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This month’s books look at what can be done to prevent famine, and at the black women who fight apartheid.

Editor: Amanda Root

Unspeaking experts
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Famine: A Man-Made Disaster
A Report of the Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues
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Pan (pbk) £1.95
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If a camel is a horse designed by a committee, it is nevertheless the superior animal in many ways. Similarly this handy paperback on famine in sub-Saharan Africa is a good deal better than one would expect from a commjttee, especially a self-appointed group of ‘eminent humanitarians’ of whom 85 per cent are men, 92 per cent are from outside the area they are talking about and 100 per cent are rich (some exceedingly so).

Certainly if the book had continued in the pompous tone of the introduction by the Commission’s Co-Chairmen (the Crown Prince of Jordan and Sadruddin Aga Khan) it would have died a natural death already in the three months since publication. But thanks to the editorship of Mark Malloch Brown (of the Economist Development Report) it may approach the Brandt Report’s popularity for presenting the problems of aid and poverty in a simple readable way and offering relatively graspable hopes for the future. For those unwilling to read all 160 pages there is an even more digestible summary of the arguments in David Owen’s four-page foreward.

In spite of all this the book reaffirms that aid is still the right answer, but instead of asking for more, as books used to do in the l970s, it insists on the quality of aid. Projects should be smaller, there should be more participation by farmers, rural credit has good potential, International Fund for Agricultural Development should be strengthened.... Much better projects can be implemented ‘with firm leadership from African Governments’.

It all sounds so easy. Why did no-one think of it before? And once it is agreed that ‘Rural is Beautiful’ there is apparently no further problem: ‘A plausible channel for credit is an indigenous group, which understands the local power structure and the needs, and which co-operatively borrows the money and manages loans to individuals. An international aid agency can identify such groups...’

But will the ‘firm African Government’ agree to international agencies wandering around and picking up projects that will inevitably have political effects? And will the local groups be able to understand local power structures without coming under their influence?

But even if this were so. can we expect the massive political power structures called international aid agencies to suddenly adopt such policies of rational humanism at all levels and in all situations?

It is not accident that aid donors allocate most of their aid to promotion of their own exports, nor that African Governments allow such a large proportion of this aid to go into cash crops, industries and the cities.

Declining trade terms and mounting indebtedness, uneven distribution of population and proliferation of arms all have contributed to Africa’s agricultural stagnation and the decline of food availability. In such circumstances famine is not a sudden act of God converting lands of plenty to the Biblical wastes of Michael Buerk’s Ethiopia: instead it is usually a marginal decline, caused by poor rains or civil disturbance, in a situation of chronic hunger, The answer, so runs the argument, is long-term development. But so far substantial aid to sub-Saharan Africa (ten times that given per person in Asia) has failed to produce much result, nor have the host of foreign experts (reportedly more than in colonial times) succeeded in reversing the decline in agricultural production. On both sides what happens is a reflection of particular vested interests, not a failure to analyse what aid should be about.

We all know that aid should benefit the poorest, This book serves to emphasise that it does not, The solution to famine may not be found within the structure that causes it in the first place: yet this political system is now being asked to put it right.

On this the eminent humanitarians are silent.

Tony Vaux

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The State of the World’s Children 1985

by United Nations Children’s Fund
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Oxford University Press (hbk) £995/19.95
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What is the recommended recipe for homemade oral rehydration salts?

Where can I find a good example to demonstrate the relatioship between infection and malnutrition?

What are the facts on female education and mortality?

Hundreds of questions like these are answered in the Lifelines section at the back of this year’s State of the World’s Children book. In accessible form, it brings together examples and facts on major low-cost methods of protecting children’s lives and growth. Other parts of the book contain essays which put these facts into context, arguing that new low-cost methods could enable parents to halve child death-rates. It is a useful reference book for those interested in child-care who do not have time to read all the articles, pamphlets and specialist books which are written about children each year.

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Unsung heroines

For their triumphs and for their tears:
Women in apartheid South Africa

by Hilda Bernstein
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International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa.
London. 1985 (pbk) £3.50.
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There must be very few readers who have not heard of Nelson Mandela or Steve Biko; but how many of you have heard of Lillian Ngoya, Ellen Kuzwayo and Dora Tamana, to name but a few? Until recently, black women have been conspicuous by their absence from the bulk of material Written about South Africa. Hopefully, Bernstein s account of women under Apartheid will help to redress the balance. If you are looking for diatribe or rhetoric you will be disappointed. This is a factual book, illustrating in no uncertain terms the appalling conditions under which women have to live. Black women in South Africa have to bear the twofold burden of racism and sexism.

Because of Apartheid’s gender conscious infrastructure, black women are placed beyond the periphery of the conventional workforce. The influx controls and migrant labour laws often leave women with only two choices; either to try to eke out a meagre living in the hopelessly arid homelands, or to seek work, often illegally, in the urban areas. Many women who do procure a job legally receive no state support when unemployed, although they do pay taxes. Bernstein states; ‘the majority of black women workers are excluded from unemployment insurance by the limitations on those who may qualify. Domestic and agricultural Workers, the majority of women workers, are excluded. - It is no coincidence that the majority of gainfully employed female workers are domestic servants. Poor educational prospects and lack of access to other resources retard any possibility of getting a well paid and well protected job. Domestic workers W’ho live on the premises are forbidden to live with their families in their quarters. Consequently, the disruption of family can be devastating.’

However, black women have not been passive. Their fight against apartheid was waged long before the Nationalist government assumed power in 1948, They have tirelessly protested against the pass laws, which in fact forced the government to revoke pass laws for women up until 1962, They have been instrumental in the formation of black trade unions and have been vehement in their repulsion of the Bantu Education Act. Theirs is not a definitive feminist struggle to be relegated to the women’s pages of the Western press; but nevertheless it is a fight against the inherent sexism of South Africa as well as the far reaching injustices that affect 84 per cent of the population. This is a moving book, a long awaited book without any sentimentality,

Edda Ivan Smith


The uses of Literacy
…being the first book to analyse working-class culture.

So this is what happens if you give an exworking-class boy a typewriter, plenty of blank paper and enough encouragement to write a book, The boy in question is Richard Hoggart, the working-class district that saw him into his first pair of long-trousers is Hunslet, a district in Leeds in Northern England, and the book that he wrote is The Uses of Literacy.

It is Hoggart’s genius to turn such semi-autobiographical dross into purest literary gold. He recreates the Yorkshire dialect, the rhythms of colloquial speech and the culture of his childhood with a novelist’s observant eye. This alchemy makes the book pure magic, Yet he did more than this: he minted a whole new way of looking at the so-called lower orders.

Hoggart was the first person to realise, back in the early 1950s, that working-class life was interesting, complex and every bit as important as the upper-class sort, While everybody else thought that working-class culture was common as muck, and less valuable (talk, is, after all, cheap, and the best part of working-class culture is the blather), Hoggart was sitting in Leeds Library concocting the arguments that would upset a whole generation of snobs,

Hoggart was largely responsible for a type of chic anarchy that hit the streets of London about the same time as the miniskirt. His work is one of the main reasons that anyone who wanted to be anybody in the 1 960s developed a fake working-class accent. He had pointed out how superior working-class culture was, so everybody wanted to jump on the bandwagon. And a whole generation of trendy academics, (whose work has been, for the most part. footnotes to this book), followed in his footsteps.

The Uses of Literacy also explores the darker side of working-class life, the constant battles against poverty, the damp of the back kitchens and the grot and grime of cramped city streets, Hoggart’s own life was shaped by poverty: his was a childhood characterised by women’s endless attempts ‘to make ends meet’, ‘to cope’, to ‘manage on nowt’ and yet to ‘put a brave face on’t’.

Those Who lived in the tenements had two ways of surviving. They helped each other through a support network, and they formed an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ sensibility, which worked to prevent outsiders, the debt-collectors and rent men - the ‘thems’ - having any real knowledge of what was going on in their lives. Characteristically Hoggart remembers how his mother ‘helped herself along by smoking Woodbines - furtively, in case "they" found out’. His brother was ‘trained to put the packet in the drawer without a word if he came back from the shop to find a visitor at home’.

He is a cool operator: the very best kind of sociologist. By which I mean, of course, the armchair variety. None of this silly gawping at the natives for him. He just remembered what he already knew, condensed it into patterns he called ‘an "older" order’, and hey presto! a classic was born. But Hoggart did have an unfair advantage - he was a natural - it was his own background that he was, in a large part, researching. When he steps out of his armchair, however, he can get into trouble.

He goes on to argue that the ‘shiny barbarism’ of the 1950s of ‘milk-bars’ (which were like coffee-bars), and their clientele is almost single-handedly responsible for the decline and fall of the British working-class. He claims these dens of milk-shake drinking iniquity are destroying all the qualities that are most admirable in working-class culture. The bonds of solidarity are disappearing and Hoggart blames youth who were eagerly consuming ‘mass’ American culture and trashy popular literature which was replacing the ‘older’ more literate sort of pleasures and entertainments. I do not agree. Hoggart goes over the top in his hatred of the newer culture and fails to see the new forms of collectivity that have developed around it.

When Hoggart goes into a 1950s milk-bar he sees teenagers - a newly identified and worrying group 30 years ago - seemingly lounging about doing ‘nothing in particular’ and ‘wastin’ time’. He is horrified. And writes of ‘the young men’ who, ‘waggle one shoulder or stare, as desperately as Humphrey Bogart, across tubular chairs’. He sees in them ‘a peculiarly thin and pallid form of dissipation, a sort of spiritual dry-rot amid the odour of boiled milk’. Hoggart does not recognise the passivity, the boredom and the time wasting as a pose: another twist of the ‘us’ against ‘them’ screw. These forms of illusory inactivity keep at least one pair of prying eyes diverted from what is really going on.

Teenagers are not passive when they are out pretending to be ‘doing nothing.’ They are busy ‘playing the field’, ‘fancying’, ‘flirting’ or just showing off to their mates. But the complexity of these social rituals and the rules that govern them will not be revealed to an outsider like Hoggart.

Amanda Root

The Uses of Literacy
by Richard Hoggart
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Penguin 1957
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New Internationalist issue 151 magazine cover This article is from the September 1985 issue of New Internationalist.
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