Blinding the supersighted
At least 90 per cent of Aboriginal blindness is either preventable or curable compared with less than 50 per cent for non-Aboriginal Australians. This is because white Australians are already receiving the best of medical care in a prosperous and comfortable environment whereas Aborigines are blinded mostly by chronic infections-trachoma and other forms of conjunctivitis -which lead to blindness by build-up of scar tissue on the conjunctiva (the transparent skin that covers the eyeball) over years of neglect. Such diseases occur most often in people who live in unhygienic or over-crowded conditions all over the world, especially in hot, dry climates. In other words, Aborigines are blinded by poverty. The tragedy that heaps insult upon injury is that Aborigines inherit a visual system that may be superior to all other races. They have an astounding ability to use their eyes to discern small detail, to notice minor changes and to record and interpret visual symbols. When healthy young Aboriginal adults are tested more than ten per cent - three times as many as white Australians - can identify symbols four lines smaller than the bottom line on the average sight-testing chart.
They use their sharpness of sight - or `supersight' - in many ways. They are renowned for their sign language, which they can read over vast distances, and their ability to track game and other humans is legendary. There is also evidence that this supersight is less vulnerable to the inherited diseases -short and long-sightedness and optic degeneration - that keep the spectacle trade booming all over the world. And under reasonable living conditions their visual superiority continues into old age.
It is impossible to turn the clock back and restore to Aborigines the lifestyle they enjoyed before white settlement forced them into Australia's outback. But it is possible to restore their supersight. And this is one of the aims of the many new Aboriginal self-help medical groups. United under the National Aboriginal and Island Health Organisation, they are urging the government to make surgical facilities as readily available to Aborigines as they are to the rest of Australia's population,
From a report by Prof. F. C. Hollows, University of New South Wales.
Cashing in on migration
According to a recent New York Times article nearly 150,000 skilled and unskilled Pakistanis travelled to the oil producing states of Oman, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and Kuwait in 1979-rubbing shoulders with European engineers and American technical advisors, and often outnumbering the local population.
Wage remissions by Pakistani workers to their families back home amounted to $1.7 billion last year - only slightly less than the $2.2 billion earned by overseas exports. This new flow of oil income is now critical for the survival of thousands of Pakistani families and for the government itself. Oil workers are payed in dollars which must be converted to rupees before their relatives at home can spend them. The central bank of Pakistan ends up with the dollars. This way of gaining foreign exchange has been a life-saver for Pakistan, whose foreign debt of $8 billion (41 per cent of GNP) puts it near the top of the Third World's debtor nations. It currently pays out more in interest payments on old loans to the US and West Germany than it receives in new funds, and in the last year Pakistan has been desperately trying to negotiate new repayment deadlines with major western nations.
The presence of thousands of jobs so close to home has proved a blessing for the dictatorial regime of President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq. At one level the influx of foreign exchange has injected a bit of life into the moribund Pakistani economy - GNP growth has averaged 7.4 per cent since 1977. The temporary migration has also provided a safety valve for what is still an explosively-high number of unemployed within Pakistan.
But the exodus has also worsened the imbalance of land ownership in Pakistan. Small farmers sell their land to finance the journey abroad, intending to repurchase on their return. These small parcels of land are snapped up by larger farmers. Those who can't afford to buy the land can only watch with foreboding the increased power and influence of their larger neighbours. And migrant workers are likely to find life even harder when they return from their taste of the region's petroleum walth.
The unskilled migrants, who make up most of the job-seekers, are onlywelcome for as long as their labour is needed. When they come home to their families, and if their nestegg is large enough, they may be able to buy a plot of land from another small farmer desperate to join the trek across the Gulf. Only the rich make the real killings, while the migration of the poor in search of work comes full circle.
Let the people go
Last December a group of Mauritanians spoke to the Society's investigator, John Mercer. They convinced him that there are at least 100,000 slaves and 300,000 part- and ex-slaves in Mauritania today. That's nearly half the population of only 950,000. Even ex-slaves who have bought their `freedom' are discriminated against, along with free black people from the Senegal river area.
Slavery was first abolished during the French colonial period. In 1960 the French handed over control of the country to the Moors (Mauritanians). Today too, slavery is prohibited under the Mauritanian constitution. But it still flourishes. Moorish `masters' have total control over the slaves - to the point of taking the slave's life without redress. Sale is still current and redemption is costly. They justify slavery by reference to Islam, ignoring the fact that the Koran only allows holy-war captives to be enslaved.
Nowadays escape is increasingly common. A new generation of slaves has begun an emancipation movement - El Hor - to campaign against bondage by helping escaped slaves and generally raising consciousness. Its leaders were imprisoned early in 1980 and for two months subjected to degrading treatment. On 5 July the government decreed the abolition of slavery yet again. But the slave community believes this is no more than a paper manoeuvre to restore Mauritania's image internationally - especially since it coincides with last year's introduction of Islamic fundamentalism (the sharia) which is seen as a move against emancipation.
`Mauritania is a country of conflict' says John Mercer. The Sahara war ended in 1978, but racial tension, feudalism and drought continue. He thinks that unless steps are taken towards social equality civil war could be the outcome. `The slave community needs true emancipation coupled with practical agricultural and technical projects, a fair share of the land, education and other facilities' he says. `International aid has a major role in emancipation. And Mauritania should be reminded that it has subscribed to Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude: slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms".'
Flushing it away
According to a report in New Scientist, chanelling the money into appropriate projects is likely to prove a big problem. Urban planners in the Third World tend to prefer flush toilets and elaborate sewerage systems to cheaper pit latrines. When such a system was constructed in Accra in 1970, so few people could afford the cost of connection that only 171 households were connected - at a capital cost of $20,000 each.
Even though studies by the World Bank and the International Development Research Centre in Ottawa show that an improved pit latrine together with good health education can reduce the incidence of disease at the lowest cost, chances are that Third World countries will be steered towards expensive high-technology options instead. This is because more and more aid is being tied to donor countries' products.
To the initial outlay for a sophisticated sanitation system must be added the maintenance costs. But the aid available for digging trenches for pipes and sewers is unlikely to be so forthcoming for un-blocking them. In the past governments simply neglected maintenance -in Kenya during the early 70s water systems were breaking down faster than they could be built. And it has been calculated that it would cost Tanzania 0.8 per cent of its annual GNP to keep a nationwide water supply system going - plus the 1.8 per cent of GNP needed over ten years to construct such a system in the first place.
UNICEF thinks that the `barefoot handpump doctor' might be the answer. Before they began their project in Tamil Nadu in southern India, up to 80 per cent of pumps were out of order. Now, with sturdier pumps installed, a specially trained villager to undertake minor repairs, and a skilled back-up service, the breakdown rate has fallen to less than 10 per cent.
Apart from the heavy mortalities caused by unclean water - the World Health Organization estimates that some 25 million people die each year from waterborne diseases - tens of millions of women and children have to suffer the daily drudgery of carrying heavy cans for miles to collect their water. In some areas of Bolivia, says UNICEF, schools are officially closed during the dry season so that village children spend the entire morning hauling their families' water. With clean water nearby both sickness and unnecessary toil should be reduced.
But WHO's director general, Halfdan Mahler, points out that `you can have water supply and sanitation programmes without a very striking impact on health'. In Bangladesh a UNICEF team found that people failed to benefit from a new tubewell scheme because they only used the water for drinking and continued using contaminated rivers and pools for bathing and washing utensils. Health education - as usual - has proved to be an essential prerequisite for improving health.
Diarrhoeas are still the world's biggest killer but it is probable that the decade will show, yet again, that there are no simple technological fixes like tubewells or handpumps for Third World health. 111-health is generated by a complex social ecology of poverty and - however much technocrats may dislike it - only a total approach to development can solve the problem.
The continuing story
Just how long does this research have to continue before the hard-nosed food marketers take their responsibilities to heart? Further evidence of the grim consequences of their activities has surfaced in Brazil; reported in the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) Newsletter for November. A government-financed study by the Sao Paulo School of Medicine has established yet again the connection between the vigorous promotion of infant food formula, the change from breast to bottle feeding, and increased malnutrition.
The study discovered that:-
• Advertising expenditure for milk powder exceeded that for all other foods in Brazil, enjoying a more than ten-fold rise from 151,000 to $1,637,000 between 1974 and 1979.
• Promotion is beamed at doctors in particular to persuade them to encourage mothers to use a particular brand. Tactics employed by the babyfood companies include funding scientific meetings, refresher courses, medical journals as well as monthly visits by sales representatives.
• Mothers do not produce enough breast milk, say the adverts - and powdered babymilk is a highly scientific `drug product'.
The result is that most doctors and nurses never mention breast milk when talking about feeding babies. 95 per cent of health centres distribute free samples of milk powder and only 6 per cent of mothers were advised about breastfeeding at clinics.
The study found a significant decline in the preference for breast feeding amongst low-income mothers and `a worsening of the nutritional situation' of their babies.
FROM CANADA: At the national meeting of Nestle Boycott activists in Toronto last October, (1980) one participant reported asking a Nestle marketing manager if the boycott was making any impact. The unusually candid reply came back; `Of course. Every time a consumer comes into a store and makes a conscious decision not to buy one of our products, it hurts us.'
Value for people
The week's debate - a skilful exercise in government lobbying - was organised by the Consumer's Association of Penang (CAP). Undoubtedly one of the success stories of the Third World, the organisation's name is a strange one to Westerners. Consumers' associations are supposed to provide guides to the best buys or complain about bad service and defective products. But CAP's research director, Khor Kok Peng, believes that the association should be demanding 'value for people, not value for money'.
The bread and butter work of the Association is handling over 2,000 consumer complaints that come into the office every year.
But CAP has another function. Through a weekly newspaper column and radio programme, through its own publications and 50,000-circulation newspaper Utusan Konsumer, and its 40-odd school groups and university programmes it is fighting a broader battle against imported economic wisdom and the consumer culture of Coca-cola and space invader machines.
The Consumer's Association of Penang continually asks uncomfortable questions about where Malaysia's 'open economy' style of development is going to take the average rubber tapper or paddy farmer. Malaysia is one of the more prosperous developing countries. Its 13 million population has a per capita income of 930 a year. On the one hand they experience the problems of underdevelopment - from poor housing in squatter settlements, to an irrelevant health system based on curing the ailments of town dwellers. On the other hand rich natural resources of tin, rubber, palm oil and petroleum have brought the evils of over-development - pollution, industrial accidents, traffic congestion and junk food.
Current CAP issues are *the pollution of 50 of the country's 62 rivers *the razing of one of the last hardwood forests in the world *the lax safety standards of factories where timid government inspectors say nothing and keep their heads low *the deafening noise from overflight Concord *the dumping of drugs by foreign pharmacy companies.
There is a common thread to CAP's work. It is concerned with meeting those much talked-of 'basic needs' of the poor: nutrition, health, housing, clothing and work. In other words they are fighting for that most basic need of all - the right of the dispossessed and the colonized to have an effective say in the running of their own lives.
A film 'Crisis in the Malaysian Environment' and publication based on the research papers presented at 'Economics, Development and the Consumer' National Seminar are available from Consumers Association of Penang, 27 Kelawei Road, Penang, Malaysia.
One of Seaga's first post-election initiatives was to renew negotiations with the International Monetary Fund. Mr. Manley's government had cut off talks with the IMF months before the election in protest against the Fund's strict lending conditions, which Manley argued would increase unemployment and inflation.
Since the election Mr. Seaga and his ministers have been making the rounds in the US and Canada holding talks with the IMF, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, as well as multinational bankers and representatives of the new Reagan administration in Washington.
The consortium of private banks holding most of the island's debt (led by Canada's Bank of Nova Scotia) quickly agreed to lend the new Jamaican leader $40 million to tide him over till Christmas. It's expected that agreement to an IMF package will mollify the bankers and open the door to new loans and outside investment.
During his stop in Washington the new Prime Minister lost no time in assuring the US that it had gained a new ally in the strategic Caribbean Basin. In one speech he called on the US to bolster free enterprise and fend off socialism and communism in the Caribbean. He congratulated the new Reagan administration, noting that the change 'represents an excellent opportunity to create new thinking' on Latin America and the Caribbean. But if we are to believe statements by Reagan's foreign policy advisors the so-called 'new thinking' appears to be nothing more than 1950s-style cold war logic barely disguised in 1980s clothes. According to one Reagan staffer quoted in the Washington Star: 'We prefer democratic to authoritarian regimes, but we also prefer pro-American authoritarian regimes to those that are anti-American.'
Back in Jamaica, the Jamaican minister of industry and commerce, Douglas Vaz, told the Miami Conference on the Caribbean (designed to attract foreign investors to the area) the JLP victory represented a 'resounding victory for private enterprise'. He stressed that US investors should look at the region's obvious advantages - cheap labour, natural resources and proximity to the US market.
Unfortunately, development based on cheap labour and foreign investment has invariably led to only a smattering of jobs in light industry. This was the path followed by Jamaica in the 1950s and 60s and was an unqualified disaster. Now the old formula has been resurrected by Mr. Seaga and dusted off for another try.
The question is whether the amount of private investment needed to absorb Jamaica's vast army of unemployed will follow. Because it's still possible to buy cheaper labour elsewhere, Jamaican wages would have to be forced down to sweeten the pot for investors. But the island's workers are unlikely to bend so easily if past resistance to IMF-instigated cutbacks is any indication.
When new IMF strictures begin to bite into living standards a year from now Mr. Seaga's biblical claim to 'deliverance' may, like the walls of Jericho, have fallen into disrepute.