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Your issue on Class (NI 281) portrayed the difficulties facing the poor – particularly women – across the world, and the barriers which keep them ‘in their place’.
One very positive development over the last 20 years has been the use of micro-credit in developing countries. Small loans, enabling poor people to start their own businesses, empower them to take control over their own lives and work their own way out of poverty, enriching themselves, their families and their communities.
The Grameen Bank and Africa Now are two examples of successful schemes. Micro-credit can also help poor people in the industrialized world, as shown by the success of the Women’s Self-Employment Project in Chicago.
In February 1997 the Micro-Credit Summit will bring together parliamentarians and interested parties from around the world with the aim of launching a campaign to extend micro-credit to 100 million of the world’s poorest families by the year 2005. For further information, contact Results UK, Venture House, Cross Street, Macclesfield SK11 7PG, England.
Your issue on Burma (NI 280) is clear that tourists should not visit Burma. But according to an article I read in a local magazine, a group of travellers concluded that the Burmese people do want you to come to their country: ‘In our tour through this country long on discipline but short on progress, one thing was clear: going there is a tough moral call to make but to the Burmese people we talked to, you only have one choice. They want you to come and see how their Government has managed to turn Shwe Puidaw – the Golden Land – into one of the 10 poorest countries in the world. They want you to tell their horror stories. Your only responsibility is to pass them along.’
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
We were shocked to see you unilaterally let PepsiCo off the hook. Contrary to what you state in your issue on Burma (NI 280), the company has not left the country, but is simply engaged in paper shuffling. It has turned its operations into a franchise directly owned by a Burmese company run by Thein Tun, who chaired a mass rally for the Burmese dictatorship in June where he denounced Burma’s democracy movement.
Meanwhile, PepsiCo itself still refuses to explain how it could have exported agricultural goods from Burma without trading in produce grown by using forced labour. To have avoided this, PepsiCo must have known about the practice long before the human-rights groups did. Yet it did not present any testimony concerning this during US Government hearings on Burma, nor did it inform even its own shareholders.
Had you contacted the PepsiCo/Burma boycott organizers you would have avoided a major error which has set our work back considerably.
Reid Cooper and Terry Cottam
Burma-Tibet Group, Ottawa, Canada.
Secondly, there is a class of difference between source of income and employment conditions. While my husband and I both tick ‘monthly salary’, his employment is permanent, full-time and fully protected under employment law (as far as that goes). Mine is half-time, fixed term with no obligation on my employers to re-employ me at the end of the term. Our situations are typically gendered and this understanding is a significant lack in your quiz as well as in most class analyses.
However, the quiz may be a useful teaching aid. Students could examine in what ways their experiences fit the questions asked and where the difficulties are. It is likely that the ‘disagreement’ areas will be ones where class is intersecting with other important divisions, and this will yield fruitful discussions.
Michael Mackenzie’s well-meant comment (Letters NI 280) that the Bible’s ‘Book of Genesis depicts an initially harmonious relationship between humankind, God and creation’, is typical of the ways religions score such ‘own goals’ and thus discredit their own good moral teachings, by basing them on such primitive fictions.
The above passage is palp-able nonsense because in the past half billion years alone there have been at least three major and inharmonious extinctions of millions of innocent species on this planet, as shown by evidence rather more solid than the Bible can produce for Genesis.
(The religious person shies away from naming ‘who’ was responsible for such cruelty, but surely rationality and logic demand that ‘he who created all’, must take full responsibility for all?).
The Third World has enough troubles as it is, without unproven creeds fighting for its ‘souls’.
I am forced to agree with your correspondent FA Beal (NI 280) that ‘the answer will only become apparent when the basic resources we are squandering seriously affect us directly.’
In the last fraction of a second of our cosmic timescale – this century and the last – humankind has done more damage to its habitat than in the rest of civilization.
For the first time the original meaning of economy – which comes from the Greek oikonomia meaning the careful and thrifty management of the household for the increasing benefit of its members over the long-term – has been totally replace by chrematistics, which is that branch of political economy relating to the manipulation of property and money so as to maximize the short-run monetary exchange value to the owners.
In the name of growth, money has become the major measure of value and meaning for many human beings – a substitute for the morality and spirituality that traditionally unified all life.
I’m sure the Executive Director of the UN Environ-ment Program got it right when he said: ‘We face by the turn of the century, an environmental catastrophe as complete and as irreversible as any nuclear holocaust.’
Wellington, Aotearoa/New Zealand
Your readers must be aware of the reason for India’s deafening silence at the Human Settlements Conference held recently in Istanbul.
The builders’ lobby and the politicians in India are hand-in-glove. Thousands upon thousands of fertile acres of agricultural land have been taken over by the builders to provide housing – sometimes second and third homes for the middle classes.
The prices for these properties often exceed those in the West; the business is so lucrative that it involves organized crime. The net result is that India will face famine in the near future because its agricultural land will have been plundered and the vast majority of people will have to continue living, eating and shitting in the streets.
It is short-term, not long-term, gains that count in India.
Smita B Patil
|The views expressed in these letters are not necessarily those of the New Internationalist|
Getting used to justice
Olivia Ward can’t believe it when her law-abiding assistant Boris is thrown in jail.
There was something distinctly wrong. Boris’s usually calm countenance was haggard, his lanky frame taut as a cable. If he was a smoking man, he’d be lighting Marlboros two at a time.
‘Yesterday,’ he rasped. ‘I was in jail.’
I was stunned. Trouble was a thing my placid, law-abiding assistant would run a mile to avoid. Many an Orthodox priest had more on his conscience than Boris did.
He managed a laugh.
‘I was only going for a picnic.’
It all began, he said, with a peaceful family scene. He and his wife Larissa, with Sasha aged 13 and 11-year-old Natasha, polished off a lunch al fresco in the sunny woods bordering Moscow’s gothic university complex.
Afterwards, an eager Sasha persuaded Boris to give him a driving lesson on the empty pathway circling the flowerbeds. Carried away by the mellow mood of the afternoon, Boris agreed.
‘A police car suddenly came up beside us. We pulled over, they asked for our identification.’
Seeing that Sasha was not a licensed driver, the police pointed their machine guns at Boris and ordered him to follow them.
‘I soon saw where we were going,’ he said, his face whitening at the memory. ‘It was the university police station. I was taken out of the car and locked in a cell.’
For Boris the arrest was a double whammy. It was to that same station that he had been taken for questioning in the 1970s when, as a student, he was caught reading a forbidden book by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
‘I felt choked,’ he said. ‘That sensation of airlessness, of the oxygen being sucked out of my life, came back to me. It was like the past reaching out to strangle me.’
The afternoon sun dissolved into darkness. The line between darkness and light melted.
‘I kept on demanding my rights. I insisted on knowing what I was charged with, and why they had locked me in a cell. The officer on duty just laughed.’
Minutes, hours passed. At last the officer handed Boris a printed form. As in the Soviet days, it was a blank confession that he was guilty as charged. If he signed it, he would be released. If not, he would lose his driver’s license and be jailed indefinitely.
‘What were the charges? What did they mean? Was I being fined or branded a criminal? Nobody would tell me.’
For Boris, as for others in this country suspended between past and future, a trap door had opened and dropped him into a crazy world of mirror-image reality.
‘While I sat there I was thinking: “there is only one aim to this. To show me that they can do anything to me. That in front of faceless authority I am nobody.”’
Boris wasn’t alone in his misery. In the past three years I have known of numerous people who were intimidated, beaten or imprisoned without warning and without justification. They all shared the same overwhelming feeling of helplessness and betrayal.
‘It’s very different for somebody in the West,’ said a musician who was pulled from his car, punched and jailed for arguing with a policeman who had blocked off his street. ‘There you know you are in the right, and the whole country will support you.’
‘This country has a history. They bury the bones but they keep poking up on the surface. We think we’re in the clear, but we can never be free of that black past.’
Boris agreed glumly.
‘The worst thing for me was being forced to sign the confession. It was exactly like the bad old days.’
For Russians, who a short time ago ran to embrace democracy, to find it merely a store window mannequin, such encounters are a particular dilemma. Spurn democracy because it didn’t happen as planned, and it never would. Ignore the roughshod attitude to rights, and the result would be the same.
Leaving his jail cell, Boris tried to come to terms with that paradox: ‘I told the cop I’d be making a formal protest. He only laughed and said: “Nobody will care.”’
But for Boris it did make a difference. Even one voice in the wilderness was a voice that could become a chorus.
‘Dostoevsky said that man can get used to anything,’ he said. ‘That has always meant we can live with any kind of suffering. Now it needs a new meaning. We can also get used to justice.’
Olivia Ward is bureau chief for the Toronto Star in Moscow.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996