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Book Reviews


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This month’s books are a critical study of the World Bank and an assessment of the work of black women writers.

Editor: Amanda Root

Poor banking

Aid - rhetoric and reality
By Teresa Hayter and Catherine Watson
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Pluto Press £5.85(UK) $12.95(Australia)
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Child rubbish pickers - the World Bank finds it impossible to help the poorest.
Photo: Dexter Tiranti

Teresa Hayter wrote Aid as imperialism back in 1971 - an important and influential work whose conclusions you can judge from the title. Now, more than ten years later, it would seem that little has changes. She insists that the overall purpose of aid is still ‘the preservation of a system which damages the interests of poor people in the Third World’.

Aid - rhetoric and reality focuses much of the time on the World Bank - an important organization because of the co-ordinating role it plays in much international aid. And the book provides much well-researched and new material. Particularly interesting are the sections contributed by Catherine Watson, the book’s co-author and an ex-Bank employee. There is a succinct and devastating account of the Third World debt crisis and the authors come to the conclusion that Britain and other countries should withdraw form the World Bank altogether. But perhaps Hayter has mellowed with age. She does not rule out aid in all circumstances: ‘Direct transfers of financial resources in the form of ‘aid’ are one way of expressing solidarity’. What country-to-country aid there is should , however, be directed to the handful of countries (Mozambique, Nicaragua and Vietnam, for example) where the money stands a chance of benefiting the poor.

The International Monetary Fund comes under predictable criticism for its essentially destructive attitude to Third World debt problems - offering a sour tasting medicine of government spending cuts, currency devaluation and removal of import controls.

Mores surprisingly the World Bank, the IMF’s sister organization, comes under the same sort of attack. Under the Bank’s last president, Robert McNamara, the rhetoric of the bank has become more liberal. Bu this was only a superficial change. The words might have changes with McNamara using all the latest and most progressive development buzz words like ‘participation’ and ‘aid for the poorest’ but the fundamentalists remained the same: much of the Banks’ activity favoured the relatively wealthy and made the poor ever more powerless. Now, with Tom Clausen as president, even the rhetoric is hardline. The book sums up the opinion of both the IMF and the World Bank as being: ‘while attention to poverty is all very fine, now is not the time’.

Naturally the policies which it tries to promote follow very closely its own political philosophy and that of the major voting power in the organization, the United States. When they make what they call ‘structural adjustment lending’ in the interests of promoting efficiency what they are actually promoting, according to the authors, is capitalism.

They accuse the Bank of refusing to lend to left-wing and often democratic regimes - like Chile under Allende or present-day Nicaragua. And where loans have been made, as in the hope of winning the country back into the free-market system. The Bank is on the other hand ‘lenient towards corruption, inefficient, and frequently brutal right-wing governments’.

As for the projects which the Bank funds, these correspondingly favour private rather than public spending, help better-off farmers and discourage land reform. ‘The Bank finds it difficult to deal with the very poor, for the simple reason that they have no money and he Bank doesn’t like government subsidies.’ The agency’s audits of the effectiveness of some f their own projects are quoted to show how inefficient they have been in helping the poor - as well as the ways they have damaged the environment.

Teresa Hayter is a marxist and starts from the assumption that capitalism cannot solve the problems of world poverty. But the argument here is based on firm and impressive evidence rather than ideology and the book deserves to be read widely, not least by aid officials around the globe.

John Tanner

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Telling the black story

Black women writers
Arguments and interviews conducted by Man Evans
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Pluto Press, £6,95
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While Black Americans were slaves they were forbidden by law to read or write. The written word has therefore had a special place in Black culture since emancipation. The struggle to survive and to affirm the Black community in racist America has created an artistic tradition in which literature and poetry have come second only to music.

‘Stories are important, writes Tony Cade Bambara in Black women writers, ‘They keep us alive, In the ships, in the camps, in the quarters, fields, prisons, on the road, on the run, underground, under siege, in the throes, on the verge - the storyteller snatches us back from the edge to hear the next chapter. In which we are the subjects. We, the hero of our tales. Our lives preserved. How it was; how to be. Passing it along in the relay. That is what I work to do: to produce stories that save our lives.’

Black women writers is a collection of personal statements from writers of poetry, fiction, plays, essays and autobiography, each accompanied by two essays of literary criticism. There are two exceptions to this pattern: neither Paule Marshall nor Margaret Walker have contributed their own piece, but their work is discussed. The compiler, Man Evans, whose work is also assessed in the book, set out to provide a ‘critical evaluation’ of the 15 women’s creative work, The book is prefaced with a careful explanation of who is excluded from the collection and, in some cases, why.

Both artists and critics write about the individual’s literary work in relation to the community she aims to serve. This underlines the distinctiveness of the Black literary tradition which the book examines and celebrates - a tradition which gives particular attention to the relationship between individual histories and the collective public life of the community.

It is precisely this relationship that has often been obscured in the more recent mass-marketing of Black women’s work to the white reading public. Writers like Alice Walker, Tony Cade Bambara and Toni Morrison have been seen as exceptional individuals rather than as cultural activists, And their predecessors have hardly been seen at all.

The first novel written by a Black woman, Harriet E. Wilson. was published over 125 years ago. From reading Black women writers you will learn the names of many, many more, both past and present, whose work has never been published in Britain - writers like Zora Neale Hurston, who was also an anthropologist, and who died in poverty.

Although the critical essays are consistently interesting, I found the writers’ personal statements more helpful it understanding the spirit of their work.


The Qu’ran
...being the book that said it all,
fourteen centuries ago

ONCE UPON A TIME an illiterate but respected trader felt he wanted to be alone, and went to meditate in a cave. While he was there he heard a voice and was given the first verses of a poem which was to be completed gradually in his lifetime in shorter and longer pieces. These he passed on verbatim to his friends who wrote them down for him.

This was no ordinary poem. It contained instructions and rules for the ordering of a just and humane society. The problems around at his time were very similar to those we see today. Greedy men were intent on amassing wealth and prepared to persecute and torture anyone who spoke up against their way of life. Women were treated as sex objects, or of so little value that girl children were often killed. The poor were enslaved or had to beg on the streets. Cheating and stealing of all kinds were rife, and fighting was an established habit between tribes, not to mention nations.

The trader did not put forward any theories based upon what he bad been given, nor did he try to fit what he saw into an ideology. Nor did he immediately call for a revolution. He simply passed on in the poem the idea that there was a better way of life, where people could love, respect and act honestly towards each other, regardless of sex, colour, nationality or even religion. The rich would help the poor and charge no interest on debts; the strong would protect the weak. And instead of thinking of himself as all-important and letting his behaviour sink to the lowest depths of selfishness, man would achieve the high status of God’s representative and agent in the world.

Muhammad did not say that he was God - in fact he said he wasn’t. He set up no hierarchy of priests. He merely offered an example of modest living and stated that no man should be worshipped but only God.

Nevertheless the rich men of Mecca turned against him. His preaching was a threat to them and to the money they made by fleecing pilgrims in the shrines of the many gods in Mecca. Having failed to discredit him with ridicule they turned to violence and torture to persuade his followers to change their minds. The ‘muslims’ did not fight back, but fled into the desert.

Muhammad eventually did sanction fighting to protect his people from persecution. But he laid down rules to stop the fight as soon as the enemy said they wanted peace - even if they were not to be trusted. ‘Should they intend to deceive thee, verily God sufficeth thee: he it is that hath strengthened thee.’

His return to Mecca could be described as the first non-violent march. Dressed as pilgrims and unarmed, the muslims walked towards Mecca and their enemies. They won a promise that they could return in peace next year.

The Qu’ran is an old book and the translations into English leave much to be desired. It is not written down in any logical order and there is much apparent repetition. But it is like a goldmine with nuggets of wisdom waiting at every turn to be discovered and treasured - and the gold is as bright today as it was fourteen centuries ago,

All that we struggle for today was also the struggle, the jihad, than. Justice, compassion for the weak and oppressed, women’s rights, equitable distribution of property, concern for the environment and the sanctity of life.

Even its penal code, much maligned of late as barbaric, makes provision for offenders to be encouraged to ask forgiveness and gives them several opportunities to change their ways before the ultimate penalties are imposed. It bears a resemblance to some of the more humane societies of today which try to re-educate offenders to a sense of their social responsibilities.

The vision of the Qu’ran is based upon a clear decision to believe in God. And it invites others to make that decision, promising great spiritual rewards. For all those who choose not to believe, defying the words of God and rejecting the vision. there can only be pain and disappointment, inner conflict and confusion: ‘Those whom God willeth to guide. he openeth their breast to Islam; those whom he willeth to leave straying, he maketh their breast close and constricted, as if they had to climb up to the skies: thus does God heap the penalty on those who refuse to believe.’

Muhammad was under no illusion that everyone would agree with him or accept what he said. Nor did he try to force anyone to agree. But such was the power of his vision that it did eventually succeed in capturing the imaginations of even his worst enemies, It still continues to inspire many young (and old) reformers today as well as influencing the day-today lives of muslims everywhere.

Harfiyah Ball

The Holy Qu’ran
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A recommended translation is that of A. Yusuf Ali.
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New Internationalist issue 148 magazine cover This article is from the June 1985 issue of New Internationalist.
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