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Poor Foundations

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BRANDT REPORT [image, unknown] Behind the scenes

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Poor foundations
The Brandt Report has come under intense scrutiny by organizations closely involved with development issues. And not all the comment has been favourable. Third World First here outlines five fundamental flaws in the Report's approach.

The Mixture as Before - The Report argues that massive transfers of money and technology from the North will stimulate Southern industry and agriculture. Poor countries will then export more goods to the North - helped by agreements to ease tariffs and other restrictions. With foreign exchange earned from these exports, Southern countries will buy more goods from the North and everyone will benefit.

This is not new thinking. In fact this approach has dominated development planning for nearly three decades. It confuses growth with development: growth of Gross National Product has gone hand-in-hand with deepening inequality, poverty and repression in many Third World countries.

Brandt proposes to expand a system which has boosted the rich and failed to trickle down benefits to the poor. It is the mixture as before washed down with a stiff dose of moral rhetoric.

Government Negotiations — The Report implies that improvements in the lives of the world’s poor will come mainly from negotiations between governments. It chronicles a long record of failure in this respect: trade liberalisation, the international grain agreement, the emergency food reserve, the rights of migrant workers and many other issues — including the West’s official aid target (0.7% of GNP by 1975, then 1980, now 1985).

Yet all the Report offers is more negotiations, plus the cloak-and-dagger thrills of a 48-hour summit of world leaders ‘behind closed doors’. As the next two points show the failure of government negotiations has deep roots and can’t be explained away by vague murmuring about ‘lack of political will’.

Nation-Statism — By focusing on relations between nation-states, supposedly democratically represented by their governments, the Report fosters the 18th century illusion that countries are enclosed behind frontier walls — with governments which control every aspect of national life and decide when to raise or lower the drawbridge.

In the real world, most nation-states offer few obstacles to the movement of trade and capital across national boundaries. As the Report admits, multinational companies stride the globe and are increasingly unaccountable to national governments. Yet the Report’s proposals for control are anaemic. It remains committed to ’marketforces’ and the ‘tree movement’ of capital.

In such a system it makes sense to invest where profits are quick and certain. Ideal conditions include: low wages, repression of effective opposition ensuring a ‘stable investment climate’, denial of human rights, curbs on trade union activity and the freedom to ship profits from poor countries to rich ones.

Happy Families — The emphasis on national governments fosters the further illusion that nation-states are harmonious happy families where peasants touch their forelocks to the mighty. The government is seen as a neutral referee between conflicting interests, speaking for all — including the poor.

In reality, most Third World governments are from a privileged, urban minority. These elites are tied to Western business interests and consumer life-styles. They regard their fellow-citizens as ‘backward’ and ignorant and are as distant from the poor as high-powered international conferences in Geneva and New York. The mutual interests the Report appeals to are between those elites and our own.

Mutual Interests and Moral Concern - So, it is not surprising the Report finally admits reforms based on ‘mutual interests’ will probably benefit only the powerful. For this reason, ‘especially as far as the poorest people and the poorest countries are concerned’; the Report appeals to human solidarity and a commitment to social justice.

In the end moral concern is invoked to deal with those central problems of world development which the much-trumpeted mutual interests cannot resolve. However, moral values are insufficient to make institutions and elites surrender their power or turn against their own material interests.

Brandt’s moral tone is superficially attractive. But it is a rhetorical substitute for hard thinking about who controls what resources, how change towards justice can be achieved and how the poor can wrest from the powerful more control over their lives. Moral values would be better employed telling us whose side we should be on and how to persevere in the struggle.

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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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