New Internationalist

A Beam in the Eye

June 1980

In recent years the rich have preached a stream of sermons to the poor about population control. But what would happen if the poor world had the leisure and the money to concern itself with the rich world’s problems? By Peter Adamson.

Recently World Bank President Robert McNamara visited Sri Lanka to see for himself the wonders being wrought by the Bank’s generosity. On being told that a group of farmers, somewhere in the middle distance, were indeed feeling the benefit, he walked over to ask one of them how much he now earned and how much he had managed to save. Looking up into the eyes of the six-billion-dollar man from Washington, this Sri Lankan peasant smilingly replied - "None of your damn business".

Rumour has it that this story is told by McNamara himself, no doubt laughing all the way to the Bank. Nonetheless it is a tidy example of the gross impertinence which the rich, be they individuals, institutions or countries, almost invariably bring to their dealings with the poor.

Other examples abound wherever two or three collars and ties are gathered together. Henry Kissinger’s memoirs (‘… and on the seventh day 1 rested’) are perfumed with Western superiority in general and his own in particular. Films like the appalling ‘Five Minutes to Midnight’ convey the impression, without even the mitigation of subtlety, that nothing ever happens in the developing world without a supervisory white face who is not uncommonly a wonderful human being. Economists in Europe and North America frequently take time off from their underwhelming efforts at solving their own countries’ problems in order to dash off a quick prescription of the Third World’s economic ills - ‘trickle down’, ‘integrated rural development’, ‘basic needs’ - take three times a day and wait for twenty years.

Sadly, ‘population ists’ are among the worst offenders. For years they assumed that the main reason why the propogating masses did not use contraceptives was because they were too embarrassed to go into the drugstore and that the cause of high birth-rates was the lack of televisions to keep the poor occupied in the evenings. The answers they came up with - touring elephants waving contraceptives in their trunks, transistor radios for minor operations and that infamous purple people eater the multi-coloured condom -should have made them sadder and wiser men. But even now, populationists frequently get together in London or New York forseminars or the laughably named ‘encounters’ where they discuss the lives of people whom they do not know, whose cultures they do not understand, whose economic circumstances they cannot even imagine, and end up by passing resolutions telling them what they should do when they go to bed together at night.

Most people from materially poor countries are aware of all this. But being frequently oriental and invariably wily, they tend to play it with a glide to leg rather than an on-drive.

Mostapha Toure, for example, was but faintly disturbed when he came across Paul Ehrlich’s description of the population problem: ‘As we crawled through Calcutta (in a taxi), we entered a crowded slum area. The temperature was well over 100 degrees, and the air was a haze of dust and smoke. The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people sleeping, people washing. People visiting, arguing and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people. As we moved slowly through the mob, hand horn squawking, the dust, noise, heat and cooking fires gave the scene a hellish aspect. Would we ever get back to our hotel? All three of us were, frankly, frightened … since that night I’ve known the feel of over population.’

It was only when he visited Los Angeles that Toure managed to put his feelings into words: ‘We attempted to cross the street on foot,’ he wrote. ‘The temperature was well over 100 degrees, and the air was a haze of fumes and smoke. The streets were alive with cars - gobbling gasoline from long pipes, cars being sprayed with drinking water, cars sleeping in the streets. Cars honking, yelling, screaming at each other. Cars twisting and forcing their way in front of other cars, cars forcing terrified pedestrians onto the narrow pavements, cars ramming into each other. Cars defecating billows of toxic fumes which can’t be used to fertilise the fields, cars urinating dribbles of oil. Cars, cars, cars, cars. As we slowly inched our way through the metallophagic mob of moving monsters, the dust, noise, heat, poisonous fumes, angry, hard-faced, tired looking drivers gave the scene a hellish aspect. Would we ever get back to our hotel? All three of us were, frankly, frightened … ?

But such arrows merely glance off the thick-skinned arrogance which threatensto trample over any Third World sensitivities. What is needed is something with what the Great White Hunters used to call more stopping power.

Perhaps, for example, the Third World nations should set up their own international voluntary agency to assist in the vital and urgent task of underdeveloping the developed world. To be called the Development Education Trust for the Relief of Privilege, its Articles of Association might begin:


  • Noting that fourteen thousand school-age children in the Federal Republic of Germany are now attempting suicide every year and that one in six of its under­fifteens is under professional psychiatric care, M Grateful to the Director General of the World Health Organisation for drawing our attention to the fact that ‘malnutrition remains a major problem in industrialised countries and its major form is obesity’,
  • Concerned that infant mortality rates in several large cities in the United States and the United Kingdom are at unacceptably high levels when compared with, say Sri Lanka or Jamaica,

  • Taking cognisance of the fact that half a million unnecessary tonsilectomies are performed each year in the United States - a country which cannot provide elementary health care for 25 million of its children,

  • Noting with alarm that between one and two million children are physically or sexually abused by their parents every year in the USA,

  • Disturbed that over 8000 French under fifteen year-olds are now involved in organised prostitution,

  • Recognising that rising divorce rates in the USA now mean that one child in every three will spend part of his or her childhood in a single parent family,

  • Regretting that children in industrialised countries now spend more time in the company of the television set than with their parents,

  • Bearing in mind that the world of the child in the industrialised world has also been ‘de-populated’ by the loss of aunts, uncles and grandparents through increased mobility and the break-up of the extended family and by the fact that he or she now has statistically less than one brother or sister as opposed to three siblings twenty years ago,

We of the less privileged countries, notwithstanding our own problems and taking an interdependent view of the world, here by establish DE TROP for the purpose of uniting our efforts to educate the developed world in, to quote the words of the distinguished delegate from SRI LANKA ‘minding its own damn business’.

This feature was published in the June 1980 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 088

New Internationalist Magazine issue 088
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