New Internationalist

The Matthew Effect

Issue 093

Robin Arnold explains how what goes down comes back up.

Photo: Robin Arnold
Traditional Sri Lankan fishing boats: modernisation brought unemployment. Photo: Robin Arnold

When wealth transfers from North to South almost invariably it is a rich-to-rich transaction, writes Robin Arnold. Those who want to see a trickle down of wealth are disappointed. But worse, often there occurs an up-draught of resources from the poor to rich sectors of a Third World country. The Matthew Effect is at work.

This phenomenon is embodied in verse 29 of St Matthew Chapter 25: ‘Unto everyone that hath shall be given and he shall have abundance, but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.’

Example 1: A loan for a dam in a hydro-electric power project. The dam gets the go-ahead and immediately thousands of peasants have to be cleared off the land to be flooded. When the installation is complete the electricity begins to flow - but priority goes to industry and comparatively wealthy city dwellers. If the dam also provides irriga­tion it is usually on a large scale, thus encouraging largescale mechanical farm­ing. The peasants without work or land head for the city slums.

Example 2: The Green Revolution. New high-yielding varieties of maize, wheat and rice seed are developed. Farmers who can afford fertiliser, pesti­cides and irrigation, which these new seeds require, expand their holdings by taking over the land of farmers too poor to afford the new varieties.

Example 3: A fishing village in Sri Lanka. In the 1960s the fishermen were helped to replace traditional vessels with boats designed in Norway and powered by Japanese diesel motors. By 1975 annual tonnage was up from 30 to 200. But repairs costs had become unbearable and many fishermen had been forced to abandon their boats. The number of employed in the village had fallen by half and 35 per cent of the menfolk were out of work.

In each example, a tiny handful has managed to climb over the poor-rich barrier. But many have become poorer. Overall, the chasm between rich and poor has widened and deepened.

When the Matthew Effect goes to work, the result invariably is the replace­ment of simple technology by more complex and mechanised technology - and growth in the ranks of the under­privileged.

Robin Arnold is a member of Australia’s Melbourne-based Community Aid Abroad.

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