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The Magic Carpet

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The Magic Carpet
If the poor countries are to prosper then world trade must be liberalized, says the Brandt Report. But, removing trade barriers and opening up northern markets alone won't solve the problem - so Herr Brandt discovers in this imaginary journey. By Tony Vaux.
Excerpted from Oxfam-UK's Brandt Report kit.

Manchhubhai unrolled a small mound of cotton from his tattered garment and handed it to the trader who weighed it. The balance swung from a huge smoke-darkened beam in his shop on the main street of Valod, Westem India.

One rupee, 60 paisa,’ he drawled not looking at the man.

Yes, sahib.’ Manchhubhai looked sadly at the cotton, laboriously picked by his wife in their tiny field a few miles away.

It seems little,’ he muttered shyly. The trader glared angrily. ‘Your cotton is only deshi. You know that. The price is less.’ He waved him away.

Yes, the cotton was the local short-staple variety which is all the poor can grow. Hybrid cotton, worth two or three times as much, requires expensive seed, fertilisers, insecticides and above all, irrigation. The poor do not have irrigation any more than they have cars.

Manchhubai wandered off through the bazaar to buy himself a shirt. It would cost him a lot of money. He sold cotton cheap and bought it back dear. He possessed only three acres of land and bought only one shirt a year.

As he walks dejectedly past the shops he meets, let us imagine, German ex-Chancellor Willy Brandt, whose recent report on the North-South dilemma has caused such a stir.

Ah, Manchhubhai, I was looking for you. So you did not get much for your cotton?’

No, sahib.

What we need, first of all is a liberalization of trade. India has surplus capacity in its mills. With more exports there will be a tremendous demand for cotton from you farmers. We must relax the Multi-Fibre Agreement that restricts trade from developing countries.’

Yes, sahib.’

As is customary in a small Indian town, a crowd gathered to discuss the point. One man pushed forward and said:

How will that help us? We use most of our land to grow food We grow a little deshi cotton for cash, but we cannot afford to grow much. The rich farmers grow more cotton and we work on their fields.’

‘Then they will offer you more work.’

‘But they pay so little.’

A big man dressed in white elbowed his way through the crowd of poor people.

Last year I grew cotton — ten acres of Shankar 4 Hybrid. It cost me 10,000 rupees to grow. Of course I did not sell to the traders, I went straught to the big dealers. But they would not buy. They were operating a monopoly to bring prices down. My brother took a cartload of cotton to their depot and burned it in front of them. But we can do nothing. We had to sell in the end. I made only 1,000 rupees after all my trouble. So how can I pay the workers more?’

But you don’t even pay the minimum wage now’, shouted an old woman. The big farmer glared at her angrily.

It seems you have a problem here,’ said Herr Brandt ‘We are trying to liberalize trade but unless you sort out these squabbles the poor won’t get as much benefit as we hope. Of course, I have spoken about land reform and so on, but it is really up to your government to do something about it.’

There was an awkward silence which was finally broken when someone said, ‘Willy-bhai come and have a cup of tea.’

Let us now imagine that Herr Brandt leaves the village in India and lands by magic carpet in Britain’s north country. A number of unemployed men and women gather around as Herr Brandt steps down.

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Illustration: Clive Offley

You offering any jobs, mate?’ asks a man carrying a placard Jobs not Bombs.

In a roundabout way, yes. You see if the world is to survive we must do something to help the poor in countries like India. The first thing we can do is liberalize trade.'

Hold on. You must be joking. See that mill? Closed. See the chimneys? Where’s the smoke? And you know what the trouble is? It’s cheap textiles and clothes from India, Taiwan, Korea and the rest coming in here and undercutting British-made goods. That’s why we’ve lost our jobs! And now you want to liberalize trade?’

Herr Brandt straightened himself up as he used to when answering tricky questions in the Bundestag in Bonn.

It just isn’t true that Third World textile imports have put you out of work. A recent study showed that 80 per cent of the jobs lost in the textile industry in the North were due to technological changes aimed at increasing productivity. As for imports, they are mainly from other industrialised countries, not from the poor world. During the past three years, textile imports to the UK from poor countries increased by only 19 per cent compared with a 58 per cent increase from industrialised countries. Textile imports from the US have actually gone up by 90 per cent.’

'What the Yanks?’

‘Right. And now let’s look at the potential benefits to you in Britain from greater prosperity in Third World countries. Just imagine what the vast populations of Asia and Africa could buy from Britain, if only they had a little more purchasing power. The world economy would boom as never before.’

‘OK, mate, but if we get more trade from poor countries, how are we to know it will mean more jobs for us up here in Lancashire?’

Herr Brandt hesitated. ‘Ahem, well, that raises some rather difficult questions. You will have to ask you own government, I suppose. It isn’t really for me to say.’ The magic carpet hovered above the ground for an instant and then disappeared over the dark empty mills and up into the warm, sunny air above the clouds.


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New Internationalist issue 104 magazine cover This article is from the October 1981 issue of New Internationalist.
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