New Book Reviews

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EDUCATION [image, unknown] Reviews

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If the poorest countries simply disappeared, would the rich countries even notice? This month’s books examine two favourite myths: that ‘interdependence’ between rich and poor countries benefits the poor and that overpopulation destroys the environment.

Editor: Anuradha Vittachi

The helpful rich

Rich Country Interests and Third World Development
ed. by Robert Cassen, Richard Jolly, John Sewell and Robert Wood
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Croom Helm (hbk) £15.95
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Development Debacle: The World Bank in the Philippines
by Walden Bello, David Kinley and Elaine Elinson
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US: Institute for Food and Development Policy
and Philippine Solidarity Network (pbk) $6.95
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UK: Available through Third World Publications £4.95
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Do the rich nations of the world see development as a threat, a moral imperative or as an engine for renewing their own economic growth? Rich Country Interests and Third World Development is a useful collection of nine country studies (including Canada and Australia) from which only the Dutch and the Scandinavians emerge with much humanitarian credit. More generally what becomes clear is the sheer diversity’ of the economic, political and strategic interests of rich countries according to which of the very different parts of the ‘Third World’ they are dealing with — the OPEC group, the handful of ’newly-industrialising’ countries, the seventy or so ‘middle-income’ economies and the multitude of the very poor. And their interests further vary according to the image they have of their own international standing, their historical backgrounds, their own experience as lenders or borrowers, and whether they are importers or exporters of primary products.

There is practically no consensus ‘rich country interest’. And certainly there is no general recognition of that ‘mutuality of interests’ between North and South that the Brandt Report so heavily relies upon as the basis for future action. It’s not really surprising. The fact is, as the editors in their thoughtful introduction admit, such mutuality doesn’t exist with regard to the poorest countries, which could more or less disappear ‘with hardly a ripple of effect on the immediate well-being of the North’s inhabitants’. And even for the others, the notion of interdependence must be seen as ‘less a deduction from economic facts than a declaration of economic and political will’ to fashion a system in which there is interdependence; unfortunately not a hopeful prospect when today the rich countries of the North lack the vision to create a framework within which they can pursue even their own common interest in extricating themselves from a largely self-inflicted mess of an economic slump.

Those despairing of self-motivated bilateralism, who cling to the belief that multilateral aid dispensed by international agencies has a benign neutrality unsullied by national interest should quickly get hold of Development Debacle: The World Bank in the Philippines.

This provides an example, according to the authors, of the US government circumventing the human rights restrictions increasingly attached by’ Congressional liberals to bilateral aid by relying instead on a multilateral agency.

The book is brought to you only with the co-operation of people within the World Bank, who have courageously searched for photocopied and leaked thousands of pages of documents’. What it charts is the ghastly history of the World Bank over the last decade in a disastrous ‘top-down’ development programme that has left the masses still further impoverished under a near bankrupt Marcos dictatorship.

It is a detailed indictment of the way in which the World Bank effectively operated as the creature of its major subscriber and the total failure of that policy to fulfil the hopes of a US Treasury Report in creating an economy ‘open, predictable, growing and characterised by increased efficiency. . . democratic, pluralistic and capitalistic. . . similar to ours’. (Not exactly everyone’s idea of what is meant by ‘development’, anyway.)

Both readable and serious in its analysis this case study raises one worrying issue after another. Underlying them all is a deeply disturbing question: has the World Bank in the Philippines quite cynically serves American political interests regardless of the development consequences? Or is it so imbued with a wrong-headed view of the development process that its contribution would be unintentionally damaging even in a more progressive, politically healthy situation? It is hard to believe the first. It is also possible to fear the second.

Peter Donaldson
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Peter Donaldson lectures in economics at Ruskin College, Oxford.

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Building a Sustainable Society
by Lester Brown
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Norton (pbk)
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Down to Earth: Environment and Human Needs
by Erik Eckholm
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Pluto Press (pbk) £3.95
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Thrown away in USA in one year. In the 70s, Dr Brown’s book, By Bread Alone, helped to popularise some of the basic misconceptions about the world’s so-called ’food crisis’ of the time. Once again. in Building a Sustainable Society, he demonstrates his extraordinary ability to produce page after page (433 in total) of bland, plausible prose, almost all of it missing the point This book is about how the base of civilisation is being eroded and how a sustainable society could be shaped.

In excruciating detail and with a statistic to back up virtually every paragraph. Dr Brown, head of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, catalogues the extent of soil erosion, deforestation, desertification, mineral depletion and, most threatening of all, overpopulation. This is his real enemy:

‘Among the forces that are undermining society’, population growth ranks at the top.’ He advocates a timetable to stabilise world population at six billion, otherwise ‘population pressures could become unbearable, leading to widespread collapses of local biological life support systems’.

But Dr Brown sees some hope as far as new forms of energy are concerned, thanks to biogas, wind generators. Geothermal energy, recycling and the greater use of bikes. The trouble is that Dr Brown is long on data but woefully’ short on analysis. His world is one of cottonwool and marshmallow. There are no villains. He appears to think that soil erodes itself and that deserts extend and trees uproot themselves. Politics is a word he seems blissfully unaware of. The only way to describe this book is globalony. It is time Dr Brown climbed out of his Worldwatch tower and came down to earth.

By happy coincidence Down to Earth is the title of a recent book by Erik Eckholm who co-authored By Bread Alone but has sharpened up since then. He deals with many of the same topics as Dr Brown but this is a much more serious report on the state — more accurately, the degradation —of the environment. In quiet, sober style, he documents not only the extent throughout the world of erosion and deforestation but also of oceanic and atmospheric pollution.

Barbara Ward’s Foreword places the book in context: ‘The solutions to environmental problems are increasingly seen to involve reforms in land tenure and economic strategy, and the involvement of communities in shaping their own lives.’ Eckholm understands this. if only in a mild way. The chief value in his work lies in the careful and detailed description of how the environment is being mistreated and the problems this is creating not just for today but for the future.

Tony Jackson
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Tony Jackson
is Food Aid Consultant to Oxfam. UK


Uncle Tom’s Cabin
...being the book that stripped the whitewash off black slavery

DO WRITERS EVER change history, or do they merely signal changes being brought about by the slower tides of the economy? Are they surf-riders who are mistakenly given credit for the swell of the wave, when all they do is call attention to its power?

The argument is beloved of political historians and to them I am relieved to leave it. If there were, however, a short list of writers who could be said to have nudged the course of history or to have helped it on its way, Harriet Beecher Stowe would have to figure in it

Her antislavery propaganda novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin came as a bombshell in 1851. Overnight it became America’s most famous book. It was rapidly translated into over 20 languages. A dramatised version played to packed audiences. Mrs Stowe, the pacifist wife of an ailing clergyman, suddenly became a heroine.

And where is this remarkable novel now? Relegated to the children’s bookshelves as a pious meldrama suitable only for the impressionable young; or worse, a book to be actively avoided on the ground that it is a reactionary recommendation of white paternalism and black submissiveness Sometimes it is simplified into pictorial form, which exposes the crude bones of the plot while discarding everything that made the book memorable — Mrs Stowe’s acute insights into how oppression works, plus a tangy, ironical sense of humour that would be lost on all but the most sophisticated of children.

One of her characters, for instance, is Topsy, a little black girl who has been screamed at and beaten all her life. The world has insisted she is incorrigible. Who is Topsy to contradict her betters? I’s so wicked!’ she announces merrily — and obediently carries on pilfering.

The book is packed with similar insights that demonstrate uncompromisingly how subject peoples are kept locked into self-destructive patterns through society’s negative expectations. Southerners attacked Mrs Stowe for concentrating ‘unfairly’ on the brutality of a minority of slave owners. In fact, only some of the villains in the book are outright thugs. Mrs Stowe gives far more space to the sympathetic, liberal slave owner, the sensitive, benevolent masters who are genuinely loved by their slaves, for she believed them to be more, not less, to blame for the perpetuation of slavery. They can’t be excused on the grounds of stupidity or lack of imagination: they should know better.

But Mrs Stowe reserved her most stinging satire for those who blinded themselves with racial myths— those same myths which are bandied about today: ‘Blacks don’t feel pain/loss/fatigue like Whites do; they don’t need rest/security/love . . .‘ Her special contribution, for me, was the vividity with which she made the pain of the black man or woman as real to her white readers as their own, the way she pointed to the subtler agonies of shattered human hopes and feelings even more than the obvious pain of broken bodies.

Structurally, the book is too corny for modern palates. The plot displays the nineteenth century novelists’ embarrassing penchant for tidiness — everyone at the end turns out to be related to everyone else. The characterisation can descend to caricature and the message to homily. Tom, the faithful black retainer, and the angelic Eva are nauseatingly good. They set impeccable examples of loving forgiveness and die in tableaux.

But Tom’s unfailing integrity (largely responsible for giving the book its bad name) is, I think, an essential part of Mrs Stowe’s answer to the racism of her day, which held that the Negro’s intractable moral inferiority justified his enslavement Tom, therefore, is presented as utterly blameless by any white standard— and he is still tortured both in mind and body. It’s the final proof that the system, not the victim, is to blame.

In any case, old Tom isn’t the only hero in the book. Far more attractive is the dashing George, as daring, clever and tender as any romantic hero needs to be; and Eliza, his equally courageous and independent wife, gets the best scene in the book when she escapes to safety across the swirling Ohio River, struggling from one icefloe to another with babe in arms. George and Eliza are helped to freedom

by Quakers who are members of the ‘Underground Railroad’, a resistance movement that broke the Fugitive Slave Law by helping runaway slaves from one friendly shelter to another till they can cross the border. They are pacifist but not passive. And that, it seems to me, is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s own stance.

Anuradha Vittachi

Uncle Tom’s Cabin
by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1851)
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Penguin American Library (pbk) £1.95
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