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Saturday, June 11, 2005

Truth and lies

"The US and Britain have agreed on how the debt owed by the world's poorest nations can be erased", booms the New York Times. The Age's James Button writes that the world's beautiful people are pressuring the leaders of the most powerful nations to do something about Africa. He approvingly quotes Bono, Bob Geldof and former Ultravox singer Midge Ure. At least he asks whether such activity will actually make a difference in Africa itself. What he doesn't say is instructive. As ever, it's up to Naomi Klein to reveal the reality:

"This is what keeps Africa poor: not a lack of political will but the tremendous profitability of the current arrangement [of Western imposed economic policies, namely privatisation.]"

"Neoliberalism, an ideology so powerful it tries to pass itself off as "modernity" while its maniacal true believers masquerade as disinterested technocrats, can no longer claim to be a consensus. It was decisively rejected by French voters when they said No to the EU Constitution, and you can see how hated it has become in Russia, where large majorities despise the profiteers of the disastrous 1990s privatisations and few mourned the recent sentencing of oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky."

The imposition of economic policies designed to benefit Western multinationals rather than Africa's poor remains a key issue rarely discussed in the West. Back to Klein:

"All of this makes for interesting timing for the G-8 summit. Bob Geldof and the Make Poverty History crew have called for tens of thousands of people to go to Edinburgh and form a giant white band around the city centre on July 2 - a reference to the ubiquitous Make Poverty History bracelets. But it seems a shame for a million people to travel all that way to be a giant bauble, a collective accessory to power. How about if, when all those people join hands, they declare themselves not a bracelet but a noose - a noose around the lethal economic policies that have already taken so many lives, for lack of medicine and clean water, for lack of justice."

John Pilger reminds us that the current face of "saving Africa" is in fact colonialism under a new name. Gordon Brown says there is an "obligation" on the poorest countries to "create the conditions for [business] investment." The chief civil servant at the UK Department for International Development wrote, "We are extending our support for privatisation in the poorest countries from the power sector in India to the tea industry in Nepal."

Why doesn't James Button talk about this? Much easier to believe the propaganda of Gordon Brown.


Anonymous Shabadoo! said...

Of course, one could also say that for the vast majority of people over the mast majority of time, poverty and struggle for day-to-day survival have been the human condition, and what we enjoy in the West is an incredible human anomaly -- ie., the West didn't make Africa and everyone else poor; they were poor already. The question then becomes how to best get more people sharing in the pie; it's pretty clear that all the post-colonialist experiments in various types of socialism and collectivism were disasters that actually did make things worse (Tanzania under Nyerere, Zimbabwe today). Freeing markets and talent and creating the conditions for investment really means giving people a lot more opportunity to do things with their lives, and should take power away from the kleptocracies that have further ruined Africa.

Saturday, June 11, 2005 4:41:00 pm  
Anonymous michael said...

Of course the post-colonialist experiments in capitalism have been at least as disastrous as the socialist ones for those who don't enjoy the benefit of the strategic high ground of neo-liberalism's 'level playing field'.

But I've always been a bit bemused by the simple minded dualism between 'capitalist' and 'socialist' economies. Exactly what is the significant difference between systems run by and for the benefit of a tiny technocratic elite where one system's elites get corporate paycheques and the other's gets government ones?

I agree with Shabadoo! that we need to take power away from the kleptocracies that have ruined Africa (and the rest of the world) - starting with the corporate kleptocracy we live under. But his simplistic argument that 'the poor have always been with us', therefore no-one is to blame for the continuing poverty in Africa, is disingenous to say the least.

It seems to be predicated on the idea that because the West has reduced the worst extremes of its own poverty, partly by manipulating the economies and political systems of the third world, that there can be no valid ethical argument for redirecting some of the massive surpluses currently fattening the hip pockets of western plutocrats towards providing basic human needs to the starving millions of the third world or for reducing the current plunder of third world resources and economies. Well, maybe there's is no valid argument within the framework of Shabadoo!'s impoverished ethics, but it seems to me that there are plenty of principlist and utilitarian ethical arguments for it nonetheless.

That said, the fuzzy, feelgood gestures by Geldof and Bono seem to me to be the anti-poverty version of greenwashing.

I think a Live-8 spokesman displayed his true level of commitment to Africa when he responded to a question about the overwhelming Anglo-Saxonism of Live-8 with "This is not Womad. We are not doing an arts festival".

Saturday, June 11, 2005 5:24:00 pm  
Anonymous Shabadoo! said...

Michael, you write: "there can be no valid ethical argument for redirecting some of the massive surpluses currently fattening the hip pockets of western plutocrats towards providing basic human needs to the starving millions of the third world or for reducing the current plunder of third world resources and economies."

I presume you mean "for not redirecting", but what do you call all the aid that has sunk into nothingness over the years?

Saturday, June 11, 2005 6:35:00 pm  
Anonymous shabadoo! said...

Furthermore, doesn't debt forgiveness create a moral hazard, saying that there is ultimately no punishment for bad economic management; also, what does it say to countries that have been responsible and paid back their debts?

Sunday, June 12, 2005 10:23:00 am  
Anonymous michael said...

"I presume you mean "for not redirecting"".

Read the whole sentence. I was summarising your argument, not putting my own.

And your argument about 'punishment' for 'bad economic management' (why am I not surprised that you're a fan of punishing others?) is about as moral and sensible as suggesting that stolen goods should never be returned to the original owners because they need to be penalised for allowing them to be stolen in the first place.

But I definitely think that debt relief is a distant second best option. The real answer is to rein in the corporations and institutions that are pillaging poor countries in the first place.

Sunday, June 12, 2005 2:40:00 pm  
Anonymous michael said...

Today's Guardian has an article by George Monbiot that neatly deconstructs the hype around the debt relief project.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005 3:50:00 pm  

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