issue 188 - October 1988
Baby milk scandal
Nestlé back on the scene
Two companies are once again accused of dumping babyfood on the Third World hospitals and maternity wards, and the message from the campaigning group, Action for Corporate Accountability (ACA), is that the practice must stop. Unless the companies respond before October 4, a Nestlé boycott will be launched, with a similar campaign against the other company, American Home Products. Other European Groups from the International Babyfoods Action Network seem likely to follow suit.
Nestlé has got in trouble over its baby-milk marketing techniques before. But after a seven-year international boycott of its products, the company was sufficiently chastened to sign an agreement in 1984 promising to follow World Health Organization and UNICEF guidelines. Now the agreement appears to have been broken. The ACA has monitored the industry's marketing practices in 42 countries, with the result that it has evidence of dumping in hospitals as far afield as China.
By giving free samples of babymilk to hospitals, the companies gain entry into a highly lucrative market. Once bottle-feeding starts, breastmilk begins to dry up, and by the time the mother and baby leave hospital they are physically 'hooked'.
In countries where mothers have neither the money nor the hygienic conditions to carry out bottle-feeding satisfactorily, the addiction has savage consequences: severe malnutrition, diarrhoea, gastroenteritis and ultimately death. The tragedy is that the situation is entirely preventable, because breast-feeding is safe, free and best for baby.
For further information you can contact:
Action for Corporate Accountability,
3255 Hennepin Avenue South,
Suite 255, Minneapolis, MN 55408 US.
Vietnam's hard road to health
Amidst Vietnam's overwhelming poverty there is something forlorn about the French perfume and stereos for sale in the new shops mushrooming around Ho Chi Minh City. These invitations to commercialism are the most visible successes of governmental reforms aimed at pulling the country back from the brink of bankruptcy. But few people can afford them.
Shunned by the international community, Vietnam is straining to rebuild an economy riven with the scars left by 40 years of war. Over 17 million tons of bombs were dropped on the country, and the rigid Soviet-style economy of the time could not deal with the physical destruction.
Today Vietnam's foreign debt - estimated by the IMF at $6.7 billion - hangs heavy round its neck: its trade deficit exceeds $1 billion annually. Inflation is rocketing at 700 per cent and most workers must hold down at least two jobs to survive. Industrial production stagnates, and many factories operate at less than half-cock, the result of inefficient management, bureaucratic, intransigence and sheet corruption. Malnutrition, disease and illiteracy have reached epidemic proportions: 40 per cent of Vietnam's under-fives now suffer from malnutrition.
The ambitious reforms implemented by the current government are designed to relieve these problems. But Vietnam's international isolation remains a key obstacle to its economic development. The problem was highlighted early last year when a planned Japanese Honda factory was cancelled at the last moment as a result of international pressure from the US and ASEAN. The pretext was Vietnam's occupation of Kampuchea, although the Vietnamese government has already halved its military presence there and plans to withdraw all troops by 1992.
Vietnam is potentially a rich country with a wide variety of natural resources. What is needed is an economic structure that will enable it to harness these and it is this that the present government is groping towards. But there are no easy answers. 'There is no model for Vietnam,' says Vietnamese economist, Nguyen Xuan Oanh. 'No miracle can solve all the problems accumulated over the years.'
India floods itself
When the monsoon failed for the third year running, India's water authorities decided to take matters into their own hands. They attempted to melt the Himalayan snows by spraying them with charcoal dust from a helicopter.
The idea worked. The blackened snowdrifts absorbed extra sunlight and the snow melted. The Central Water Commission is now seeking cheap ways of maximizing snow-melts, in the belief that the threat of drought might be eliminated if the 'vast ocean on the high mountain could be tapped'.
But not everyone is quite so enthusiastic about the scheme. Environmentalists warn that the project could cause irreparable damage to the mountains' fragile ecosystem, along with appalling floods in the valleys.
Already rivers in the north-east of India flood wildly every year. Last year whilst the rest of the country was desiccated by the worst drought in more than a century, 27 million acres of lowland were ravaged by floods. Even using the charcoal-spraying scheme, snow can be melted only in summertime which overlaps with the monsoon lower down the mountain. The combination of monsoon and extra snowmelt would make the flooding uncontrollable.
Faced by mounting criticism including letters to the Prime Minister, the Commission says that the scheme is only at its conceptual' stage. But they have not dropped the plans. And the fear is that if drought persists, the project may actually be put into operation.
Aisha Ram / Panos
Debunking Donald Duck
Walt Disney racism
A caustic attack on the sacred duck of the comic-strip world has become a bestseller in response to the Third World need to debunk the most pervasive US export - Disney cartoons.
How to Read Donald Duck, described as a 'classic work on cultural imperialism', has gone through 13 Latin American editions, been translated into 13 languages and sold more than half a million copies. But this distribution is nothing beside the Duck's: Donald's comic books are published in 47 countries and he quacks over television in 21 languages.
'How come the "natives" always give up their riches to the Duck invaders?' asks the blurb. 'Why are there no parents in Donald Duck comics?' And 'What are Huey, Duey and Louie doing in Vietnam?'
The authors of these questions, Chilean critic and novelist, Ariel Dorfman, and Belgian sociologist, Armand Mattelart, wrote the book in the flush of the Chilean revolution in 1971, before the bloody military coup drove both into exile.
The book strips away the cloak of innocence in Walt Disney's Duckburg. Laid bare is the ideology underneath. More than half the time, the ducks are looking for gold - usually in exotic places where it is just lying around, surrounded by blissfully stupid 'natives'.
In Disney's world, there are only the rulers and the ruled: on one side the ducks, on the other the baddies and the savages. The values of the comics are white, middle-class and male. Everyone else is subservient or invisible. On the rare occasions that women pop up, they are bird-brained, reflecting Disney's famous comment: 'Girls bored me; they still do.'
Dorfman and Mattelart also pose another dynamic question: where, they ask, are the 'workers' portrayed in Donald Duck comics? Who produces the material goods that Donald and his relatives are surrounded with? The workers are missing because they don't fit in with a dream world, in which the middle class lives happily on the fruits of labourers it never sees.
This pattern was reproduced exactly in the organization of Disney's company itself, they argue: Walt Disney took all the credit for the Disney creations, although the ideas came from his studio team whose names never appeared on any of the products. In fact Disney himself could not even draw.
James Gibbons / Third World Features
Beating brain damage
Community care in Uganda
For years Ambrose Kasoma hid behind bushes watching other people without being seen. Rejected by his mother and father when he was a baby, he never played games with boys his own age in Uganda and rarely felt warmth from his community. His eyes stream continuously with a repulsive, smelly substance, and his nose runs with mucus so that no-one wants to know him.
Ambrose, now 19, is just one of scores of brain-damaged children whose lives have suddenly improved, thanks to the Community Based Rehabilitation National Centre. A remarkable example of what can be achieved despite the country's enormous economic problems and the upheavals of recent years, this organization is teaching the Ugandan community to look after such children, integrating them back into their families and sometimes even into school.
At the centre Ambrose learned to play a musical instrument which helped him re-establish confidence in himself and encouraged him to mix. He was taught to carry out daily household chores like washing dishes. And being clean and well dressed made him physically more attractive: today people don't shun him as they did, and he doesn't hide behind bushes anymore.
The road to acceptance is hard. Communication with children like Ambrose is hampered by their speech impediments and many families never want them back. In other cases the burden of raising the child falls entirely on the mother. And the centre itself is hamstrung by a shortage of trained people to work with the community. But as one of a number of similar organizations now in existence, the centre represents the emergence of fresh hope for those who several years ago would not have stood a chance.
Benjamin Ochan / Gemini