Book Reviews

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CENTRAL AMERICA [image, unknown] Book reviews

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This month’s books investigate the impact of big business in Africa’s ability to produce food, and what Milton Friedman’s monetarism did to Chile’s economy.

Editor: Anuradha Vittachi

Big business in Africa

Agribusiness in Africa
by Barbara Dinham and Colin Hines
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Earth Resources Research (pbk) £4.95
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[image, unknown] In recent years Africa has replaced Asia as the area of most concern as far as food issues go. It is not hard to see why. Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region in the world where per capita food production has dropped over the last twenty years, and per capita consumption there in 1980 was almost 20 per cent below what it was at the start of the sixties. The decline shows no sign of abating. Who is to blame?

Agribusiness in Africa sets out to answer the question with a penetrating look at the role of transnational companies. With numerous examples and in meticulous detail Barbara Dinham and Colin Hines expose the extent of big business involvement in Africa and who benefits from it. The result, judged from the point of view of the poor, is a damning indictment not just of the companies but of official aid donors and some African governments themselves. The companies involved include many household names, such as Tate and Lyle, Brooke Bond, Nesté, Unilever and Lonrho and even large chemical and oil companies producing fertilizers and seeds, such as ICI, Shell and BP.

The book describes in depth the coffee and sugar trade in Africa and agriculture in Kenya and Tanzania. It ends with a fascinating analysis of agribusiness in relation to Africa’s food crisis. The more bizarre aspects of the export trade, such as express air-freighted flowers and vegetables for Europe. also receive attention.

The chief merit of the book is its authors’ ability to build up an overwhelming case using example after example to demonstrate that export cropping and transnational involvement in Africa, while splendid for the companies, is damaging for the countries involved and ruinous for peasant farmers. The anti-peasant bias of major aid donors further aggravates the trend.

Nigeria provides a good example. Its latest plan to increase food production was conceived by the World Bank and Nigerian experts. Between 1981 and 1985 it is expected to cost over $8 thousand million. A US-Nigerian Joint Agricultural Consultative Committee was set up in 1980 ‘to facilitate private sector co-operation in agriculture and agribusiness between the United States and Nigeria’. It includes representatives from Coca-Cola, Ralston Purina and Carnation International, as well as the Ford Motor Company and the Chase Manhattan Bank, The committee will be the main vehicle for transferring US agricultural technology to Nigeria, particularly fertilizers, seeds, milling and baking technologies and integrated rice production and processing. Farm exports from the US to Nigeria could reach SI thousand million by 1985.

Yet in theory the small farmer is the cornerstone and major beneficiary of the plan. What, one is tempted to ask, do a small farmer from Nigeria and a large banker from the US have in common? Not a lot. In the past such programmes, as Dinham and Hines show, have led to increased landlessness and rural poverty:

In the second half of the 1970s, for example, the main area of agricultural investment in Nigeria was large-scale irrigation schemes, which had devastating effects on peasant producers. In Northern Nigeria the Talata-Mafara project involved irrigating 10,000 hectares near the Sokoto river. The work was carried out by Impresit Nigeria Ltd, which is 40 per cent owned by Fiat, and during the three year construction period 60,000 peasants had to be moved.

During this time the peasants unable to farm were given no compensation and finally, when they protested, the state used guns against them. For many of them the only way to survive was to mortgage their land to small bankers, civil servants and businessmen of Kano.

Agribusiness in Africa is a splendidly argued and documented report on the negative effects of big business on food production in Africa. The book is a forceful plea to governments and donors to begin supporting the peasant farmer - the backbone of the African economy - before it is too late. It makes excellent reading.

Even the typographical errors add to the meaning: what could be more appropriate than giving Nestlé’s income in Swiss francs?

Tony Jackson

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The Chicago Boys

Chile: the Pinochet Decade
by Phil O’Brien and Jackie Roddick
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Latin America Bureau (pbk) £2.95
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Chile: the Pinochet Decade is for anyone curious to know what the economic policies of the ‘Chicago Boys’ (the monetarist school founded by Milton Friedman) are really like once put in practice. The introduction of Friedman’s economics into Chile after Pinochet’s putsch in 1973 was the first practical application of the monetarists’ theory.

The experiment came to an undignified end around the beginning of 1983 when the State had to take over some of the country’s largest banks to prevent their total bankruptcy. Ten years of military dictatorship, coupled with this fierce economic discipline, mean that today Chilean workers and peasants are poorer, worse nourished and worse educated than they have been since the Second World War. And a handful of Chilean industrialists have made huge fortunes.

The book comes from Phil O’Brien and Jackie Roddick of Glasgow University. previously major contributors to the more thorough and authoritative analysis published in the UK of the Chile of Salvadoi Allende, Chile: State and Revolution, Based on a wide range of interviews with Chilean bankers, economists, industrialists high-ranking civil servants, military men and leaders of some of the country’s professional associations, their own book is full of insights into the mentality of those who proceeded to apply the shock treatment to the Chilean economy from 1975, caring nothing for the social consequences: ‘The Chicago model is based on one extraordinarily simple idea: the argument that economic liberty is more fundamental than political liberty.

The Left often neglects to study the intricacies of its opponents’ manoeuvres and conflicting ideologies. In the brief chapter The Making of the Coup, the authors offer a useful analysis of the wide-ranging interests of different groups among the Chilean right wing and different branches of the Chilean Armed Forces.

The book also offers a brief chronology of Chilean history, placing emphasis on the last decade, and a handy summary of the principal political parties and trade unions which clarifies the plethora of initials that so often obscures political analysis from Latin America.

And the text is interspersed with explanatory boxes with titles like ‘The National Security Doctrine’ and ‘Gradualism versus the Shock’ - The box that I most enjoyed was called ‘Birds of a Feather’ and records an interview with Britain’s conservative Minister of Trade Cecil Parkinson in October 1980, where he said of the Chilean economic experience: ‘It is very similar to what we are trying to develop now in Great Britain.’ This is why this study of the Chicago Boys’ experiment of the last decade in Chile is so important both inside and outside Latin America.

Pat Stocker


...being the book that argued
the political case for equality

TAWNEY is one of those historians that everybody loves to quote. Psychologist Erich Fromm uses Tawney’s historical view as the basis of his social analyses: the New Internationalist quotes him; when the new Social Democratic Party was born in Britain, there were endless debates about whether Tawney ‘belonged’ to them or to the Labour Party.

Tawney had run for Parliament (unsuccessfully) as a Labour candidate. He was more successful at running campaigns to improve the workers’ lot - fixing a minimum wage limit, for example, raising the school-leaving age and extending educational resources for working people.

His own education had been privileged: first Rugby, then Balliol College, Oxford. But he escaped the cosy confines of the academic world to do social work in London, followed by an active role in the Workers’ Educational Association up in Rochdale, Lancashire - a textile milltown in the industrial north: a long way from Oxford’s dreaming spires.

Even when he did tutor at Oxford, it was to working-class students; and his first major work was a study of the use of land in an underdeveloped economy during a population explosion. The economy in question was that of England in the 16th century, and his approach was ground-breaking back in 1912.

Education for ordinary people was Tawney’s great passion. He saw private education as one of the twin pillars of inequality; inherited wealth was the other. In Equality he poured scorn on the conservative excuse that there was an educational ladder for poor children to climb if they were exceptionally bright.

Why, he demanded, should poor children ‘be strained through the sieve of a competitive examination’ at the age of eleven so that a minority of them could receive as a privilege the secondary education that rich children - clever or stupid - received as a matter of course?

And he tackled the underlying question: why is it that society so meekly accepts these inequalities in educational opportunity? He believed that society had been brainwashed into accepting ‘the religion of inequality’. That’s the title of the first chapter of Equality, which was devoted to unpicking the pseudo-arguments of the high priests of inequality: for example, how can it be sensible to treat as equal people who are clearly born unequal? Every mother knows that even her own children are not equal in all respects.

Tawney walks around the question as if it were a sculpture, examining it in all its aspects. There is room here only for a sliver of his patient and thorough reply. Mothers know, he agrees, that their children are not equal. But is it the habit of mothers, then, to lavish care on the strong and neglect the delicate? If one child has a good digestion, and another poor, this is scarcely a reason to supply the former with good food and the latter with bad.

The goal of equality is not undermined by the fact that equality isn’t a phenomenon already in existence, or ever perfectly attainable: ‘What matters to the health of society is the objective towards which its face is set.’

By the end of the first chapter, Tawney has laid out the ethical case for equality as a fundamental social principle. In later chapters he explores the historical and economic background to the growth of inequality in Britain, comparing it to the situation in Europe and the United States: still later he presents his strategy for bringing equality into being.

The strategy includes many notions that have since become political commonplaces. At the time they set Tawney out as one of the great social critics and reformers of his era: the notion, for example, that begrudging money spent on public health services is not only unethical but a false economy in the long term; and that major industries should be nationalised to provide capital to fund state investments.

Most of Equality - now a basic university text and a must for trainee politicians in Britain - was first presented as a series of lectures in 1929. You can tell they were meant to be heard rather than read, from the beautifully balanced cadences of the sentences and the liberal peppering of quotable lines - like Swift’s remark that ‘mankind may judge what Heaven thinks of riches by observing those upon whom it has been pleased to bestow them’ or Tawney’s reply, when conservatives asserted that ‘privilege rested not on legal principles but on economic facts, and no man was debarred from aspiring to its prizes’, that this was like inducing ‘a thousand donkeys to sweat by the prospect of a carrot that could be eaten by one’.

Anuradha Vittachi

by R. H. Tawney (1931)
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George Allen & Unwin (pbk) £2.95
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New Internationalist issue 130 magazine cover This article is from the December 1983 issue of New Internationalist.
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