative and reparative justice for other indigenous and people of colour around the world who have been impacted by a loss of resources, culture, land, ecosystems, rights and opportunities as a result of European colonialism.

What does reparative justice look like in practice?

Given there is no single definition of what ‘reparations’ means, restorative justice or ‘holistic reparations’ also necessarily covers a range of forward and backward facing potential actions. In this sense, reparations is a multifaceted process rather than a single act and, put together, reparations is therefore really about system change to achieve a fairer and just world.

That said, there are a range of specific actions that are called for by activists that are viewed as essential components for a reparative approach. These include formal apologies for past harm, direct compensation, repatriation of property, restoration of rights, investment in education and cultural institutions, addressing public health inequalities and the psychological effects of institutional racism, debt cancellation, and guarantees of non-repetition. 

Crucially, a key learning for me is that the process of reparations should be led by impacted communities seeking justice, not by those seeking absolution or exoneration from guilt about the deeds of their ancestors.

What does this mean for my work?

Learning about reparations has helped me to begin to look at the world differently. It has helped me attempt to understand the enduring trauma of colonialism and neo-colonialism for many Black, indigenous and people of colour across the world.

This has included adjusting how I see the present-day world in relation to the past, while accepting the profound impact colonialism has had upon the contemporary global economic order. This includes not only obvious things like the debt crisis facing many low-income countries and the exploitative business practices of extractive industries across the global south, but also the past and present impact of the very sector I work in – and the uncomfortable, but also undeniable fact that international development and humanitarian assistance were born from the legacy of colonialism.

While recognising the very often positive impacts we have had as a sector, we must also recognise and confront our own shortcomings. We must actively address skewed power when it shows up within our own systems, processes and cultures if we’re to play our part in dismantling wider colonial and neo-colonial power. And more broadly, by doing so, it could help us collectively reimagine development and challenge the causes of deep-rooted inequalities.

At the same time, learning about reparations has also led me to personally reflect further than ever before on my own identity as a white Scottish male and all the unearned privilege that each of those overlapping identities brings. It has shone a light on how important it is to ‘show up’ as an ally to the reparations movement and to encourage meaningful engagement with this issue with my colleagues and peers.

Crucially, I’ve learned that the movement for reparations can only be led by impacted communities across the world, and that those of us who wish to be allies must tread carefully, and mindfully. But it has also helped me realise that, while progress is both essential and possible, it will also be a long road to achieve reparative justice, so educating ourselves as best we can about why the call for reparations exists is a vital starting point.

In Scotland, there have been some constructive debates about our role in the British colonial project, but the truth is we’ve only scratched the surface. Too often, our national conversation is framed around our progressive forward-looking ambitions, without sufficiently considering the deep and enduring impacts of our murkier past. To really move forward, we must do much more to acknowledge Scotland’s significant role in British colonialism and our continuing impact and role in the enduring legacies it left behind.

Going forward, I hope to keep learning from the reparations movement, amplifying calls from activists where I can, and building connections through my role at Oxfam with those seeking reparative justice in and from Scotland. If that sounds like something you’d be keen to do as well, let me know!

Subscribe to our newsletter for the latest news, events, resources and funding updates.

Sign up now