I heard the grass(roots) singing
by Roberto Rubio-Fabián
Maria Eugenia rose to her feet in the packed hall and stared straight ahead, her weathered face a picture of tense composure. The young Salvadorean woman had travelled for 16 hours by bus over pitted mountain roads to tell her story. More than 300 people in the room listened attentively.
‘Once my family had a market for our goods,’ Maria explained. ‘We campesinos could sell our crops and our handicrafts; we were able to make a living. But now we have to compete against cheap goods coming into the country. And we can’t afford the high interest rates the banks charge. It’s too expensive to send our kids to school and the Government is cutting back on other services too. We are barely able to cover our costs and I don’t know how much longer we can hang on.’
Heads around the room nod in agreement, each person recognizes a fragment of their own life. Maria’s story is commonplace in this tiny Central American country. Thousands more of her fellow citizens could tell a similar tale. Economic-adjustment policies imposed by the international financial agencies have made each day a bitter struggle for survival for El Salvador’s rural majority.
For nearly two decades the economic policies that shape the lives of the Majority World have been prescribed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. But in all that time no-one has bothered to ask the people paying the price of ‘adjustment’ what they think.
Now that’s changed. In 1997 the Structural Adjustment Participatory Review Initiative (SAPRI) was negotiated with World Bank President James Wolfensohn by some of the world’s sternest critics of structural adjustment. The idea was to look at the impact of those policies on ten countries across four continents.
SAPRI has given a broad range of citizens’ groups a legitimacy that civil society has never before enjoyed. Perhaps most important, it has sparked the creation of national networks of peasants’ and women’s groups, small-business owners, urban workers and farmers. Members of this global network provide a channel for ordinary citizens to talk about the effects of adjustment programmes on their lives, their communities and their economies. One stumbling block: the Bank has yet to create a mechanism for integrating the grassroots feedback into policy.
But from Bangladesh to Ghana the stories of ordinary citizens have shown that local knowledge is the key to producing sound proposals for healthier, more just economies. After all, if economic policies make life worse for the poor, are they really worth having?
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Worth reading on.... the global economy
You couldn’t find a more spirited and readable critique of economic globalization than False Dawn: the delusions of global capitalism by John Gray (Granta Books, 1998). Along the same lines but with a more campaigning edge is Your Money or Your Life! the tyranny of global finance by Eric Toussaint (Pluto Press, 1999) who works with the Brussels-based Committee for Cancellation of the Third World Debt. The Crisis of Global Capitalism (Perseus Books, 1998) is a refreshing blast from billionaire hedge-fund manager George Soros on how faith in market forces threatens democracy.
David Korten’s newest book The Post-Corporate World: life after capitalism (Kumarian and Berrett-Koehler, 1999) is an inspiring and visionary exploration of the roots of our global crisis. Korten is both highly personal, intensely passionate and hopeful in his analysis and prescription for change. If you’re interested in venturing into the nuts-and-bolts of the new financial architecture debate your best bet is Taming Global Finance: a better architecture for growth and equity (Economic Policy Institute, Washington, 1999) by Robert Blecker. Some of the best information being compiled on global finance these days comes from the UN Conference on Trade and Development in their yearly Human Development Report. The latest version, Globalization with a human face (OUP, 1999), offers a massive compilation of research and some quite radical solutions for changing global inequalities.
Useful periodicals include the Economic Justice Report published quarterly by the Ecumenical Coalition for Economic Justice (947 Queen St East, Ste 208, Toronto, ON M4M 1J9) which does a good job of synthesizing huge amounts of material from a social-justice perspective. The strongest and most vibrant journalistic attack on neo-liberal economics can be found in Le Monde Diplomatique, a monthly tabloid available in English. See their website at www.monde-diplomatique.fr
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