new internationalist
issue 204 - February 1990


Star rating system. Book reviews

Lords of Poverty
by Graham Hancock

Lords of Poverty It's not often such a maverick book hits these review pages. Lords of Poverty is a critical exposure of the way that the $50 billion in overseas aid from rich countries to the Third World is spent. Now criticizing aid, or generosity, is like criticizing motherhood - it's not the done thing. And some of the tone of Hancock's writing - 'It is time for the Lords of Poverty to depart' - is a cross between high moral preaching and the lower shades of scriptwriting for Star Wars. For sure, this book is going to win the writer a lot of enemies - already has if his dedication to the World Bank staff who 'illegally acquired' his early manuscript is anything to go by.

Here is a grab-bag of foul-ups, incompetence and arrogance by the overseas-aid industry spiced with a degree of scurrilous gossip. The electric blankets, high-heeled shoes and diet foods all sent to Somali drought victims... The appalling way the Food and Agriculture Organization is run... The massive and cruel adjustment programmes insisted on by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank teams. In a breathless way this spills over into much slighter nonsense about worthwhile agencies like UNICEF and the UN Development Program.

The book suffers from the machine-gun approach and rifling in on the main targets of Hancock's wrath - the IMF/World Bank and the international bureaucracy of aid staff - would have helped. For sure it is our money, taxpayers of the West, that has been used to speed up the massive tragedies of the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, Indonesia's cruel transmigration program and the grotesque series of giant dams being built on the Narmada River in India. For without World Bank loans these 'development' projects would never have happened. The earth would have been a better place without them.

Hancock's conclusion is that all, repeat all, official aid should be stopped - this is aid to governments; that from charities reaches poorer people much more effectively. He believes that stopping official overseas aid would be one of the most effective ways to help the poor and exploited.

Whether you agree with that or not - and it would be strange to jump into the same bed as The Heritage Foundation - Lords of Poverty is compulsive reading. Anyone connected with the overseas aid lobby has to read it and ask themselves hard questions, delve into the attics of their subconscious and dust down ideals which may have turned into little more than useless baggage.

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The Fate of the Forest
by Susanne Hecht and Alexander Cockburn

This book begins and ends with a barrage of brilliance. Hecht and Cockburn combine their talents (she as an academic, he as a journalist) to give us what some of us have been waiting for - a thorough, informed and impassioned account of the relationship between the great rainforest and its people. Amidst all the destruction, they hold out hope for what they call the 'ecology of justice'. The start and the finish are essential reading for anyone with more than a passing or morbid interest in the future of the planet.

In between is a tale that gets a bit limp and runs out of puff. It's as if the volume of historical exotica offered up by the Amazon had somehow suffocated the writing. Incredibly enough in a book of this sort the photographs are thrown in as a skimpy afterthought. More judicious editing might have worked wonders.

This is a pity. But it should not detract from the urgency of what the book has to say. No-one quite knows how many people once lived in the forest, but only a fraction of their number live there today. It's not just the trees, but the people, that have been felled.

'The forest is one big thing; it has people, animals, and plants. There is no point saving the animals if the forest is burned down; there is no point saving the forest if the people and animals who live in it are killed or driven away.' Hecht and Cockburn leave Paiakan, a Kayapo leader, to make the point of the book. Ecology and justice are, they argue, mutually dependent. Let's hope, for all our sakes, they are right.

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Film reviews

directed by Idrissa Ouedraogo

Desert hearts: Bila and Nopoko in the Burkinabê film Yaaba. Burkina Faso: across an arid, starkly attractive desert landscape a young boy and girl, Bila and Nopoko, play hide and seek. A tall, wizened old lady, Sana, her face heavily lined with the years, watches with affectionate interest and helps the boy win the game. It's the start of a close understanding between them. Bila calls the old lady Yaaba (grandmother in the Moore language) and even though she's something of an outcast from his village, she becomes a very special friend. Then, when Nopoko is taken ill, the adult villagers blame Sana's supposed evil powers and burn down her house. Bila however knows better and asks for her help in saving his friend.

Impeccable both in conception and execution, the strength of Yaaba is the elegant restraint of a visual style which manages to be both intimate and detached at the same time. By means of majestically composed long shots with Sana dominating the endless desert vistas, Ouedraogo makes the old lady into a kind of life principle: wisdom, endurance and integrity are seen to be literally etched into her heavily lined face. Meanwhile the routines and petty jealousies of village life go on with a gentle movement of their own. Cattle are minded and water carried, a wife is unfaithful to her drunken husband, a charlatan beggar pretends to be blind and a witch doctor charges an extravagant fee for a useless cure.

With two faultless central performances (Fatima Sanga as Yaaba, Noufou Ouedraogo as Bila) this is a deliberately timeless, mythic tale with a palpable resonance of universality. Africa may be the location and context, but without a single trace of the twentieth century in costume, custom or technology, the film reaches beyond modern liberal reality into that world of primary emotions which is the stuff of childhood.

A film where little is said but much convincingly shown, Yaaba is uplifting, sophisticated and thoroughly cinematic. See it.

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My Left Foot
directed by Jim Sheridan

D Day Lewis' moving left foot. My Left Foot is one of those rare movies that makes you feel good about people - and about our ability to change the world. The film is the story of Christy Brown, born in Depression-era Ireland with cerebral palsy, a disability which left him unable to speak or control any part of his body except for his left foot. Brown fought his whole life to come to terms with his disability. Through courage and sheer determination he became a painter of some fame and eventually a writer.

Dismissed by his father as little more than a vegetable, he is loved fiercely by his mother and protected by his brothers and sisters. Doggedly, Christy struggles to make his mark, to break through the terrifying isolation which hides a keen mind and a vibrant sense of humour. We follow his progress with rapt attention and total support. When the nine-year-old Christy wiggles across the room, awkwardly clutches a piece of chalk in his toes and painstakingly scrawls 'Mother' across the floor there is electricity in the cinema. We scratch out every halting letter with him and share completely in his triumph. When his father hoists him on his shoulders and proclaims proudly, 'Christy Brown, my son, genius', there is not a dry eye in the house.

There have been protests that a disabled actor was not given this plum part but Daniel Day Lewis' performance as the older Christy is nonetheless spellbinding. The real hero, though, is Christy himself. Brown's odyssey: his struggle for self-expression touches the wellsprings of what it means to be human. Christy plunges himself into painting and eventually writes the book on which the film is based. 'I was going to call it 'Remembrances of a Mental Defective,' he tells his future wife at one point in the film. 'That was my blue period.'

This is a myth-shattering movie that shows one disabled man's triumph over adversity. That it does so with dignity, sensitivity and intelligence is a credit to the film-makers - and a lesson for the audience.

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Music reviews

by Neil Young

As the 1960s dinosaurs shake their weary limbs around the lucrative US stadium-circuit - the Who, the Stones, Clapton, Dylan - 'rock' music seems almost back to square one. The legacy of punk is long ago discarded and it is now much longer since the high summer of the Sex Pistols than it was then from the Summer of Love when these artists were at (or already past) their peaks.

Either way, Neil Young stands apart. The 1980s hasn't been an entirely happy time for him, as any comparison of his recent work with the seminal Decade (a self-aware retrospective of his 1960s and 1970s work) would bear witness. But through it all, through his flirtations with electronics and heavy metal, high-school pop and (unbelievably) born-again Reaganism, he has at least remained interesting and open to change. For those who have kept the faith, Freedom is the ultimate vindication. The album is wonderfully diverse, incorporating winsome love duets, elliptical epics and some quite savage guitar. But wherever he treads he walks on smiling - there is a consistency here not found since 1979's over-rated Rust Never Sleeps. Lyrically it is often opaque. But like the reborn Lou Reed, he is animated by drugs and inner-city decay - and he quotes George Bush's promise of gentler America, 'a thousand points of light', with the bitterest irony.

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Reviews editor: Chris Brazier

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Oliver Twist
.being the book that raged at Victorian values

A friend of mine once had to represent his grandmother, whom he looked after, in a series of appeals against the pittance she received as a social-welfare payment from the State. Struggling to wade through a maze of regulation, he was alternately humiliated, patronized and bullied at the hearings by the Chair, a local solicitor, until he happened to re-read Oliver Twist. Oliver asking for more than the allotted gruel - and the Workhouse Board's astonishment at such wicked presumption - suddenly seemed very far from mawkish melodrama. At the next hearing he took the book with him and casually left it open at the famous Cruikshank illustration (in full view of the Tribunal). He said it helped put things into historical perspective.

The famous workhouse scene forms part of a sustained satire, in the first half of the book, on the insane cruelty of the system set up to put into practice the 1834 New Poor Law. The law itself had in turn been inspired by an influential theory of the time called Utilitarianism which held that individuals seek the Greatest Happiness possible and that governments should confine themselves to promoting this.

Dickens is, in fact, palpably beside himself with rage in those passages, written in 1836, which describe Oliver's treatment as a pauper, and analyze the thinking behind it. They contain astonishing tirades of sarcasm. The Guardians, being 'very sage, deep philosophers,' have 'established the rule that all poor people should have the alternative (for they would compel nobody, not they), of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or a quick one out of it.' Even the orphans, like Oliver, are duly starved as those contracted to rear them pocket their share of what little cash is apportioned for food.

Dickens had been a Parliamentary reporter, and as such had heard cant like this at first-hand. But as 'Boz', he had become at the age of 25 a national sensation with The Pickwick Papers, in which glimpses of a darker England briefly disturb a nostalgic stage-coach Merrie one. Today's best-sellers stick with a winning formula, and no doubt the publishers falling over each other to sign the extremely profitable young author expected likewise. Instead, while still finishing Pickwick, he began Oliver Twist, perhaps the most scathing invective about Governmental policy on poverty and its effects since Swift's Modest Proposal. Turning to a very different England from Dingley Dell - one which he was constantly exploring during long nocturnal rambles - he consciously set out to rub the noses of the English in the sewage of their cholera-infested slums (and when he describes Fagin creeping through the 'filth' swimming in the Spitalfields streets, he is talking about human shit).

Oliver's upbringing and apprenticeship come down to saving cash. Behind the New Poor Law humbug about promoting thrift and independence was the reality that the whole edifice was erected by Parliament simply to save cash (and succeeded: within two years the budget was halved). Oliver himself is a bit too much of a paragon, but he does embody the system's insane cruelty towards even the children of the destitute - indeed their suffering is held up as an example, a stern homily against improvidence. Here, as in the depiction of the underworld later in the book, the details were well-researched and were meant to shock. The attitudes that parish officers, workhouse-board members and magistrates express had their real equivalents and 'philosophers' of the Parliamentary Commission quite fulsomely outdid their fictional counterparts in fanaticism.

In the England of Oliver Twist the result of such scientifically planned institutional misery is that the greater happiness Oliver, Dodger, Nancy and the other children have consequently gravitated to is the excitement and (qualified) comradeship of Fagin's academy of crime. Fagin's devilry consists in providing his 'dears' with an appearance of security and concern, and a corrupt 'education' in self-help - i.e. helping themselves to gold watches - that contrasts with the coldness of officialdom. In reality, his philosophy is that of Number One. Like those of the workhouse, some of his victims, like the gutsy 16-year-old prostitute Nancy, will never survive their childhood.

Victorian values are in vogue in Britain again. The achievements of the Victorians were remarkable but there was a price to pay in human terms. Dickens saw this from the start; and if we are to resuscitate those values, we would also be well advised to revisit books like Oliver Twist. And it has a wider message than this. The fashion may be for putting people into institutions as in 1834, or for turfing them out of them, as in 1989. But all governments, in their enthusiasm for philosophical flavours of the month (especially cost-cutting ones), have a habit of overlooking what Orwell, writing on Dickens, called simply behaving decently - they forget that it is human beings whose lives they are experimenting with.

Jacob O'Callaghan

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens.

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