If the poorest countries simply disappeared, would the rich countries even notice? This month’s books examine two favourite myths: that ‘interdependence’ between rich and poor countries benefits the poor and that overpopulation destroys the environment.
Editor: Anuradha Vittachi
The helpful rich
Rich Country Interests and Third World Development
ed. by Robert Cassen, Richard Jolly, John Sewell and Robert Wood
Croom Helm (hbk) £15.95
Development Debacle: The World Bank in the Philippines
by Walden Bello, David Kinley and Elaine Elinson
US: Institute for Food and Development Policy
and Philippine Solidarity Network (pbk) $6.95
UK: Available through Third World Publications £4.95
Do the rich nations of the world see development as a threat, a moral imperative or as an engine for renewing their own economic growth? Rich Country Interests and Third World Development is a useful collection of nine country studies (including Canada and Australia) from which only the Dutch and the Scandinavians emerge with much humanitarian credit. More generally what becomes clear is the sheer diversity’ of the economic, political and strategic interests of rich countries according to which of the very different parts of the ‘Third World’ they are dealing with — the OPEC group, the handful of ’newly-industrialising’ countries, the seventy or so ‘middle-income’ economies and the multitude of the very poor. And their interests further vary according to the image they have of their own international standing, their historical backgrounds, their own experience as lenders or borrowers, and whether they are importers or exporters of primary products.
There is practically no consensus ‘rich country interest’. And certainly there is no general recognition of that ‘mutuality of interests’ between North and South that the Brandt Report so heavily relies upon as the basis for future action. It’s not really surprising. The fact is, as the editors in their thoughtful introduction admit, such mutuality doesn’t exist with regard to the poorest countries, which could more or less disappear ‘with hardly a ripple of effect on the immediate well-being of the North’s inhabitants’. And even for the others, the notion of interdependence must be seen as ‘less a deduction from economic facts than a declaration of economic and political will’ to fashion a system in which there is interdependence; unfortunately not a hopeful prospect when today the rich countries of the North lack the vision to create a framework within which they can pursue even their own common interest in extricating themselves from a largely self-inflicted mess of an economic slump.
Those despairing of self-motivated bilateralism, who cling to the belief that multilateral aid dispensed by international agencies has a benign neutrality unsullied by national interest should quickly get hold of Development Debacle: The World Bank in the Philippines.
This provides an example, according to the authors, of the US government circumventing the human rights restrictions increasingly attached by’ Congressional liberals to bilateral aid by relying instead on a multilateral agency.
The book is brought to you only with the co-operation of people within the World Bank, who have courageously searched for photocopied and leaked thousands of pages of documents’. What it charts is the ghastly history of the World Bank over the last decade in a disastrous ‘top-down’ development programme that has left the masses still further impoverished under a near bankrupt Marcos dictatorship.
It is a detailed indictment of the way in which the World Bank effectively operated as the creature of its major subscriber and the total failure of that policy to fulfil the hopes of a US Treasury Report in creating an economy ‘open, predictable, growing and characterised by increased efficiency. . . democratic, pluralistic and capitalistic. . . similar to ours’. (Not exactly everyone’s idea of what is meant by ‘development’, anyway.)
Both readable and serious in its analysis this case study raises one worrying issue after another. Underlying them all is a deeply disturbing question: has the World Bank in the Philippines quite cynically serves American political interests regardless of the development consequences? Or is it so imbued with a wrong-headed view of the development process that its contribution would be unintentionally damaging even in a more progressive, politically healthy situation? It is hard to believe the first. It is also possible to fear the second.
Peter Donaldson lectures in economics at Ruskin College, Oxford.
Building a Sustainable Society
by Lester Brown
Down to Earth: Environment and Human Needs
by Erik Eckholm
Pluto Press (pbk) £3.95
In the 70s, Dr Brown’s book, By Bread Alone, helped to popularise some of the basic misconceptions about the world’s so-called ’food crisis’ of the time. Once again. in Building a Sustainable Society, he demonstrates his extraordinary ability to produce page after page (433 in total) of bland, plausible prose, almost all of it missing the point This book is about how the base of civilisation is being eroded and how a sustainable society could be shaped.
In excruciating detail and with a statistic to back up virtually every paragraph. Dr Brown, head of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, catalogues the extent of soil erosion, deforestation, desertification, mineral depletion and, most threatening of all, overpopulation. This is his real enemy:
‘Among the forces that are undermining society’, population growth ranks at the top.’ He advocates a timetable to stabilise world population at six billion, otherwise ‘population pressures could become unbearable, leading to widespread collapses of local biological life support systems’.
But Dr Brown sees some hope as far as new forms of energy are concerned, thanks to biogas, wind generators. Geothermal energy, recycling and the greater use of bikes. The trouble is that Dr Brown is long on data but woefully’ short on analysis. His world is one of cottonwool and marshmallow. There are no villains. He appears to think that soil erodes itself and that deserts extend and trees uproot themselves. Politics is a word he seems blissfully unaware of. The only way to describe this book is globalony. It is time Dr Brown climbed out of his Worldwatch tower and came down to earth.
By happy coincidence Down to Earth is the title of a recent book by Erik Eckholm who co-authored By Bread Alone but has sharpened up since then. He deals with many of the same topics as Dr Brown but this is a much more serious report on the state — more accurately, the degradation —of the environment. In quiet, sober style, he documents not only the extent throughout the world of erosion and deforestation but also of oceanic and atmospheric pollution.
Barbara Ward’s Foreword places the book in context: ‘The solutions to environmental problems are increasingly seen to involve reforms in land tenure and economic strategy, and the involvement of communities in shaping their own lives.’ Eckholm understands this. if only in a mild way. The chief value in his work lies in the careful and detailed description of how the environment is being mistreated and the problems this is creating not just for today but for the future.
Tony Jackson is Food Aid Consultant to Oxfam. UK