“The Rich countries are responsible for the continuing poverty of the South”

by Nicholas Hildyard

first published 1 June 1996

The rich have never been bashful about extolling the virtues that created their wealth. Nor are they short of handy explanations for the poverty of others. But, however hard they might try, they have always had difficulty in explaining poverty in ways that do not implicate themselves.

Not surprisingly, when confronted with persistent and rising poverty, whether in their own countries or abroad, their first reaction is to wheel out the usual suspects -- that pair of spiky haired punks Ms Feckless and her sister Miss Management; Comrades Intervention and Trade Barrier and their sidekicks Crony and Backhander; and that arch-hooligan and enemy of civilized society Ms Too Many. And, if that rogues gallery fails to persuade, Master Race and his sidekick Eugene are always lurking in the background ready to swear blind that the poor have only themselves and their parents to blame.

"There is a gene for homelessness", says the editor of Science. "It's their culture", others chime in. "If you want to know why they are poor, you've only got to look at the Swiss Bank accounts of their leaders." "You just can't get them to work." "It's the bureaucracy." "They don't have the technical know how". "There are just too many of them." And, the dalek cry of the free marketeers, "They lack market discipline".

But there are few grounds for blaming poverty on increasing human numbers, on lack of modern technology, on poor governance or on constraints to the free market which are not even better grounds for blaming it on the operations of power and wealth.

There are certainly more poor people in the world than there are rich people. But to single out human numbers as the cause of poverty is to obscure the massive destitution caused by the consumerist lifestyles of the rich and the activities of global commerce. Take Egypt. Malnutrition is rife -- over 80 per cent of children under five-years-old are malnourished. The country has to import wheat for breadmaking. And the reason would seem obvious. Over 50 million people crammed into a narrow strip of land either side of the Nile. Demography and geography have run up against each other. Poverty is the result.

But what those statistics and that image does not tell you is that the Egyptians produce more than enough grain to feed themselves. Or that the bulk of that grain is used to feed cows to produce meat to satisfy the newly-acquired tastes of the affluent classes. In fact, Egypt feeds more of its grain to animals than it does to humans.

Nor does the image of a population that has run out of land tell us anything about the role of USAID in promoting livestock production. Nor about the US grain companies that have profited to the tune of millions of dollars now that Egypt is a market for subsidized US grain. Nor about the debt that Egypt has incurred as a result of having to import grain. Nor about the crop land that is now taken up with growing cut flowers to pay off that debt. Nor about the structural adjustment programmes that have been imposed to "bring the economy back into equilibrium". Nor about the poverty and misery that SAPs have caused.

Or again, what of those Swiss Bank accounts? No-one denies that despotic leaders and corrupt practices oppress the poor -- you have only to look at the patronage politics that are driving the privatisation of the national health service in Britain to see how the poor suffer when public service becomes personal gain. But who helped to install those despotic leaders in the first place? Who keeps them in power? Who supplies them with arms? Who offers them political support? Who said of Noriega, "He may be a son-of-a bitch but he is our son-of-a-bitch?" Why, that great defender of democracy, the US President. Who helped install Marcos as President of the Philippines because he could be assured of keeping the Philippines economy open to Western companies? Who sought to ensure that the South African Apartheid regime was supplied by electricity -- in defiance of international sanctions -- by funding a massive dam in Lesotho? Why, the very same World Bank which the gentlemen on the bench opposite proudly proclaim to be promoting good governance.

And what of the despotism exercised by those great "wealth creators", the transnational corporations? or by their subsidisers the multilateral and bilateral aid agencies? What is one to make of their behaviour when Sri Lanka enacted a National Drugs Policy that would have given the poorest Sri Lankans access to medicinal drugs at a price they could afford? Within hours of the policy being announced, the US Ambassador, under intense pressure from US pharmaceutical companies, was threatening to cut off food aid unless the policy was reversed. No despotism there! Just a concern for the poor -- and, of course, the "rights" of corporations to squeeze as much profit as possible from the countries where they operate. And why is it that so many southern governments live in fear of the World Bank? Why in the Bank's own words do they perceive "The negotiations stage of the project cycle as a largely coercive exercise designed to "impose" the Bank's philosophy?" Is it because Bank officials lack charm? Or because they are so used to getting their way that they are unwilling to brook any opposition to their policies?

And whose interests do those policies reflect? Have the dams, roads, farm mechanization programmes and market reforms that have been imposed on communities in the south by Northern experts and their allies in government and industry really benefited the poor? Who has benefited from the "Green Revolution"? The peasants whose lands have been degraded by the imposition of inappropriate western farming methods? Or the pesticide companies, agricultural research stations and seed companies of the North? The poor who have been made landless through debts incurred in buying pesticides and fertilizers? Or the richer farmers who have brought up their lands? Who is benefiting from the privatisation of fishing grounds through quotas? The fisherfolk who have traditionally relied on those fisheries and who can no longer afford access to them? Or the corporate trawling fleets who have brought up the quotas?

The development process as we know it is not about benefiting the poor. It is about creating a political and economic infrastructure that favours the rich and powerful. It is a process that transforms the landscape that local communities have relied upon for their livelihoods into resources for a global economy in which we, the rich, are the principle beneficiaries. In the global supermarket

It is a process that enables state and commercial interests to gain control of territory that has traditionally been used and cherished by others. That redefines what is valued in the environment. That redefines how the environment is managed, by whom and for whose benefit. That redefines who has access to that environment -- to land, food, water, fishing grounds, forests, plants and biodiversity. That redefines the forums in which decisions are made and whose voice counts in that forum.

And it is a process that ushers in a new political order. It changes the networks of power which enmesh the environment, production, distribution, the political process, knowledge and the law. It redefines who will have influence -- and who is marginal. And it has entrenched economic and political power in those actors -- the TNCs, MDBs, southern elites, state agencies and the military -- for whom the world is simply a gaming table. For whom people are simply units of labour or consumption. And for whom the environment is not what is around their homes but what is around their economies -- a source of raw materials and a dumping ground for wastes.

Of course, every now and again, the mask falls. Some maverick business leader or careless civil servant gives the game away.

Witness Cecil Rhodes: "We must find new lands from which we can easily obtain raw materials and at the same time exploit the cheap slave labour that is available from the natives of the colonies. The colonies would also provide a dumping ground for the surplus goods of our factories."

Witness Nye Bevin, the Labour Government's Foreign Secretary in the late 1940s, "Africa is a valuable source of manpower and raw materials. The US is very barren of essential minerals. In Africa we have them all."

Witness Larry Summers, one time chief economist at the World Bank, now at the US Treasury: "I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that."

The issue is one of power. In the global market that development has spawned, the disadvantaged are fair game for the detritus of wealth creation, whilst its benefits go to those who have the political and economic power to secure them against the claims of others.

To pretend otherwise may salve consciences but is deeply hypocritical. As Tolstoy put it over a hundred years ago: "I sit on a man's back, choking him and making me carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means -- except by getting off his back."

So, in the spirit of being tough on hypocrisy and the causes of hypocrisy, I urge you to vote for the motion.