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Issue 141

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[image, unknown] AID[image, unknown]

Rejecting food
Cash better than food aid

Food bought is better than food given.
Photo: ILO

THE nutritionist in Weldia, Ethiopia, says he has been distributing free food to 190,000 people for six years. He speaks as if no one is going to come up with a more imaginative way of bridging the chasm between what the people need to eat and what they can grow. The rains have failed again, no seeds are available, the oxen have been sold. Are things better or worse this year? ‘Better,’ he says, ‘because we have enough grain to give out.’

Ethiopia is one of those African countries with a seemingly perennial food crisis. A decade of war and drought has led to a sharp decline in food production. This year the Government-run Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC) says 4.8 million people are affected. But so inaccessible are the country’s remote reaches, so limited the transport and administrative capacity, that the UN works on the basis that one million people is the maximum emergency relief can touch.

Giving food to as many hungry children as you can find often seems the only response. Most international agencies have food distribution as part of their programme in Ethiopia. According to the World Food Programme, 250,000 tonnes of grain, oil and milkpowder was pledged as food aid to Ethiopia for the first half of 1984.

But food aid doesn’t only save lives. It becomes a way of life. Hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians spend their days in queues outside warehouses, waiting to be given food. As the years pass it is increasingly difficult for them to return to their fields, even if the rains come.

The relief agencies do give seed and sometimes tools, but Ethiopian farming is dependent on ox-ploughing and there are few projects to restock communities with animals. And if food aid makes up for the shortfalls in production, it is a disincentive to produce,

Increasingly aware of these drawbacks, the RRC and UNICEF have introduced public works projects in the provinces of Shoa and Gonder, where people are paid in cash instead of food. They use the cash to buy food, clothes, seed and other necessities in nearby towns. Instead of creating dependency on imported food, the project is stimulating the local economy and helping the people regain their economic base for starting to produce again when rains come.

In previous droughts the men of Menz would leave their families to go to a food-for-work project run by the Ministry of Agriculture. This time around it is different. The cash-for-work project enables the men to stay in their community.

Zewde Woldyess, whose husband works on the project in Menz, says: ‘We prefer to get cash than food because we are able to economise, to save up and buy things like clothes and spices.’

While not solving Ethiopia’s problem of declining food production, the project in Menz does address one issue of increasing significance throughout Africa: famine is often not the result of an overall food deficit but of maldistribution. Although in parts of Ethiopia such a project could not work because there is no food at all, in Menz there is grain available in nearby market towns.

Some African governments are realising that it can be more practical and better for the economy to help people find food locally than to import it from the outside and then mount huge, expensive and often inefficient distribution systems. Projects like the one in Menz are a pocket of hope. There are alternatives to supplying or asking for more and more food aid. Handing out food is not the only way of helping people cope.

Lindsey Hilsum, Gemini

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[image, unknown] HEALTH[image, unknown]

Grim reapers
America’s dangerous products

HAVE you ever been savaged by a lawnmower? Or battered by a bathtub? The idea may seem ridiculous, vet these are among the ten consumer products most hazardous to health, according to the Consumer Federation of America.

The top three in the US list of hazardous products are reasonably predictable. Automobiles kill 50,000 people a year and injure four million more - the economic cost of this is estimated at 80 billion dollars annually but the human cost is clearly incalculable. Cigarettes play a major role in 300,000 premature deaths a year, according to the US government, and also are the main cause of fatal fires in the home. And 13 million Americans abuse or are addicted to alcohol, a problem which caused economic damage of 100 billion dollars in 1982.

But the other dangerous goods are less obvious. More than 50,000 people are injured by their lawnmowers each year, while over 100,000 are hurt by power saws.

Bicycles are one common child’s present which might generally be thought of as dangerous - but toys? Each year more than 100,000 toy-related injuries are reported. And children are also endangered by household substances which injure 25,000 Americans a year. Even cooking stoves rack up a score of 30,000 injuries each year.

But the most bizarre of the hazardous consumer products has to be the bath and shower - these cause 100,000 injuries requiring medical attention every year. The only question is how?

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[image, unknown] CO-OPERATIVES[image, unknown]

The other war
Zimbabwe s co-ops may fall

FORMING co-operatives is an important way of giving people some measure of control over their own lives and building a fairer society. Yet they often need support to get off the ground - support which can be very low on the list of priorities in a crisis, even for a committed government.

A case in point is Zimbabwe. Collectives there were seen as a vital part of the move towards socialism after independence. Yet the collective movement will be in severe danger of collapse over the next few months if the country’s rains fail for the fourth successive year.

Zimbabwe’s co-operators include peasant farmers, redundant industrial workers and unemployed youth besides the former guerilla fighters and political prisoners who launched the collective movement soon after independence.

The demobilisation money paid out by the Zimbabwe government to former combatants and used by many to get the co-ops started is now exhausted. And no bank has yet been persuaded to offer them loans or credit - despite the contribution which the collectives are already making to alleviating the country’s pressing problem of unemployment.

The co-ops face suspicion and hostility from industry arid elements of the public service. They lack plant arid equipment, transport and access to markers, practical and professional skills and the know-how that can only come from trial and error.

The mood is nevertheless one of self-confidence and quiet optimism. A member of Simukai co-operative, which is based on a former white farm just south of Harare, summed up why. What we are doing here we are doing for ourselves. We don’t care how much we get or when we get it. We work for our own benefit because here we have bought a place which is our working place and our home together.’

Cephas Muropa is the chairperson of the Organisation of Collective Co-operatives in Zimbabwe, set up in 1983 and already representing 25,000 people. In his view, there are clear parallels with the days of guerilla warfare, when ‘our fighters were busy, apart from just shooting. They had first of all to politicise the people so as to explain why it was necessary to fight.

‘The majority of the people in the co-operatives are ex-combatants these people, wherever they are, are again busy politicising our people in this second phase of the war.’ But unless the Mugabe government offers more support, that second phase of the war max’ well be lost.

Margaret Ling

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[image, unknown] MEDIA[image, unknown]

Heroes and villains
Asian movies with a message

TELEVISION is now established in the West as a means of raising awareness of development issues - even if it never reaches as wide an audience as we would like. But the use of popular culture within the Third World to disseminate important information is still in its infancy. Television itself is rarely an option. since few of the poorest people have access even to a communal set. But a new project in Bangladesh has moved into movie production in a big way, aiming to get across vital educational messages to as many people as possible.

Bangladesh has much the same cinema traditions as India, producing a steady stream of epics, all with the same ingredients: extravagant melodrama, traditional romance, dashing heroes and winsome heroines (all light-skinned and running a little to fat - being slim is not enviable in a hungry country). There are dream sequences, the characters are liable to burst into song and dance at every available opportunity and there is no fancy blurring of the line between good and evil.

Now Worldview International Foundation (WIF), a Sri Lankan-based organisation funded mainly by Norway and Canada, has started making movies according to just this formula. Its first is a 25-minute film called It’s Dawn, made with one of Bangladesh’s top producers and a local camera-crew, which aims to communicate the importance of literacy. The plot has a retired businessman returning from the big city anxious to improve the lot of the people in his village. He tries to persuade them to take adult literacy classes but no one is interested. Until, that is, the hero’s sister falls sick and is given poison instead of medicine because the labels on the bottles are read wrongly. Persuaded of the necessity to read and write, the hero does all he can to learn and by the last scene knows enough to understand when the rich landlord (the villain) tries to trick him into signing away his own small plot of land. In the last scene the villagers chase the landlord into the river.

The climax showing the embarrassment of the landlord proved to be even more popular with audiences than the setpiece song by one of Bangladesh’s biggest stars. And, according to WIF’s survey, over 95 per cent of people interviewed clearly understood the message of the film.

It’s Dawn has now been seen by six million people in Bangladesh - not just in cinemas and on television but also from vans which have transported it all over the country. Its success has encouraged WIF to make two more in the same style and with the same cast, this time on the themes of family planning and nutrition.

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[image, unknown] WOMEN[image, unknown]

Blacksmith, baker, roof-sheet maker
Taking on ‘men’s work’

IN northern India women ironsmiths hammer out the metals that are forged into agricultural implements. In Kenya a group of women make roofing sheets from sisal and cement. In Bangladesh landless women are making hospital beds. In other countries they are making stoves and running bus services. It all sounds different from the work Third World women generally do - such as growing food - but these ‘jobs with a difference’ are growing.

All too often productive work for women outside the home is confined to handicrafts. Yet the production of handicrafts can be risky. People in London or New York can suddenly decide such a handicraft is no longer fashionable’. The result for the women in the Third World can be bankruptcy and extreme hardship for their families.

The alternative to fickle handicrafts is for rural women to become involved in the production and provision of those basic goods and services which are needed on a regular basis by local communities. The productive jobs that women are already doing in some countries - and could do in every developing country - are often little known about. Now Marilyn Cart, an economist with the London-based Intermediate Technology Development Group, has produced a book containing 50 case studies of how women make a living in unconventional yet profitable activities.

One reason why rural women need to increase their hold on cash income is because the number of households where a woman is the sole earner is increasing. In Kenya it is now 33 per cent. It also seems to be the case that families fare better when women, as well as men, have an income. Women tend to spend more of their earnings on their children’s health and education than do menfolk.

Many products currently imported into villages from the towns and even from abroad could be made in the villages if appropriate technology, raw materials, training and other support services were available. There is no reason either why women should not do some of the jobs that are regarded as ‘men’s work’.

Making stoves, for example, is generally thought of as a male preserve. But in Indonesia and in parts of the Sahel, women are becoming involved. In Senegal, women have been trained to build stoves that decrease the amount of wood needed for cooking. 90 per cent of 5,000 stoves built in the Louga district of Senegal since 1980 have been made by women.

Marilyn Carr’s examples offer considerable possibilities for increased technical co-operation between developing countries. Manufacturing processes in which women are making a living in one country may be capable of being copied, with perhaps some modification, in another. Women’s work with a difference seems likely to grow - and with it a better deal for many millions of families.

John Madeley, Earthscan

Blacksmith, baker, roofing-sheet maker by Marilyn Carr is available from Intermediate Technology Publications, 9 King Street, London WC2, UK at £5.95

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[image, unknown] TAKING ISSUE

Ashok Mitra

Ashok Mitra speculates on the results of increasing the cost of loans.

Interesting ethics
Ashok Mitra speculates on the results of increasing the cost of loans.

Interest rates all over the world are supposed to move in filial sympathy. A one-per-cent increase in the prime rate of interest charged by American banks can thus cause an annual setback for the underdeveloped countries of as much as 3.5 billion dollars.

The international monetary system is a fragile institution. If you hike the interest rate too much, or stiffen the other conditions attached to loans, the poor countries might be unable either to pay the interest due or repay the principal. They could decide not to honour their commitments. If they do, you have very little choice left. You cannot afford to start a war against defaulting countries.

Raising this as a moral issue is not much help. Certainly in civilised intercourse, and within a stable frame of arrangements where international debts are meant to be honoured, repudiation of outstanding obligations is normally ‘not done’.

Morality however can be an elusive thing. Is there any moral foundation to charging extortionate rates of interest? Sometimes a country in desperate straits agrees to whatever conditions are set by international banks, including unconscionably high interest rates and tight repayment schedules. If the country is subsequently unable to meet these commitments why shouldn’t the moral prescription be to persuade lenders to adjust the interest rates downwards and to work out a fresh scheme of debt rescheduling? Someone from the underdeveloped world in a particularly bitter mood might even be tempted to paraphrase Bertolt Brecht: between robbing a bank and owning one, is not the latter the more heinous crime?

Either side can build an ethical case. Either side can develop an economic rationale for its attitude. The lenders can argue that they have to charge a high rate of interest and demand prompt repayment, otherwise they cannot balance their books and are in trouble. The borrowers would defend defaulting on interest payments and insist on more elongated rescheduling. After all, they have to deploy their resources to meet more immediate problems like catering to the poor, including supplying elementary education and drinking water.

But suppose the money saved by not paying the foreign banks is spent on the private whims of a few. If the majority of the people are stuck at low levels of income, we describe a country as poor. Even in such a poor land a microscopic minority at the top could however be stupendously rich. And they might be the only ones who matter. They might control the local banks: they might control the government their kin could be the leading lights of the judiciary, police and army. The money borrowed from outside could mainly go to give a boost to their well-being. There are a hundred devices through which they could use these external resources to add to their income and wealth. With such an increase in their economic power they might feel confident to press down even harder on those they have traditionally exploited.

A perverse thought occurs. Suppose the US prime rate is jacked up by one per cent, resulting in the transfer of an extra 3.5 billion dollars from some of those underdeveloped countries to the richer parts of the world. As a consequence, the affluent certainly become even more so in the rich countries. But in the poor lands, perhaps the wealth of the upper classes does get reduced somewhat. This shift, however slight, in the distribution of income between the rich and the poor could have a surprising spin’ off. When the wealth of the rich shrinks, their bargaining capability is reduced too. The monied people could therefore experience a weakening in their relative power while negotiating with farm workers or factory workers or schoolteachers. A second consequence of the international banks demanding their pound of flesh could be an increase in the wages of the poor in the underdeveloped countries.

An absurd proposition? Perhaps, perhaps not. All one can tentatively suggest is that there are umpteen ways of looking at debt restructuring. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in the philosophy of monetarists.

Ashok Mitra is Finance Minister in the state government of West Bengal, India.


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