Author: Adam Hochschild
Review by: Kirk Bowman, Jon R. Wilcox Professor of Soccer and Global Politics, Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Tech; Founder and Director, Rise Up & Care
After procrastinating for two decades, I finally read King Leopold’s Ghost this year. Hoschild’s acclaimed work both informed me of a fascinating period of world history and led me to seriously think about global philanthropy. King Leopold of Belgium ruled the vast and resource-rich Congo from 1885 to 1908, not as a colony of Belgium but as a vast philanthropic project. Under the auspices of the International African Association of the Congo, Leopold received donations from European elites and promised to dedicate his personal wealth to uplift the region’s inhabitants.
In practice, it was a sham. Leopold used the cover of philanthropy to earn a fortune through the ivory and rubber trades, treating the local population with brutality. The population fell by up to half under Leopold’s “charitable care,” collapsing from 20 to 10 million. Local administrators hacked off thousands of hands of workers failing to meet their rubber quotas. Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad, Arthur Conan Doyle and others led a global campaign against Leopold’s personal charitable estate, and Belgium paid its king a fortune to annex Congo in 1908.
The Congo experience provides numerous lessons for our time. As but one example, Leopold ordered the creation of orphanages, but in African societies with strong clan ties, there were no orphans. Demand exceeded supply, and Leopold’s troops increased the supply by raiding villages and collecting “orphans.”
Sadly, something similar is happening today. I read Leopold’s Ghost at the same time that J.K. Rowling launched a three-year campaign to stop orphanage tourism. There is an oversupply of orphanage tourists and a shortage of orphans. Children are being sold or stolen into orphanages to sate the pressure from orphanage volunteers. While their intentions are far more noble than the Congo’s ruthless ruler, Hoschild’s brilliant book reminds us all that global philanthropy can sometimes be far different from what it appears.
Read Dr. Bowman’s previous reviews:
Editor’s note: This review is part of Global Atlanta’s annual project asking influential readers and community leaders to review the most impactful book they read during the course of the year. This endeavor has continued each year since 2010. Purchases through the Amazon affiliate links at top will provide a commission to Global Atlanta. All books were chosen and reviews written independently, with only mild editing from our staff.