The promise of a ‘New International Economic Order’
I bring the fraternal greetings of a country covering 274,000 square kilometres, where seven million men, women and children refuse henceforth to die of ignorance, hunger and thirst even though they are not yet able to have a real life, after a quarter of a century as a sovereign state represented here at the United Nations.
I do not intend to enunciate dogmas here. I am neither a messiah nor a prophet. My only ambition is a twofold aspiration: first, to be able to speak in a simple language, the language of facts and clarity, on behalf of my people; and, second, to be able to express the feelings of that mass of people who are disinherited – those who belong to what the world maliciously dubbed ‘the third world’ – and to state the reasons that have led us to rise up…
Nobody will be surprised to hear us associate the former Upper Volta, now Burkina Faso, with that despised rag-bag, the third world… We do so to affirm our awareness of belonging to a three-continent whole and to state, as one of the Non-Aligned Countries, our deeply felt conviction that a special solidarity unites the three continents of Asia, Latin America and Africa in the same battle against the same political traffickers and economic exploiters.
Thus to recognize our presence in the third world is, to paraphrase José Márti, to affirm that we feel on our cheek every blow struck against every other man in the world…
Now our eyes have been opened to the class struggle and there will be no more blows dealt against us. It must be proclaimed that there will be no salvation for our peoples unless we turn our backs completely on all the [economic] models that all the charlatans of that type have tried to sell us for 20 years.
This is something that we, we the people of Burkina Faso, understood on that night of 4 August 1983, when the stars first began to shine in the heavens of our homeland… Instead of a minor, short-lived revolt, we had to have revolution, the eternal struggle against all domination…
We want to democratize our society, to open up our minds to a universe of collective responsibility, so that we may be bold enough to invent the future… We believe that the United Nations should enable those countries affected by drought to establish a medium- and long-term plan to achieve self-sufficiency in food… We have established a vast house-building programme… and we are also building roads, small water collectors, and so forth. We swear that in future in Burkina Faso nothing will be done without the participation of the people themselves.
I speak not only on behalf of Burkina Faso… but also on behalf of all those who suffer… those millions of human beings who are in ghettos because their skin is black… those [indigenous Americans] who have been massacred, trampled on and… confined to reservations… women throughout the entire world who suffer from a system of exploitation imposed on them by men… I wish to stand side by side with the peoples of Afghanistan and Ireland, the peoples of Grenada and East Timor… We wish to enjoy the inheritance of all the revolutions of the world, all the liberation struggles of third-world peoples.
There must be no more deceit. The New International Economic Order, for which we are struggling and will continue to struggle, can be achieved only if we manage to do away with the old order, which completely ignores us; only if we insist on… the right to decision-making with respect to the machinery governing trade, economic and monetary affairs at the world level.
Down with international reaction! Down with imperialism! Down with neo-colonialism! Eternal victory to the peoples of Africa, Latin America and Asia in their struggle!
New York, 4 October 1984
Thomas Sankara (1949-87) was born in French Upper Volta. Aged 33, he became President, changing the country’s name to Burkina Faso, which means ‘land of the honest and upright’. His four-year revolution altered the structure of society by setting up directly elected local councils that gave ordinary people more control over their lives. He was known for living a humble life, refusing to use air conditioning in the presidential office. He was assassinated in a military coup by Blaise Compaoré, a childhood friend, who took the country down a road of neoliberalism and subservience to France, its former colonial master.
Our broken world
So easy to describe the problem – the hunger, the famine, the wars, the destruction of nature. So easy to feel bad about the conditions of our present, to worry for humans and for nature, to worry about extinction.
So hard to think of solutions, to devise an exit from the path to annihilation. So hard to imagine that anything other than the ugly present is the future.
Ours is a broken world. But it does not have to be so.
For hundreds of years, sensitive human beings fought to build a world in the image of freedom. Workers and peasants, ordinary people with dirt under their fingernails, threw off the cloak of humiliation put on them by the owners of land and wealth to demand something better. They formed anti-colonial movements and socialist movements, movements against the terrorism of hunger and indignity. These were movements, people in motion. They did not accept their position as static. They were on the move, not only towards the landlord’s house or the factory’s gates, but towards the future.
These movements produced a truly revolutionary century. It began with the revolutions of 1911 (China, Iran, Mexico), the revolution of 1917 (against the Tsarist empire), the revolution of 1949 (China), the revolution of 1959 (Cuba) and many, many others, including your revolution, Thomas, the revolution of Burkina Faso (1983), the land of the honest and upright.
Each of these revolutions offered a promise: the world need not be organized in the image of the bourgeoisie, when it can as easily be developed around the needs of humanity. Why should the majority of the world’s people spend their lives working to build up the wealth of the few, when the purpose of life is so much richer and bolder than that? If the people from China to Cuba were able to overthrow the institutions of humiliation, then anyone could do so. That was the promise of revolutionary change.
Programmes for the benefit of humanity followed these revolutions – projects to enhance the lives of people through universal education and universal healthcare, projects to make work co-operative and enriching rather than debilitating. Each of these revolutions experimented in different ways with the palette of human emotions – refusing to allow state institutions and social life to be governed by a narrow interpretation of human instinct (greed, for example, which is the emotion around which capitalism is developed). Could ‘care’ and ‘solidarity’ be part of the emotional landscape? Could ‘greed’ and ‘hate’ be overcome?
Out of these struggles came a broad programme for the organization of planetary affairs – the New International Economic Order (NIEO), which was proposed by the Third World in the 1970s under the auspices of the UN. Trade and development policy could be subordinated to the values of solidarity and care, to the values of human development and not profit maximization. Social wealth could be harnessed to build up the best of human potential rather than be sequestered into the hands of the few to fester in bank accounts. The NIEO shone a light of promise.
None of this was allowed. The NIEO was destroyed by the imperialist core, the triad of Europe, Japan and the United States. It was not permitted to flourish. They used the debt crisis as a way to demand ‘structural adjustment’ of the economies of the formerly colonized states, to demand that they accept the rules set by the triad rather than form their own. Any threat to the order established by property and privilege could not be allowed.
And so, that’s where we are, 35 years since your speech to the United Nations. Any threat to the order is to be destroyed, even if it means the emergence of strongmen to do the destruction. There is blood on the tracks. Death to those who dream is more acceptable than death to the order that favours property and privilege.
Yet the present is intolerable. And so, we turn again to our hopes and to the necessity of our struggles. We want the guns to be silent, as silent as the cries of hungry children. We want to reach out to the stars and pull them down closer to us, to give us confidence as we destroy the old order that destroys the world, to give us confidence to build institutions of humanity and for nature. We want.
Vijay Prashad is the Director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and Chief Editor of LeftWord Books. His book Red Star over the Third World (Pluto Books) is released in the UK later this year.