New Internationalist

The human factor

Issue 090

Inside the Third World
by Paul Harrison Penguin (paperback)
UK: £2.95 Can: $6.95 Aus: $7.95/ p>

Journalism that strikes sparks and changes perceptions is a rare thing. It takes a profound and sensitive feeling for people. Five years of travel to ten underdeveloped nations has left British journalist Paul Harrison with a wealth of descriptive detail and experience. The result is a finely-woven human backdrop to one of the most complete and closelyargued books written on development.

All the familiar problems are dealt with; colonization, climate, land and wealth distribution, urbanization, employment, multinational corporations, population, food, health care, education, the global economic system. There’s scarcely a stone left unturned. But Harrison’s approach is a subtle one: his anecdotes reinforce with great compassion the critical discussion of each problem. So when outlining the threat of exploding Third World cities he ushers us through the clogged and pestilent streets of Calcutta:

‘The trams and buses sag on their springs… a young woman in sari, her head leaning on her hand with an air of sleepy melancholia, reached for breath outside, though the air was almost as dank and malodorous as inside.’

The colour and life he injects into the subject open the doorway to the reader’s sensibility. Statistics when they are used are forceful and impressive, staccato fragments after complex and evocative paragraphs. His description of Thud World cities, bloated parasites living off the countryside, is followed by a sobering list of facts. Soon urban areas will contain some 970 million people, more than half the world’s total, and 15 of the world’s 20 largest cities will be in developing countries.

Harrison underlines the way Western Values have exacerbated Third World poverty. He also lambastes Westerneducated elites in the poor world: imperial powers, in distorting Third World economies, also distorted Third World peoples, turning them into replicas of themselves and establishing a new class of ‘pseudo-Europeans’.

On the issue of population and poverty, Harrison moves into more treacherous waters. While accepting that having many children is an intelligent economic response by poor parents to boost family income and provide social security in old age, he still views the population boom as ‘the master lock on the national poverty trap’. But this view puts the cart before the horse, History has shown that population growth rates only begin to fall when the standard of living begins to rise significantly for the majority of people (see N,1. June 1980 issue).

Harrison is helpful in unplaiting the interwoven strands of Third World poverty. But he is off-base on solutions for re-ordering the topsy-turvy world economy. Especially disturbing is his endorsement of increased aid in the fashion of the reconstruction of Europe under the US-instigated Marshall Plan. Most Third World countries are already so polarized between rich and poor that more aid by itself is likely to end up as window-dressing, leaving untouched the inequalities of power that Harrison describes so well elsewhere. Aside from these reservations, Inside theThird World is an admirable and lucidly-argued overview of the real global problems, the ones so often driven off the front pages by superpower sabre-ratrl?n_- and political oneupmanship.

Wayne Ellwood

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