Masters of Illusion: The World Bank and the Poverty of Nations
by Catherine Caufield
(Macmillan ISBN 0-333-66262-8)
At last! The clam-shell of World Bank secrecy is prised open and the bogey within is revealed. Catherine Caufield has gone where others have tried and failed – into the very bowels of this most secretive of institutions – and has come back with the dirt. She has talked to people affected by its numerous doomed projects, scrutinized buffed and jargon-laden Bank documents, tracked down internal memos and spoken with disaffected employees. The last is no mean feat in the face of Bank President James Wolfensohn’s declaration to his staff that he ‘will regard externally-voiced criticism of the Bank as an indication of a desire to find alternative employment’.
For decades the Bank has been haughtily dismissive of its external critics, conducting its business with the minimum of public disclosure, often under a smokescreen of disinformation. Hopefully the sheer solidity of this book’s research will make it the much-needed thorn in the side. Caufield lays bare the Bank’s usual defences – that it should not be criticized for past failures because it has learned from them and moved on; that however bad a Bank-funded project, it would be worse without the Bank’s involvement; and that criticism of its policies shows a callous indifference to poverty. She shows how it has not learned, how its influence is consistently pernicious and how despite its idealistic talk of poverty reduction it hasn’t really got a clue.
Submitting to the stranglehold of bureaucracy, Bank presidents have attempted reform only to end up mired in scandal and internal wrangling. Meanwhile in the 50-odd years of its existence the Bank has physically altered the face of the earth with massive (and usually ill-conceived) infrastructure projects. The financing of the Amazon rainforest’s destruction has caused a scar visible from outer space. Its raison d’être being lending, the Bank has chased poor nations with its money, persuading them to borrow more than they could hope to repay. Now it uses their indebtedness to impose its vision of the ‘free’ market as panacea through structural adjustment. Created to foster prosperity it has lined the pockets of dictators and élites, to say nothing of the over-inflated salaries and perks of its staff. Its running costs are more than $200,000 per employee. It has made ‘development’ a dirty word and been instrumental in bringing about a world order where the poor are continually paying the rich.
Caufield shows with facts rather than rhetoric how the highly educated staff of the Bank have constantly ignored local realities and shunned the poor they were supposed to help; how these formidable ideologues have insisted on what looked good on paper despite the disasters. Match this with minimal interest in the projects once the money has been lent (the Bank had been going for 25 years before it did any kind of evaluation of completed projects) and a disgraceful lack of will to control corruption amongst recipient governments and their contractors.
It then becomes easier to understand how one shoddy, damaging project after the other has been passed. So desperate is the Bank’s urge to lend that 40 per cent of its projects are rushed through in the last financial month of each year.
Depressing as it may be this is essential reading and, hopefully, a spur to real change.
Faith: A Message from the Spirits
(Soul Jazz SJR CD34CD)
Ndonga Mahwe: Return As Spirit
by Spirit Talk Mbira
(Spirit Talk TPCD 04 CD)
Although all items on Faith: A Message from the Spirits were recorded within a year’s span, the conditions of each were very different. Some were recorded in studios, others in a street – for example, the Torah recitation at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem or the closing prayer from a Tibetan nuns’ cloister. Some of the religions have embraced technology: Faith contains radio broadcasts of the Qu’ran and from fundamentalist US Christians. The latter provide a frenetic drama all of their own: ‘I specialize in sin! I specialize in cleaning it up!’ runs one startling example which leaps from the loudspeakers with a rhetorical passion. But the most beautiful bits come from the Russian orthodox chants of the Anchiskhati Church in Georgia whose cadences and ancient polyphonies lie between east and west – and from the bells of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. In both there’s a peace that’s too often usurped by organized religion.
In Zimbabwean culture the mbira, or ‘thumb-piano’, provides the ways and means of calling down the ancestral spirits. That is a pretty impressive talent for such a simple instrument. Basically a resonator with a collection of long metal keys which are thumbed, its sound is some way between an airy, metallic twang and a deep, earthy echo. It’s hauntingly odd. Small wonder then that the mbira has been termed – in a way that allows today’s techno dance enthusiasts to make sense of it – the first ‘trance’ instrument. Chartwell Dutiro, who heads Spirit Talk Mbira, provides some fascinating sleevenotes on precisely this to accompany the group’s new disc Ndonga Mahwe: Return as Spirit.
The album takes its name from the three-day ceremony of Ndonga Mahwe in Dutiro’s native Zimbabwe. With its accompanying Shona-language singing and ululation, clapping percussion and hosho shakers, this is music from the heart of Zimbabwe, from ceremonies that remain impervious to the passage of time. Not ‘house’ music but ‘hut’ music, says Dutiro.
Full translations and contextualizing commentary make this disc unexpectedly accessible. But the main surprise is in how absorbing and persuasive are the mbira quartet’s melodies and rhythms. Released on a small independent label, the disc can be obtained through World Music Network, PO Box 3633, London NW1 486 6720. Tel: 171 498 5232.
directed by Tsistsi Dangarembga
Everyone’s Child benefits from director Tsitsi Dangarembga’s meticulous novelist’s eye. Dangarembga is the acclaimed Zimbabwean author of the book Nervous Conditions and this, her first feature film, has a sensitivity and sureness of touch that belies its modest beginnings. It started life as a teaching pack aimed at raising awareness of the plight of children orphaned by AIDS. There are ten million such children in Africa.
In simple, un-melodramatic terms, the film tells the story of a young family’s struggle to maintain a livelihood – parallel storylines tracing big sister Tamari’s efforts in the home village and brother Itai’s troubles in Harare. Tamari has to drop out of school and is forced to recycle and sell goods from a rubbish tip, later submitting to a middle-aged shopkeeper’s unwelcome advances. Itai has an equally harrowing time at the hands of gang members, some played by real streetkids.
The film maintains a level of quiet realism throughout. There’s a genuine poignancy in the dilemmas and the cast is uniformly excellent throughout. It scores points particularly in its refusal to condemn any single character outright, suggesting instead that morally questionable behaviour owes as much to society’s own shortcomings as to any single individual.
Some African critics, however, have cited the Western influence of John and Louise Riber’s Media Development Trust team who made the film as evidence that it’s not really a Zimbabwean film at all. There are times when it does achieve the look and feel of a sophisticated American telemovie – which in terms of African cinema’s long struggle to maintain a sense of cultural and aesthetic specificity, is tantamount to betrayal in some eyes.
Not all audiences see it that way though and a previous Media Development Trust film, Neria, was extremely popular in Zimbabwe. Movies like Everyone’s Child do give under-represented filmmakers and audiences a chance to stake their claim – and it’s made by one of the continent’s very few black women directors.
The film is available on video from MDT, 47 The Ridgeway, London N3 2PG, England.
Reviews by Dinyar Gotrej, Louise Gray, Esi Eshun.
Reviews editor: Vanessa Baird.
An elderly cleaning woman strays into a bar frequented by immigrants in order to get out of the rain. On a dare a young regular asks her to dance and they discover a shared loneliness and hunger for company. So begins a love affair that is widely despised by the society they live in – Germany in the early 1970s. Fear Eats the Soul (Angst essen Seele auf) nevertheless stirs up a kind of throat-drying, gut-wrenching empathy which catches you wishing: ‘Oh I hope it will turn out alright.’
The film’s concerns are obvious from the start – racism, ageism and class oppression – and they are delivered unencumbered by arthouse obscurity. Yet Ali and Emmi, ordinary people by any standards, are far from simple, and it is this insistence on their contradictions and sometimes muddy motives that lifts the story beyond the moralistic strictures of social realism.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1946-1982) was an obsessive worker, remarkably prolific, turning out two or three sparkling, taboo-shattering films a year. Driven by his outrage against exploitation and social complacency, he was something of a beast to his actors and co-workers, cultivating a loutish persona that would guarantee his exclusion from the polite bourgeoisie that he so despised.
In many of his films personal relationships carry the burden of wider class issues. In Fear Eats the Soul, Ali (played by Fassbinder’s lover at the time, El Hedi ben Salem) and Emmi (former cabaret star Brigitte Mira) stand up to their neighbours, family and co-workers, but their devotion to each other is complicated by the values they have grown up with. They both belong to the fringes of society. Ali, so-called because Germans can’t manage his real name, is a Moroccan gastarbeiter living with five others in a single room. Emmi is a widow whose children can’t be bothered with her (except to show their hatred when she sets up home with a black man) and whose job as a cleaner demands a continual acceptance that she is considered a dispensible underling. In transgressing their social boundaries they display class solidarity, but any true understanding of each other’s cultures is constantly being postponed under the pressure of rejection from just about everyone. Once married Emmi longs for conformity and acceptance and both begin to take the relationship for granted. A large part of their love seems to be based on their mutual need for comfort, mingled in Emmi’s case with the pride of sexual conquest and in Ali’s the immigrant’s need to make some kind of connection.
At numerous points we are reminded that Ali and Emmi need greater self-knowledge as well as knowledge of each other. Emerging newly-married from the registry office Emmi decides to splash out on a meal at a swanky restaurant. She chooses a place she has longed to visit because Hitler was said to have eaten there. Her casual acceptance of Germany’s Nazi past flies in the face of everything they have to struggle against, yet neither observe a contradiction. Interpreting the menu proves difficult so she orders the most expensive dishes from a frosty waiter. Ali, completely at a loss, lets her choose. The scene closes with the two framed at their large table across the empty restaurant, isolated and ill at ease yet trying to be happy.
Eventually the ever-present opposition they face drives them to escape on a holiday, Emmi predicting that things will change upon their return. And surprisingly they do. Her son patches things up because he needs someone to babysit for his daughter; and the local grocer, who had refused to serve Ali, makes obsequious enquiries about their trip because, faced with competition from a supermarket, he needs every customer he can get. Fassbinder’s critique of capitalist society emphasizes how it infects relationships at every level. Beginning to feel accepted again, Emmi takes on an increasingly proprietorial attitude towards Ali and things start to fall apart. Ali restarts a desultory sexual affair with the owner of the bar where they had first met.
By the time they realize that there really is love and respect for each other, Ali has collapsed with a stress-related perforated ulcer. The doctor tells Emmi that with rest he could recover, but that most gastarbeiters return to work too soon and end up in hospital again. Emmi vows she won’t let that happen, and there is a real sense that finally the scales have fallen. The film ends on this ambiguously hopeful note, which seems to be Fassbinder’s way of accentuating their breakthrough while also stressing the destructiveness of prejudice.
Fear Eats the Soul (1973) by Rainer Werner Fassbinder is available through Connoisseur Video.
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