British East India Company and the Great Bengal Famine

The Great Bengal famine of 1770 is destined to become the text-book example of how the profit-motive can cause famine. For it is one of the earliest and most devastating examples of the dangers inherent in concentrating land resources for the export of cash-crops’ without first insuring the primacy of the producers’ own food sovereignty. It is moreover an apt starting point as it also marks the beginning of the integration of local food systems into a global trading network and so provides us with a concrete example of many of the issues pertinent to today’s debates on globalisation and on the current food crisis’. Now, it must be said that, largely for political reasons, historians are somewhat divided on how much culpability should be ascribed to the British East India Company but none however are so foolhardy as to suggest that the policies pursued by the company did anything but worsen the conditions met with by the peasantry once the famine began. Moreover, there are a significant number, and I now count myself among them, who blame the company directly for making the conditions of famine inevitable. John Fiske, writing in ‘The Unseen World’ in 1868 tried to make his readers appreciate the magnitude of this calamity;

“Throughout the entire course of recorded European history, from the remote times of which the Homeric poems preserve the dim tradition down to the present moment, there has occurred no calamity at once so sudden and of such appalling magnitude as the famine which in the spring and summer of 1770 nearly exterminated the ancient civilization of Bengal. It presents that aspect of preternatural vastness which characterizes the continent of Asia and all that concerns it. The Black Death of the fourteenth century was, perhaps, the most fearful visitation which has ever afflicted the Western world. But in the concentrated misery which it occasioned the Bengal famine surpassed it, even as the Himalayas dwarf by comparison the highest peaks of Switzerland.”

So, this was an unprecedented catastrophe unique in the area’s history which happened to occur a mere six years after major agrarian reforms’ were carried out by the presiding British authority. As is known, after the 1764 Battle of Buxar and the subsequent 1765 Treaty of Allahabad the East India Company took upon themselves the right to collect the diwani or peasants tribute formerly held by the Mughal Emperor, Shah Alam II.

The enormous area in question (some 650,000; roughly eight times the size of Great Britain) and which now comprises modern day Bangladesh and the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar and Jharkand prompted many in parliament to question the wisdom of placing its management under the authority of the EIC. This ‘business transaction’, which, according to one indignant Mughal official was “done and finished in less time than would have been taken up in the sale of a jackass” not only ensured for the first time British economic and military dominance in the Indian subcontinent but also entailed perhaps the most radical restructuring of taxation policy the world has ever seen.

Back in London, shares in the EIC doubled and expectations were naturally high of further handsome dividends such as those allotted when Clive several years before had plundered the Bengali treasury after the Battle of Plessey. Those in Westminster who didn’t board the gravy train naturally baulked at the transparently insane step of effectively ceding full sovereignty of such a vast area to a private company ultimately beholden to anonymous shareholders 2,000 km away and with no vested interests in the well-being of the populace. Would they not grind the peasantry into the ground through rapacious taxation? Well yes in fact, that it appears is precisely what happened.

Fortunately the records for this period have been meticulously kept by the India Office and can be viewed in the British Library. A five minute sitting there will reveal to those who have the inclination that the average tribute prior to 1764 was 10-15% of the gross agricultural produce. Under the EIC this was raised to 40-50%. It was still called a tribute as opposed to a tax for the British wished to ensure that the peasantry were not aware that it was the East India Company and not the Emperor Shah Alam who were in ultimate receipt of the inflated tax/tribute. To further this illusion of a dual power-sharing agreement they ensured that Shah Alam was kept in the luxury he was accustomed to but under virtual house arrest’ at his palace in Allahabad. The amount of caution that was taken to ensure that this state of affairs did not not become generally known can be glimpsed in a letter written by Clive to the directors of the EIC as he finally left India in 1767;

“We are sensible that, since the acquisition of the dewany, the power formerly belonging to the soubah of those provinces is totally, in fact, vested in the East India Company. Nothing remains to him but the name and shadow of authority. This name, however, this shadow, it is indispensably necessary we should seem to venerate.”

This co-option by stealth, as even the most superficial analysis would show, had the evident aim of preventing the scandal of revolution. For no-one who has been to the Victoria and Albert museum and glimpsed some of the thousands of paintings and artefacts on display can have any doubt as to the complexity of the civilisation under discussion here. Needless to say the Mughal rulers had in place from the mid 15th century a delicate and evidently successful system of tribute born of trial and error which contributed to their long and steady rule. It stood to reason that the tribute should be raised in times of plenty and reduced in times of scarcity. Under the auspices of a chartered company however there can be no such sensible forward planning. How were the directors to know when the game would be up? As I said there were already many disgruntled voices calling for a reform of the EIC charter but they were being held in check by the most powerful lobby group in Westminster. The most sensible business strategy therefore would be to opt for maximum profit realisation as quickly, as efficiently and as ruthlessly as possible. And so it was that wherever it was possible the planting of cash crops such as indigo and cotton were made compulsory. Likewise, because the raised tax had to be collected in cash and at the point of a bayonet if necessary the hoarding of rice was forbidden, and so with little option this was sold on and a thriving grain market came into being which was of course eventually monopolised by the company .

Thus it was that the peasants lifeline, the stock of surplus staples was drastically reduced and were in fact no longer available to tide them over when the partial failure of crops (itself nothing out of the ordinary) came in 1768. With the sudden cessation of the September rains in 1769 reports began to emerge of a widespread famine gripping the countryside. These were duly ignored until it was too late. Estimates vary as to the death toll. Some place it as high as 10 million and it appears that at the very least two million lives were claimed. In 1771 the company raised the land tax to 60%. Again this is perfectly logical from a business perspective as this would make good the regrettable shortfall in income occasioned by the deaths of some two million tenants.

Sadly, the promised reform came too late. Despite fierce opposition from the East 

India lobby the East India Company Act of 1773 was belatedly passed clearly establishing that the “acquisition of sovereignty by the subjects of the Crown is on behalf of the Crown and not in its own right.” If only this were a guarantor to prevent future abuse. In the same year the British poet Richard Clarke wrote;

“Historians of other nations (if not our own), will do justice to the oppressed of India and will hand down the Memory of the Oppressors to the latest Posterity”.

Unfortunately, posterity has failed us because the theory of comparative advantage so heartily advocated by the IMF and World Bank throughout the 80’s and 90’s, along with imposed austerity measures such as the retraction of subsidised agricultural inputs has once again seen the promotion of specialised cash-crops for export to the detriment of nurturing food staples. Due to these policies formerly food sovereign households and small share-croppers have been forced  into urban areas and replaced by large monoculture agribusiness, typically owned by transnational corporations. This is why in the recent Lagos Plan of Action, heads of state in developing countries have called for a type of economic growth disconnected from the vicissitudes of the world market. It is also the reason why since the 1996 World Food Summit, Via Campesina, the international farmers’ movement, has pushed for an alternative concept: ‘food sovereignty’, which it defines as “the right of countries and peoples to define their own agricultural and food policies which are ecologically, socially, economically, and culturally appropriate for them.”


History of Mali’s Bambara/Bamana

The Bambara are a part of the large Mande ethnic group in West Africa whose roots can be traced to Tichitt in southern Mauritania where urban centres thrived from at least 1500 B.C. Today, the Bambara live primarily in Mali but also in Guinea, Burkina Faso and Senegal. At present, around 80% of the population in Mali speaks Bambara regardless of ethnicity. It is mutually intelligible with the Manding and Diola languages and along with French is today an official language of Mali.

In their own language however they refer to themselves as Bamana or Banmana meaning ‘those who accept no master’. Some scholars have suggested that the name may be originally derived from the Mande words Ban “to reject or repel” and Ana denoting “God”. However, since they certainly accepted their Gods this would be an unlikely name for them to confer upon themselves. It seems much more credible that Bambara is an  inaccurate French translation of Bamana.

The Bamana empire then was a large pre-colonial state ruled by the Kulubali dynasty that was centred in Segou in today’s Mali. Around 1640, Fa Sine became the third Faama (Mande for king) of an expanding Bamana tribal network. In the early 18th century Mumari Kulubali extended their influence. He joined an egalitarian youth organization in Segou known as a ton reorganized its structure and declared himself biton, or chief. Now Biton Kulubari, he built up an army of several thousand men and made successful slave raids against the neighbouring Fulani, the Soninke and the Mossi, founding the city of Bla and briefly capturing Tomboktou. The tomb of Biton Mumari Kulubari is well preserved and can be seen today at Segou koro.

Three more faamas ruled until 1748 when the throne fell into anarchy. Then, a freed slave named Ngollo Diarra seized power and re-established a degree of stability. Mungo Park on his expedition through Bamana territory two years after Diarra’s death in 1795 left us with the following impression of Segou – a testament to the Empire’s prosperity under his reign:

“The view of this extensive city, the numerous canoes on the river, the crowded population, and the cultivated state of the surrounding countryside, formed altogether a prospect of civilization and magnificence that I little expected to find in the bosom of Africa.”

Diarra’s decendents, known as the Ngolosi, continued to rule the Empire until its fall to the jihadist Toucouleur conqueror El Hadj, Umar Tall in 1861. Though the Bamana today adhere to Islam many still practise their traditional rituals particularly in the worship of their ancestors. Society is patrilineal and patriarchal,though few women wear the veil, and social structures are still reinforced through the old fraternal ton systems.

Different caste and ethnic groups tended to occupy certain predetermined roles within the Bamana social and political system. For instance, ethnic groups such as the Maraka were merchants specialising in desert trade but then advanced to agricultural production using captured slaves. The Jula specialised in long distance trade and the Fula communities in cattle breeding. The Bozo ethnic group largely comprised war captives and were turned to fishing and ferrying activities. Internal caste systems such as griots, metalworkers and other vocations were in time denuded with the collapse of the Bamana state. The ton tradition is especially strong particularly in farming (Chi Wara Ton) and hunting (Donzo Ton).

The Donzo Ton age-group fraternity has received prominence recently in the Ivory Coast where they became guards for hire in the unstable years before the 2002 civil war. These hunting fraternities have become more popular it is believed also because of the massive deforestation in west Africa which has left bare previously untraceable spaces. It is believed that amulets (gris-gris) protect them from harm and give them heightened powers such as amplified hearing and vision. They operate in much the same way as a Western guild.

Today, many of the Bamana are cotton farmers. 80% of Mali’s export earnings come from exporting cotton to the Far East where it is fashioned in Export Processing Zones into clothes and textiles for consumption in the West. They have seen a massive drop in their incomes over the past twenty years with the erasure of the UN’s commodity price stabilisation mechanism. Their principle desire politically is to see an end to the crippling cotton subsidies payed to farmers in the West which has kept the international price for cotton even lower than it was back in the 70’s.

Iran’s 1953 coup: A nation interrupted

Iranian oil was indispensable in lubricating the allied war machine and when the Iranian parliament voted in 1951 to nationalise their own resource out of the hands of the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), the fate of Mohammed Mossadeq was apparently sealed. According to Kinzer, British diplomats in Washington trying to persuade Eisenhower to back a coup argued, in addition to the obvious gambit that there was a threat of Soviet encroachment via an expanded Tudeh party, that the oil nationalisation would cost the British exchequer 100 million pound per annum. This figure was the amount in royalties paid by the Anglo-Iranian oil company and does not include their own profits – a mere 16% of which was given to Iran under the terms of the D’Arcy concession.

Mossadeq explained his nationalization policy in a 21 June 1951 speech:

“Our long years of negotiations with foreign countries have yielded no results this far. With the oil revenues we could meet our entire budget and combat poverty, disease, and backwardness among our people. Another important consideration is that by the elimination of the power of the British company, we would also eliminate corruption and intrigue, by means of which the internal affairs of our country have been influenced. Once this tutelage has ceased, Iran will have achieved its economic and political independence. The Iranian state prefers to take over the production of petroleum itself. The company should do nothing else but return its property to the rightful owners. The nationalization law provide that 25% of the net profits on oil be set aside to meet all the legitimate claims of the company for compensation”.

Tensions escalated from here with the British government threatening legal action against purchasers of oil produced in the formerly AIOC-controlled refineries. Agreements were then made with other international oil companies not to purchase Iranian oil, a de facto blockade was reinforced as Britain beefed up its presence in the Persian Gulf, Iran was blocked from accessing its hard currency in British banks, key British commodities were prohibited from being exported and a complaint was finally issued by them to the United Nations. This latter action concluded in a humiliating diplomatic defeat for the British as the UN Security Council having heard the case presented by both Mossadeq and the British ambassador to the UN voted on October 19th, 1951 to postpone discussion of the question to a certain day or indefinitely’.

However, this success was short-lived as the following week’s discussions in Washington with the World Bank and US officials failed to secure any relief for the Iranian economy.

In late 1951 elections were brought to an abrupt halt when the minimum number of deputies had been returned to achieve a parliamentary quorum with Mossadeq asserting that foreign agents’ had been exploiting the election campaign with bribes to destabilize Iran. In July 1952, with Iranians becomingly increasingly hard-pressed by a devastatingly effective blockade the Royal Navy intercepted the Italian oil tanker Rose Mary and forced it into the British protectorate of Aden on the grounds that it was carrying ‘stolen property’.

Clearly the best men in Iran were opposed to such blatant thievery and for their support of Mossadeq and nationalisation they were later hounded out of office and subjected to a brutal crackdown as and when the Shah was reinstated. They had to wait 25yrs before they could get their chance to reverse this enforced coup d’etat and by that time the clerics had the upper hand purely because the temples, madrassas and other religious outlets were the only public spaces left unsolicited by the secret police.

When Madeleine Albright, who in 2000 became the first US official to even acknowledge that there was CIA involvement in the 1954 coup, characterised it as a setback for democracy’ it made you wonder at the time whether there were white kites in the offing between Tehran and Washington – until you realised of course that it was Clinton’s last month in office and they were evidently passing that particular hot potato to the Gore camp should he prevail.

For all the talk of Obama sitting down without preconditions you may wonder at the old disaffected Mossadeq supporters and their political lineage; are they not entitled to an apology, an explanation, an acknowledgement at least of hardships endured? And, like most people most everywhere I felt a warm glow of contentment as I watched President Obama taking the oath of office but when he asks the Muslim world to stop blaming ‘the West’ for its problems you have to wonder how comprehensive is his understanding of the Middle East.

Did Ahmadinejad really say he wished to “wipe Israel off the map”?

Factoid (n) : “A piece of unverified or inaccurate information that is presented in the press as factual, often as part of a publicity effort, and that is then accepted as true because of frequent repetition.” –

The assertion the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wished to “wipe Israel off the map” is the official candidate for factoid of the millenium. In an era of total information recall it is astounding that this absolute and utter fabrication has received and continues to command so much mileage on the information superhighway. The “wipe Israel off the map” attribution is a deliberately propagandistic mistranslation of an Ahmadinejad speech whose repetition corresponds more to the wish-fulfillment of political hawks than any observed reality. What is more, a 10yr old with internet access and a modicum of journalistic savvy would be able to tell you this.

On October 25th, 2005 at the Ministry of Interior conference hall in Tehran, newly elected Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivered a speech at a conference entitled “The World Without Zionism.” It was in this speech that he quoted the words of the late Ayatollah Khomeini which were fated to be not only mistranslated but falsely attributed to him. The exact quote in Farsi is as follows:

“Imam ghoft een rezhim-e ishghalgar-e qods bayad az safheh-ye ruzgar mahv shavad.”

As every Farsi scholar whose opinion has been solicited has subsequently declared this passage is most accurately translated word for word as follows; “Imam (Khomeini) ghoft (said) een (this) rezhim-e (regime) ishghalgar-e (occupying) qods (Jerusalem) bayad (must) az safheh-ye ruzgar (from page of time) mahv shavad (vanish from)”.

Or, to put it more clearly; “The Imam said this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.” There is obviously a vast difference between calling for a nation, people or country to be wiped from the face of the earth – basically an act of genocide – and the call for the end of an ideology associated with a particular regime.

Neither Ahmadinejad (nor Khomeini) wanted anything ‘wiped from the map’ because the Persian word for map “nagsheh” is not contained anywhere in the original Farsi quote. In the context of the argument which Ahmadinejad was putting forth he says that the “Zionist regime” was imposed as a strategic bridgehead to ensure Western hegemony over the region and its assets. Whether or not you agree with his historical analysis you cannot go on to aver based on this evidence alone that he is calling for the destruction of the state of Israel.

He is simply borrowing approvingly from Khomeini a quote to reinforce his argument that an aggressive, non-accommodating Israeli regime which repeatedly tramples on Palestinian rights must surely vanish from the page of time’. He goes on to bolster his case by saying that other seemingly invincible regimes have since collapsed and crumbled; the Soviet Union, the Iran of the U.S. backed Shah and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

It was in fact the Islamic Republic News Agency who reported from the “World without Zionism” conference who were responsible for the inflammatory “wiped off the map” misquote and this line, which made such good copy, was gleefully picked up by all the major Western outlets such as Al Jazeera, Time, CNN and the BBC without any attempt to doublecheck its accuracy. The mistranslated quote has since been spread worldwide and has been repeated ad infinitum by journalists, broadcasters, pundits and politicians usually as a preamble to justifying further sanctions and calling for an end to the Iranian nuclear enrichment programme. President Bush said the comments represented “a specific threat to Israel” and in a speech in Cleveland in March 2006 vowed he would resort to war to protect Israel because, “the threat from Iran is, of course, their stated objective to destroy our ally Israel.”

An October 2006 memo released by the Israeli lobby group AIPAC warns that; “Ahmadinejad and other top Iranian leaders are issuing increasingly belligerent statements threatening to destroy the United States, Europe and Israel.” Ariel Sharon has demanded that Iran be expelled from the UN for calling for Israel’s destruction and Shimon Peres has threatened to wipe Iran off the map. Benjamin Netanyahu went a step further by warning that Iran was “preparing another Holocaust for the Jewish state” and that Ahmadinejad should be tried for war crimes for inciting genocide.

Tony Blair meanwhile expressed his “revulsion” whilst mooting the possibility that it might be necessary to attack Iran. As recently as the presidential debates both John McCain and Sarah Palin repeated the misquote as justification for not sitting down for talks “without preconditions” with the Iranian leadership. Neither of them were subsequently corrected by either Joe Biden or Barack Obama whom we must assume either agreed with their assessment or were unaware that the quote was falsely attributed or were aware but simply didn’t wish to seem too dove-like given their position on troop withdrawal from Iraq.

It is difficult to believe that with the resources at their disposal these politicians were unaware that the “wipe Israel off the map” quote was falsely attributed and taken out of context and yet they are happy to feed the myth themselves by repeating the falsehood on every available occasion. We need to keep a close eye on this factoid. A politician’s willingness to repeat it is a useful barometer of the truth – if and when the war drums begin to beat again.

Corporations and the World Water Crisis

“If the wars of the 21st century were fought over oil,
the wars of the next century will be fought over water.”
Ismail Serageldin, former Vice President, World Bank.
Newsweek, 1995.

It would be foolish and somewhat erroneous to pinpoint a particular event or time that heralded the steady erosion of water’s sovereignty as a public good but some critics see the 1992 Rio “Earth Summit” and the prioritisation given there to the provision of clean water and proper sanitation as an economic goal as opposed to a human right as the moment when corporate encroachment began in this hitherto public domain. Through intensive lobbying of the international financial institutions (IFI’s) corporations managed to depict themselves as the white knights who would help achieve the Millenium Development Goals by spearheading a revolution in water utilities management. They told the major international lenders (World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and the Asian Development Bank) who, evidently, required little inducement, that privitisation was the only route to follow if they wished to beef up the ailing infrastructures of municipal water utilities, expand coverage and increase those connection rates to safe and secure sources that were so vital in reducing incidences of water-borne diseases such as cholera and diarrhea. The plan seemed good on paper and matched the ideological bent of these institutions at the time since, for the policy planners and economic advisors in the IFI’s it was only an extension of the Washington Consensus model of development; privitisation, deregulation and public sector retrenchment.

The most grevious charge that can be laid at the door of the multinationals is that they have piggybacked on the goodwill expressed in the MDG’s to acquire and consolidate their ownership of key freshwater resources at a time when climate change and corporate usage itself (Nestle pumping Lake Michigan, Cut flower exporters draining Lake Naivasha in Kenya, Coca-Cola’s bottling plants in India) is creating ever more water-stressed regions. Today, every one of Africa’s 677 freshwater lakes is officially listed in dangerous decline.

In less than a decade, and in tandem with these resource pressures, water is undergoing a silent transformation from public good to privately-held (and traded) commodity. Big water companies such as Suez and Vivendi are now double-listed on the major stock exchanges and we seldom think nothing of buying bottled water, even in restaurants. Reports of excessive fluoridation and other hazards associated with the public management of water utilities now seem commonplace. Yet, unreported is the fact that even by the Food and Drug Administration’s own admission the bottled water industry is the most unregulated sector on their books. We have been habitually groomed into accepting as natural the idea of water as just another commodity. Hadji Guiss, special rapporteur on water rights for the UN Subcommission on the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights laments that water in his own Senegal and most everywhere else in the developing world has become a commodity that is “sold to the highest bidder”.

By 2003, Maude Barlow, veteran water campaigner and author of two devastating critiques of corporate involvement in the water crisis (“Blue Gold” and “Blue Covenant”) could comment darkly in the UK’s Guardian that: “the private sector was the first to notice: the planet is running out of fresh water at such a rate that soon it will be the most valuable commodity on earth.” (Feb 26th).

The pattern of IFI lending has become all too familiar offering a one -track solution to a multi-dimensional problem. Neoliberal programmes of privitisation and deregulation suited to the conditions that prevailed in the Western economies have been assumed appropriate to the completely different circumstances of emerging economies. The charge made by Joseph Stiglitz, former World Bank chief economist, of a rigidly inflexible template for economic reform been grafted wholesale and without consideration of regional peculiarities seems doubly appropriate in the case of the water industry. For privitisation in the developing world, far from being the promised panacea has too often led to opportunistic monopolising with exclusionary pricing structures, price gouging and the cherry-picking of profitable management sectors.

For example, in 2006, after years of water service cut-offs, flooding due to lack of proper drainage, huge rate increases and multiple broken promises, the Argentine government unilaterally annulled its 30-year contract with Aguas Argentinas, a Suez subsidiary, to provide water to the 10 million residents of Buenos Aires. So vexed were the Argentine authorities that the courts have been asked to prevent top corporate executives from leaving the country, pending possible criminal charges for allowing high levels of nitrates in the capital city’s drinking water. The World Bank had helped Suez secure the contract in 1993 in what was then the world’s largest transfer of a public water system into private hands. Suez’ neglect of the unprofitable sewage treatment wing of its operation has meant that today the Rio de la Plata is one of the few rivers in which industrial pollution can be seen from space.

In Ghana, where the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) made its aid payments conditional on part-privitisation, rate increases have shot up 50-70% in some areas. Priced out of the market many have no option but to resort to drinking water from contaminated sources. In Tanzania, Biwater brought the cash-strapped government to court for breach of contract despite their record of higher rates, water shortages and erratic supplies. Despite winning the case the govt. of Tanzania still owes the World Bank the original $140 million loan.

In Johannesburg, the pro-corporate iGoli 2002 privitisation drive has been renamed “E-Coli 2002” by frustrated locals. In KwaZulu-Natal province the installation of pre-paid meters led directly to a cholera outbreak that claimed 200 lives in August 2002. Despite instances where municipal workers would come back at night and show locals how to break into water meters many were still left with no option but to drink from rivers with cholera warning signs. This incident, among others led a Johannesburg High Court judge on 30th April 2008 to declare the use of pre-paid meters to be “illegal and unconstitutional”. It is a ruling that was made possible by such initiatives as the non legally binding General Comment by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights in November 2002 that “access to water is a human right” and that it is a “social and cultural good, not merely an economic commodity”. At the time, WHO director-general Gro Harlem Brundtland called the declaration of water as a human right ” a major boost in efforts to achieve the UN ‘s Millennium Development Goals” – deeply ironic given IFI/corporate assurances over the desirability of water commodification.

Zimbabwe’s Third Chimurenga by Bob Seery

The people of Zimbabwe are still fighting a war of independence 28yrs after it was nominally granted in 1980 with the signing of the Lancaster House Agreement. The negotiating team for the newly unified Patriotic Front led by Robert Mugabe’s Shona dominated ZANU and Joshua Nkoma’s Ndebele dominated ZAPU received verbal assurances from the then chairman of the discussions, Lord Carlisle, that the British Government would provide compensation to white farmers whose farms were required for redistribution among the colonially dispossessed black population. A ten-year hiatus was agreed upon whereby the bitter pill of the ‘willing-seller’ clause could then be constitutionally amended by the Zimbabwean government. By the time the right to compulsorily purchase was introduced in the 1992 Land Acquisition Act, 70% of the richest and most productive land still lay in the hands of only 4,500 white commercial farmers while six million African farmers eked out a precarious existence on small farms averaging 3 hectares in the increasingly barren communal areas, formerly known as the native reserves. Thomas Packenham in the Scramble for Africa’ gives us his description of how this state of affairs came into being;

” In October 1893 British troops and volunteers crossed into King Lobengula’s core territory of Matabeleland. The entire region rapidly fell into their hands as they inflicted heavy casualties on the Ndebele. Under terms of the resulting Victoria Agreement, each volunteer was entitled to 6,000 acres of land. Rather than an organized division of land, there was instead a mad race to grab the best land, and within a year 10,000 square miles of the most fertile land had been seized from its inhabitants. White settlers confiscated most of the Ndebele’s cattle in the process, a devastating loss to a cattle-ranching society such as the Ndebele. The large tracts of land now run by relatively few white settlers required workers, and the Ndebele became forced laborers on the land they once owned, essentially treated as slaves. The Shona also saw their cattle confiscated by white settlers, and were driven into poverty through the imposition of onerous taxes by the new British rulers. The inevitable uprising by the dispossessed Ndebele and Shona in 1896 was finally crushed over one year later by the British at the cost of 8,000 African lives. The region was established as a new colony in the British realm and named Rhodesia in honor of Cecil Rhodes.”

Greg Elich in ‘Zimbabwe Under Siege’ continues the story;

“Passage of the Native Reserves Order in 1899 created reserves on the most arid land, on which the indigenous inhabitants were to be herded. By 1905, nearly half of the indigenous population was confined to reserves. From 1930 onwards, Africans were not allowed to own land outside of the barren reserves. During the twenty-year period beginning in 1935, the Rhodesian regime forced an additional 67,000 African families from their homes and transported them to the reserves. As the Africans were beaten and herded into trucks at gunpoint, their homes were levelled by bulldozers. The reserves soon became overcrowded with people and cattle, and the colonial government decreed in 1944 that 49 of the reserves were overstocked. During the next thirty-some years, well over one million cattle in the reserves were either killed or confiscated for use by white settlers. As the long liberation struggle grew, Rhodesian Security Forces became increasingly repressive, executing civilians, burning villages and crops and shooting cattle”.

‘Independence’ therefore, was always somewhat illusory as long as these structural disparities in land ownership sustained the economic hegemony of an elite non-indigenous kleptocracy whose interests were safeguarded by the UK and US via IMF and World Bank policies. Powerful white landowners included members of the British House of Lords and most importantly the richest and most powerful man in Africa, who is not a ‘tin-pot dictator’ but DeBeers CEO and non-executive director of Anglo-American, Nicky Oppenheimer who has, according to Forbes an estimated personal fortune of $6.05 billion. He is the grandson of Ernest Oppenheimer, who succeeded Cecil Rhodes as carteliser-in-chief of Africa’s most lucrative natural resource and founded in 1917 with John Pierpoint Morgan jnr. the Anglo-American Corporation which at the time of his death in 1957 controlled 95% of the world’s supply of diamond production.

Today, Anglo-American, whose net income in 2007 was over $7 billion has several prominent subsidiaries including DeBeers itself, the world’s largest diamond producer; Anglogold Ashanti, one of the world’s largest gold producers and Anglo Platinum, the world’s largest producer of platinum. Anglo-American, 51% of whose shares are held by American citizens have operations right across Africa including Ghana, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Botswana. In 2000, 20yrs after Zimbabwean ‘independence’ the Oppenheimer family ‘ranch’, which is more of a country within a country, still sits proudly in the midst of ten thousand square kilometres (2.4 million hectares) of prime arable farmland. It is impossible to conceive that issuing a ‘compulsory acquisition order’ as Robert Mugabe did for this particular property would do anything but invite all the hell and damnation that the sustained wrath of Africa’s most powerful dynasty could muster.

There is an unwritten rule book in the case of all too many ‘developing’ countries whereby the incumbent indigenous rulers can ensure for themselves a life of relative peace, repose and prosperity merely by allowing an agreed proportion of their country’s wealth to be siphoned away by foreign interests usually in exchange for military and financial support and the all-important collusive silence of the international media in the inevitable brutality used to quell opposition. In the early 90’s after no meaningful land reform had taken place, and after none of the feared pogroms against whites and following Zimbabwe’s acceptance of the IMF’s Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) in 1991, Mugabe had all the appearances of being ‘our kind of guy’. So much so that he was given a knighthood in 1994 and was much in demand by international media outlets for his predominantly honest, eloquent and insightful appraisals of various world events. Of all African leaders he was the one which Europeans in particular could most readily identify. He had a law degree from the University of London (gained during his eleven years imprisoned by Ian Smith’s apartheid Rhodesia), spoke with a surprisingly strong British accent and had inherited many of the affectations of the ‘English gentleman’. ‘All Zimbabweans should play cricket’, he once declared. ‘We should be a nation of gentleman’.

However, SAP, as for many African countries turned out to be a disaster for Zimbabwe. It offered a far too rigid formula of deregulation, privitisation, cuts in government spending, crippling taxation hikes and responded to the inevitable inflationary pressures by forcing through currency devaluations which conveniently made their exports dirt cheap for US and European purchasers. SAP also subscribed to the theory of ‘comparative advantage’ which asserts that an economy is better off ‘specialising’ in what its good at instead of diversifying its export base. It was this precise policy of cash-crop intensification to the detriment of nurturing food staples which caused the great Bengalfamine of 1770 by the British East India Company and I’m really not in any position at present to register anything but my incomprehension at its wholesale adoption at this point in the 20th century. As a consequence, subsidies were withdrawn from independent small-holders and instead focused on the development of this large-scale, heavily industrialised water table draining monoculture’ agriculture. This left many developing countries overly reliant on a favourable international stock price for those few commodities which became their specialised ‘comparative advantage’.

With the corporate mergers of the 90’s in agro-industry and mining and the vertical integration of the supply chain the ‘theory of comparative advantage’ has only exposed many developing countries to the price cartels of multinational purchasers. Staple export commodities such as sugar, tea, cocoa and cotton were up until very recently actually cheaper in non-adjusted terms than they were twenty years ago. If you find that hard to believe, given the escalating prices we pay in our supermarkets for these items and their derivatives (our clothes, half our food) just check out the historical price record on for instance the Mombassa commodity exchange. The fairtrade movement has certainly brought awareness of the immense vampirism involved here and they justifiably point to the ‘nasty’ corporations however their critique too often falls short of their own governments by whom they are largely funded, for it is they after all who had nominated the very IMF and World Bank Officials who had engineered this transnational heist to begin with.

Why would developing’ countries such as Zimbabwe have allowed their economies to be ‘restructured’ in such an evidently detrimental fashion? First of all, the newly decolonised states of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s were cash-strapped either through capital flight, wars of independence or civil wars where opposing sides were used as proxies in the ‘Grand Game’ between the USSR and the United States. Some, such as Zimbabwe, saw the futility of this stance and joined the Non-Aligned Movement, a block of 77 countries who, through their unity and under the chairmanship of Robert Mugabe succeeded, via UNCTAD, in setting price controls on international commodity fluctuations until that institution was effectively paralysed by the then G7 and replaced by the World Trade Organisation. The oil crises of the seventies meant many Western banks were awash with Saudi petrodollars and were happy to find many desperate borrowers in Africa, Latin America and south east Asia, regardless of the punitive interest rates demanded.

With the boost to neoliberalism provided by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fracturing of the Soviet Union, the IMF was now free to step fully into the breach by offering ‘help’ with balance of payments with the caveat of the sundry above-mentioned conditionalities necessitated by Structural Adjustment. No longer occupying the role of Janus-faced buffer cuddling up to one superpower and now another, the proud, newly independent nations had no option but to sink or swim with the tide of neoliberalism.

So I have to express some amusement when I hear the charge that Mugabe has grossly mismanaged the economy – the acceptance of SAP, compulsory in Africa after 1990, implies by definition the ceding of monetary and fiscal policy to IMF planners and policy makers. Some, the truly corrupt African governments such as Abache’s in Nigeria saw SAP for what it was, an open invitation to corruption, and couldn’t flog off their country’s resources quick enough. Just witness today the legacy of allowing Shell, private army included, free reign in the Delta region. Most African leaders however were dragged through the process kicking and screaming and IMF country reports of the 90’s are punctuated everywhere with the doleful refrain that ‘privitisations’, ‘deregulations’, ‘liberalisations’, and various other abominations’ weren’t taking place nearly as fast as they should. Many compromise formations such as semi-state parastatals began to emerge during the decade such as the Botswana government’s 50/50 partnership with DeBeers. But the pressures on African leaders to conform shouldn’t be underestimated when a more pliant political rival can have his party’s chances of election multiplied tenfold by a timely injection of Western capital. Play the game or pretend to play the game; this is the ignominious liminal state that Western policy has reduced African leaders to.

Where is Africa’s chair on the UN Security Council? The only continent without one and something they have been asking for at every General Assembly for the past 15 years. If it were given presumably then the West would be forced to look upon a strong unified continent instead of the media’s depiction of a patchwork of failed states marshalled by corrupt tyrants. For example, Transparency International’s ‘Corruption Perception Index’ has followed the World Bank who first pioneered this sort of thing by listing as one of its criteria for ‘efficiency’; ‘length of time taken to set up a business’, as though a long waiting period implied a proportional level of graft when in reality its more often a government’s covert resistance to a SAP-inspired prescription to plunder. And even if he’s working for an Abache-type regime maybe his demands to be ‘greased’ are because his real wages shrunk in half because of an austerity plan and he needs to buy anti-retrovirals for his brother or a false passport for his sister who can claim asylum in Europe by telling their immigration control how nasty and despotic her president is since the Geneva Convention makes no allowance for economic war crimes. Which is just as well since we’d all be in the dock.

Now that Mugabe has shown himself to be definitively not ‘our kind of guy’, i.e someone who would gladly squander his own nation’s resources for the promise of peace and security and the benefit of our engorged portfolios; a prostituted international media, with the exception of Al Jazeera English, commands the entire world to scream in abhorrence. And we do scream of course, loudly and impetulantly, because we are by and large decent people who are more than willing to do what we can ‘to help the poor’ and when we are told by our national broadcasters of a ‘corrupt dictator’, of his greedy, self-serving ‘network of cronies’ and how they have turned the former ‘breadbasket of Africa’ into an economic backwater with floods of refugees and ‘millions more on the brink of starvation’ our Pavlovian indignation reaches a peak of frenzy. Almost as an afterthought, the Weimerian hyperinflation figure is then typically inserted as an almost comical aside. Bread now costs $12 billion, only last month a teachers annual salary! I know we are meant to find this a vaguely amusing confirmation of Mugabe’s incompetence and despotism. Worse still, and this is perhaps the last straw for our now salivating triggers is that the sacred institute of democracy itself has been defiled with the intimidation and brutalisation of supporters of the rival political party, the Movement for Democratic Change led by that poor beleagured black man, Morgan Tsvangirai. Such is the general level of ignorance that this deplorably facile propaganda is digested unquestionably. Reports nowadays don’t even bother mentioning the resettlements let alone ‘invasions’ of white-owned farms.

In the mid-90’s, at the height of the hardships induced by IMF-imposed Structural Adjustment, land resettlements began sporadically by disgruntled Zimbabweans tired of Mugabe’s perceived procrastinations over land reform. Yet to the West, Mugabe had still to maintain the impression that he is committed to Structural Adjustment else the IMF’s support for balance of payments will be withdrawn and the economy effectively destroyed. To his supporters in the War Veterans Association (WVA) who fought alongside him for land rights the question of compensation payments now became a matter of urgency.

Greg Elich describes some of the effects of SAP in Zimbabwe in 1994;

“The rise in food prices was seen as a major problem by 64 percent of respondents, while many indicated that they were forced to reduce their food intake. ESAP resulted in mass layoffs and crippled the job market so that many were unable to find any employment at all. In the communal areas, the rise in fertilizer prices meant that subsistence farmers were no longer able to fertilize their land, resulting in lower yields. ESAP also mandated the elimination of price controls, allowing those shop owners in communal area who were free of competition to mark prices up dramatically.”

Tsvangirai, at this time a trade union leader was stirring popular dissatisfaction, erroneously blaming the government for high taxes when in fact such measures were being dictated by the IMF. It is of course equally probable that he had no idea at the time that SAP required almost complete IMF macro- and micro-management of the economy. Meanwhile, Mugabe responded to the increasingly vociferous WVA by providing a once-off settlement and it was this unbudgeted outlay which caused the first crash of the Zimbabwean dollar. It also signalled to international investors that the agitators for land reform within ZANU-PF were the real power in Zimbabwe and that their stated goal of occupying those lands, forcibly if necessary and without providing the compensation demanded by white farmers would become a reality. It was thus that the Zimbabwean dollar depreciated tenfold between 97 and 01. If speculators could make this assessment then it stands to reason that Foreign Secretaries and development professionals also had the necessary intelligence from the ground to accurately gauge the mood of the country yet when the occasion arose in 98 to intervene and prevent the inevitable ‘forced resettlement’ they snorted with disbelief. With spiralling inflation and massively depleted reserves of foreign currency Zimbabwe had to rely on grudging support from the IMF and the occasional lifeline from China to fund fuel imports and provide vital agricultural inputs.

Mugabe was in a position to know more than anyone that a crisis was looming. Late in 1997, Claire Short, the UK’s International Development Secretary, enflamed the situation even further by declaring that Britain did not regard itself as having ‘any special obligations to fund land reform’. In September of 1998 an International Donors Conference was convened in Harare to drum up support for a viable compensation package for white farmers. The time to act was clearly now. Speaking at the opening session Kofi Annan, then UN Secretary General said; “The equitable distribution of productive capital such as land is not only economically important but also essential to ensure peace and stability”. Reiterating these concerns President Mugabe said;

“We must move forward speedily and vigorously otherwise they will resettle themselves in a manner they deem appropriate. Such anarchy will not be helpful to anyone. We therefore trust that the governments efforts for orderly resettlement will receive the necessary donor support”.

Nobody believed him. All the donors’ perceptive faculties were programmed to make them believe that all they were listening to was the justifications of yet another corrupt African dictator’ on the graft. More white elephants they winked and yawned at themselves knowingly. And yet they didn’t know. And they still don’t know – anything. $2.2 billion, half the profits of Anglo-American’s African operations in that year, and one third of Nicky Oppenheimer’s thieved fortune was the sum agreed by all parties to be capable of solving once and for all the 100 yr Zimbabwean land question; $180,000 was eventually pledged.

The failure of the international community to engage constructively with the Zimbabwean government at this point, whilst totally predictable, has led directly to the violence, refugeeism and misery that we see today. It would moreover take a thousand Hagues a hundred years to do justice to the roll call of morally bankrupt cretins involved in this fiasco. It seemingly failed to dawn on any present that Mugabe’s warning that they would ‘resettle themselves’ might actually occur. Utterly unheard of. Could never happen. Yet it did, and it is evident that Mugabe, tired of jumping through hoops and attempting to satisfy the endless conditionalities required by the IMF and its brood of vampires, that he had finally dropped the facade of pretending to be ‘our kind of guy’ and lent what has now been called the ‘third chimurenga’ his tacit approval. By doing so he has ensured that his person will be villified by an utterly strumpeted Western media incapable and unwilling of providing anything but the most superficial of analyses. In the end, they are simply uncomprehending.

No-one will dispute that today MDC is under attack by Zanu-PF supporters. However, the fact of the matter is that the MDC was formed in September 1999 by prominent members of the white-dominated Commercial Farmers Union as a direct response to the land resettlements. Behind the MDC and mysteriously omitted by the wholly biased international press coverage who would like us to think that the MDC are some kind of people’s movement of native Zimbabweans agitating against an incompetent despot are in fact many prominent white Zimbabweans. David Coltart, the MDC shadow justice minister served in the Rhodesian police force and is a legal expert who, in power, will be poised to examine the constitutional status of the land resettlements with an obvious view to reversing them. In addition, Roy Bennett, the party treasurer, is a pugnacious white landowner who once attempted to throttle a Zimbabwean judge for calling his ancestors ‘thieves and murderers’ and Eddie Cross, who was the MDC’s newly confirmed Secretary of Economic Affairs in September 1999. made the following policy announcement clearly echoing the raison d’etre of SAP;

“We are going to fast track privatization. All fifty government parastatals will be privatized within a two-year frame, but we are going far beyond that. We are going to privatize many of the functions of government. We are going to privatize the Central Statistics Office. We are going to privatize virtually the entire school delivery system. And you know, we have looked at the numbers and we think we can get government employment down from about 300,000 at the present time to about 75,000 in five years.”

The unavoidable conclusion therefore among Zanu-PF party strategists is that the gains secured in land acquisition will be reversed if the MDC gains control and that they themselves will become the objects of a witch-hunt by the western press.

The land seizures, by any yardstick a sublime manifestation of natural justice, are in fact, technically ‘illegal’ and have been condemned in Washington and London, the financial backers of the MDC. On the American side, this support was secured by the signing into law by President Bush in December 2001 of the Zimbabwean Economic Recovery and Development Act (ZIDERA) The law instructed American officials in international financial institutions, to “oppose and vote against any extension by the respective institution of any loan, credit, or guarantee to the government of Zimbabwe,” and to vote against any reduction or cancellation of “indebtedness owed by the government of Zimbabwe.” The law also authorized President Bush to fund “an independent and free press and electronic media in Zimbabwe”; in other words, a media network aimed at toppling the government.

Post-Colonial Poverty in the Global South

It was the French anthropologist Alfred Sauvy who first used the term ‘Third World’ in reference to the ‘underdeveloped’ countries of the global south. Writing in the French magazine L’Observateur (Aug 14, 1952) Sauvy concluded a powerful critique of colonialism by asserting that; ‘in the end this ignored, exploited, scorned Third World like the Third Estate, wants to become something too’. He was paraphrasing Sieye’s famous observation about the Third Estate during the french revolution and how the peasantry had aspirations of their own beyond the aims of the aristocracy (First Estate) and the clergy (Second Estate).

In the Cold War era the phrase was adopted readily as it became a handy way of demarcating that territory that lay outside the immediate sphere of the two great superpowers. In time, with the dissipation of hostilities that followed the collapse of the Berlin Wall, this meaning too became largely redundant. Today, the ‘Third World’ is a shrunken concept as it has managed to reduce the diverse complexity of whole continents to stock images of helpless black babies with bloated bellies mercilessly surrounded by tsetse flies and barren landscapes.

As a matter of fact the phrase has been long abandoned by serious campaigners precisely because of these connotations of impotence, helplessness and passivity. The preferred terms used nowadays by activists are either the global south’ or the majority world’. This is not to say there was no merit in Sauvy’s original wording for it at least intended to confer the dignity of an active narrative, a struggle for rights and emancipation and, given the outcome of the historical events to which they alluded, a sense of manifets destiny. It is in fact perhaps more useful to retain this original suggestion of ‘the ignored, exploited and scorned’ to truly understand poverty in the global south for it is questionable whether the people in these regions have ever actually attained true independence and autonomy.

For instance, the debt crisis’ of the late 70’s and early 80’s left many countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America looking towards the IMF and World Bank as lenders of last resort. Conditionalities attached to the concessional financing needed to alleviate the debt burden amounted to the wholesale adoption of the corporate-led neoliberal model of economic development. Two prominent theories underpin this economic philosophy; (a) Friedmanite ‘supply-side’ economics which holds that lowering the costs of production is the key to economic growth (ie tax cuts for the rich and investors) and (b) the theory of comparative advantage which favours specialization over economic diversification.

The presence of both these assumptions are behind the main elements that comprise a typical IMF-imposed structural adjustment programme (SAP); deregulation, privitization, liberalisation, currency devaluation and measures to stimulate export-oriented growth. In addition to these, ‘austerity measures’ such as cutbacks in health and education and the slashing of public sector wages are advocated to release funds either to satisfy creditors or to fuel market-led growth via private sector retrenchment. The net effect of these policies is to supposedly liberate and empower the ‘miraculate’ of capital itself; which, left alone to its own majestical workings is assumed to be the panacea poverty is looking for.

For example, deregulatory policies such as lowering of constraints on hiring and firing, the undermining of trade union power, decreasing the number of bureaucratic procedures required for setting up a business and the altering of land laws to suit inward investment are all intended to create a more conducive environment under which capital can thrive. However, the problem here is that the prescriptions laid down by the international financial institutions (the IMF and World Bank) more often appear to be drafted by corporate lobby groups intent on prising open vulnerable economies for their own benefit .

Export processing zones (EPZ’s) are perhaps the most extreme form of a deregulated business environment. Begun in India in the early 80’s when the government introduced a five-year tax break for companies who wished to relocate their manufacturing base the vast majority of employees are young women. Their primary purpose is to supposedly generate export revenue and their numbers have since mushroomed. In 2002 there were an estimated 43 million people working in about 3000 EPZ’s spanning some 116 countries and producing items such as clothes, shoes, electronics and toys. Naomi Klein describes the working conditions as follows; “Regardless of where the EPZ’s are located, the worker’s stories have a certain mesmerizing sameness: the workday is long – fourteen hours in Sri Lanka, twelve hours in Indonesia, sixteen in Southern China, twelve in the Phillipines. The management is military-style, the supervisers often abusive, the wages below subsistence and the work low-skill and tedious.”

Another notable feature that Klein observed was that the majority of the women were migrants from rural areas; “they would have stayed at home if they could, but the choice was made for them: most of their families had lost their farms, displaced by golf courses, botched land-reform laws and more export processing zones.”  One young girl told her; “Working on the farm was difficult yes, but there we had our family and friends and instead of always eating dried fish we had fresh food to eat”. (No Logo, pg. 220.)

This brings us to the heart of the issue because if EPZ’s and large-scale plantations or monoculture farming are to be the motors through which export revenues are going to be obtained then they will require a readily available pool of cheap labour and this can only be achieved by exerting a squeeze on rural households. As we know, the majority of people in the developing countries are small-scale farmers with a few hectares of land. However, trade liberalisation means that cheap imports from the heavily subsidised large producers of the West are undercutting the capacity of these rural households to stay afloat. Recent FAO studies have noted that there has been an increasing concentration of land – ownership in a wide cross-section of countries.

 In Cambodia, for example, mirroring global patterns, 10-15% of the country’s farmers have become landless since 1989. SAP- inspired government policies have withdrawn subsidies from farm inputs that contribute towards domestic food production and instead switched them to those products that are being grown for export such as tea, cocoa, coffee and cotton. John Madeley writes “Women, who produce 60-70% of food in most African countries, have been affected disproportionately by the elimination of subsidies, the drying up of credit and the surge of food imports as a result of trade liberalisation”. In order to stay on the land many males are forced to migrate to the towns and cities or to the plantations to seek seasonal employment. This, of course, produces further hardships for women whose workload is often doubled and has a negative effect on the education of their children who are often forced to leave their schooling for long periods to help out at home.
Austerity measures such as cuts in health and education expenditure further necessitate dependency or incorporation into a cash-based economy. The introduction of user fees  for medical services and the increasing privitization of secondary and primary schooling generates more pressure for self-sufficient, subsistence based households to switch to cash-cropping. Those that cannot afford decent medical care simply don’t attend and in fact the 2005 UNDP report shows that for most African countries the maternal mortality ratio has steadily disapproved since 1990. Increasingly tight domestic budgets may also mean that some children will have to be withdrawn from school early and the preference here is usually towards the girl-child.

One of the consequences of the theory of comparative advantage is the loss of economic diversification. All too often countries in the south are streamlined towards the production of a handful of basic commodities. Stock market fluctuations can overnight halve the value of primary commodities as was the case for instance in the mid-80’s when the international price crashed for major exports such as coffee and cotton. The neoliberal response is a currency devaluation to make exports more attractive to international buyers.

But what this creates over time is a huge gulf in purchasing power parity between countries of the north and those of the south. It also exacerbates the brain drain’, encouraging those with a university education to seek employment in the North and to sustain their hard-pressed families through remittances thereby depriving the south of the very talents that it so obviously requires in the years ahead. Many women, anxious to keep their children in school are faced with little option but to secure working visas for foreign posts in childcare or nursing, straining the family unit and further eroding the social fabric.

It is these varied elements of SAP, still expounded today, that, when stripped of their beguiling veneer are seen to achieve their true ends; providing an army of cheap labour and relaxing barriers for the extraction of raw resources. At this nether end of the flows of late capitalism it is the impoverished themselves who have become the anti-miraculate, the unspoken and the disenfranchised, frozen timelessly in our images of dispossession.

“Hope” for the Middle East?

Obviously its early days yet but it should be clear to everyone that the US is not the same player it has been traditionally now that we have an Obama administration. What exactly those differences are, whether they are strong enough to actually make a renewed peace process’ viable, the coming weeks and months will decide. Obama’s decision, for instance, to make entreaties on the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya news channel to renew diplomatic relations with the Iranians has been viewed by the wider Arab and Muslim world as a positive step that bodes well for any future negotiations.

Also, Obama’s appointment of George Mitchell as peace envoy. Being an Arabic- speaking son of a Lebanese immigrant with a good track record of listening’ has to be a plus here, along with his role in brokering successful peace talks in Northern Ireland. This, coupled with the fact that he has already headed a commission whose report identified the key difficulty; Israeli settlements in the West Bank. I know it doesn’t take a mastermind to figure that one out but how many times has this been explicitly acknowledged and foregrounded on the American side; apart from Carter.

The question you have to ask yourself is whether Hamas are providing any room for dialogue. Is there anything in what they are saying that provides an entry point for mediating parties? We all know about the fiery rhetoric of their Charter and varied translations do little to dampen it – it belongs to a species of polemics that has one foot in this world, one in the next.

But the fact of the matter is that the Hamas leadership has distanced itself more and more from the Charter – without actually abandoning it – particularly since the 06 elections. Its jihadist authors have already been executed by Israel (the paraplegic Yassin blown to smithereens in his wheelchair along with a dozen innocents outside a Gazan mosque 5yrs ago) and new leader Meshal has confirmed repeatedly his readiness to recognise Israel if the ‘two-state solution’ with pre-67 borders is put on the table. Neither is this the watered-down two-stater proposed by Ehud Barak with separate Jewish cantons and control over water resources which led to the unravelling of the Camp David Accords.

According to Khaled Hroub (author of ‘Hamas: Political Thought and Practice’) the concept of the two-state solution is now the cornerstone of Hamas’ thinking. “I doubt we will see the old Hamas again” he says. Why does he say this? Because Meshal and the other leaders have been saying things like the following for the last four years;

“Our message to the Israelis is this: we do not fight you because you belong to a certain faith or culture. Jews have lived in the Muslim world for 13 centuries in peace and harmony; they are in our religion “the people of the book” who have a covenant from God and His Messenger Muhammad (peace be upon him) to be respected and protected. Our conflict with you is not religious but political” (07)

“We shall never recognise the right of any power to rob us of our land and deny us our national rights. We shall never recognise the legitimacy of a Zionist state created on our soil in order to atone for somebody else’s sins or solve somebody else’s problem. But if you are willing to accept the principle of a long-term truce, we are prepared to negotiate the terms. Hamas is extending a hand of peace to those who are truly interested in a peace based on justice.” (06)

“If Israel withdrew to the 1967 borders and recognised the rights of the Palestinian people – including the right of those in the diaspora to return to their land and to East Jerusalem and to dismantle the settlements – Hamas can then state its position and possibly give a long-term truce with Israel, as Sheikh Yassin said. This is a position that Hamas could take but only after Israel recognises the right of the Palestinians, to show and confirm its willingness to withdraw to the 1967 borders.” (08)

There is more than enough leverage in the above for a dedicated team committed to a workable solution to make real progress. What I see at the moment is the possibility of some sort of renewed alliance between Fatah and Hamas. Egypt are currently hosting talks to try and bring this about and Mahmoud Abbas must be seen to play ball here else he is in danger of being toppled from within. Fatah received a negative backlash from Muslims across the region over their weak responses to the recent Israeli incursion/massacre and will be anxious to clean their bib in the eyes of their peers. He has already been heard recently being critical of last year’s accelerated expansion of Israeli settlements – something that he was loathe to do beforehand for fear of being cut from the loop. Many US and European diplomats have already conceded that Hamas will have to be talked to eventually, for instance James Baker, and the recent events in Gaza, in fact, have been a disaster for the Israeli publicity machine.

Even the Council on Foreign Relations concede that the Hamas majority in the elections was secured because of their perceived lack of corruption and greater commitment to funding for social programmes. What is an absurdity is the continual reality negation over Hamas legitimate claims to be representatives of the Palestinians. Simply wishing they didn’t win it or that their programme of resistance isn’t more popular among ordinary Palestinians than watching what must appear to them to be the fawning obeisance of Fatah preside over the further dismantling of their territory is just the purest self-delusion.

Admittedly, their funders in turn will have to get flexible on Sharia and their claims over East Jerusalem but their position on the Zionist entity’s’ right to exist’ is predicated on Israel’s continued presence in the West Bank – an internationally agreed upon illegal occupation – which to Hamas is justification for any and all hostilities. Remove the forces of occupation along with the settlements and they are ready to conduct dialogue. This is their position and Khaled Mashal has repeated it often enough to make you wonder why the assertion continues to be regurgitated that they are unconditionally committed to the destruction of Israel irrespective of what gestures and concessions it makes. This position only suits hawks of every hue and persuasion including those on the Israeli side who don’t wish to see any dismantling of West Bank settlements.

So the US need no longer be viewed as an obstacle to progress by the Palestinians. If its policy makers instead of continually referring to an increasingly defunct founding document instead focused on what possibilities exist for dialogue then we may be in a position at last to debate the merits of peacekeepers – they have to have a peace to keep first though.

Is Foreign Aid the Solution to Global Poverty?

Foreign aid is one of many solutions to the multi-faceted problem of global poverty and would of course make a more telling difference than present if it were properly administered, divorced from political praxis (arms transfers to client states), specifically targeted (white elephant projects), untied from ideologically determined conditionalities (the push for privitisation in the water sector) and, moreover, actually in accordance with internationally agreed commitments (the famously defunct .7% of GNP).

There are also powerful arguments to be made from those who suggest that the focus on aid detracts from other initiatives. We may look no further than the support for the removal of agricultural supports for producers in the West as they drastically lower the international purchasing price for sellers in the global south. Likewise, there are those who maintain that the “dumping” of these often subsidised goods on developing markets drastically undermines the ability of domestic producers to maintain their livelihoods. Also, shouldn’t consumers in the rich world be made more aware of the existence of the fair trade label and how that delivers real and lasting benefits to the communities involved.

In international trade policy, attention has been paid by campaigners in achieving preferential trade tariffs and quotas for exporters in the developing world. Some have argued that the World Bank and IMF should reorientate its loan strategy and instead focus on encouraging the development of tertiary industries that can exploit these countries own natural resources. For example, why hasn’t West Africa which produces three quarters of the world’s cocoa beans not established its own Hershey’s or Cadbury’s?

Or why hasn’t there been sufficient capital raised to develop domestic refining capacity for nations dependent on crude oil export revenues. In all too many cases they are simply importing the finished version of what they have previously exported. Others again argue that the World Bank has become irrelevant in dealing with global poverty and should actually be abolished. Also, shouldn’t workers in Export Processing Zones producing textiles for foreign markets be entitled to a minimum wage under international law since they are producing for a global market? And what about the crippling debt still being paid by so many developing countries? Is it right that Kenya pays back $600 million annually to international creditors while it only receives $100 million in bilateral aid disbursements.

Foreign aid is a vital component of a multi-pronged attack on what still remains a scandalous state of affairs and we should not be blinded by superfluous arguments which pit the merits of “Aid” against those of “Trade”, “Debt” and other socially progressive initiatives. With respect to the above mentioned internationally agreed commitments on aid it may be said that the benchmark for official development assistance (ODA) was set almost forty years ago when the UN General Assembly voted for a commitment of .7 per cent of GNP from the developed countries. This was reiterated at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 with the adoption of Agenda 21 where developed countries agreed to; “augment their aid programmes in order to reach that target as soon as possible”.

Ten years later an international conference on “financing for development” sat in Mexico and produced the Monterrey Consensus wherein signatories agreed to “urge all developed countries that have not done so to make concrete efforts toward the goal of .7 percent of gross domestic product as official development assistance”. In that year, 2002, ODA was around $53 billion or just .2 percent of rich-world GDP. If, therefore, rich countries had met the target, aid that year would have reached $175 billion or .7 percent of the $25 trillion rich-world GDP. It as well to bear these figures in mind because they are used as reference points by those, such as Jeffrey Sachs, who contend that poverty can be alleviated almost exclusively through the transfers of financial largesse. Leaving this aside for the moment we may say that though non-binding legally, these agreements are neither a “letter to Santa Claus” to borrow from Jean Kirkpatrick’s infamous dismissal of the UN Declaration on Human Rights nor are they mere vaguely worded aspirational documents. This is mainly because, despite all their foot dragging and rhetoric, OECD governments have at least been shoehorned into making public avowals of their commitment to adjust incrementally upwards their donations to reach .7 by 2015. This is all meant to coincide, happily enough, with the completion of the Millenium Challenge goals.

Now, the point about Sachs’ work, and he is the world’s leading academic proponent of boosting foreign aid, is that he must demonstrate almost beyond dispute the eventual effectiveness of these massive disbursements if and when they do arrive. Hence Sachs’ task in “The End of Poverty” is to produce what project managers everywhere will be familiar with, though not on such a grand scale; a full cost-benefit analysis – for ridding the world of poverty.

There is an exhaustive case study made of Sauri, a group of eight remote villages with a 5,000 strong population in Nyanza province, western Kenya. We are spared the ghantt charts and log-frame analyses but the procedure is still one of an admirable clinical efficiency and each projected “output” comes with a readily quantifiable price tag. Thus the “Big Five” development interventions for Sauri are assessed roughly as follows (1) agricultural inputs: fertilisers and improved fallows for the five hundred arable acres will cost roughly $100 per hectare per year which comes to $50,000 per year for the community. (2) in health: a proper clinic staffed by a doctor and nurse providing free malarial care and other necessities – $50,000 (3) for power, transport and communications – $25,000 (4) for water and sanitation; a combination of protected springs, bore wells and community taps – $25,000 (5) investments in education – school meals would be paid for through increased grain yields through the application of fertilisers . and so on.

This is just a snapshot to give readers an idea of the detailed planning involved. The eventual cost of all these improvements was estimated to be around $350,000 per year for a an initial few years until the village complex became self-sufficient. The progress of Sauri can be viewed from the website of the Earth Institute and is an important pilot project which is ultimately intended to dispel the doubts of sundry naysayers and foot draggers who bemoan the supposed waste of our tax dollars. In a few short years it has reduced the incidences of malaria tenfold, tripled food yields, drastically reduced chronic hunger and malnutrition and given birth to small cottage industries such as horticulture, carpentry and animal husbandry. As Sachs himself says “sooner rather than later, these investments would repay themselves not only in lives saved, children educated, and communities preserved, but also in direct commercial returns”.

In short, we can conclude by saying that “Aid” can work miracles, it is demonstrably effective in saving lives but let us not forget also that it is but one strategy among many that should be deployed to address a complex ethical imperative.

UNCTAD and the New International Economic Order

The early successes of the G-77, a lobbying bloc of developing countries within the UN, and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), a group of independent nations attempting to retain sovereignty amidst cold war intrigues, culminated in the formation of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in 1964 under the helm of Raul Prebisch, its first Secretary-General. Prebisch was an Argentine economist who wrote extensively in the 50’s on the worsening terms of trade between the industrialised countries of the North and the non-industrialised countries of the South. Basically, his research concluded that the South required more and more of its own raw materials and resources to purchase ever fewer manufactured goods from the North. This structuralist critique in fact soon became the dominant viewpoint within the UN, effecting policy decisions in ECOSOC, the UNDP and elsewhere.

With his appointment the ‘Third World’ countries saw UNCTAD as the principal vehicle within which a more equitable restructuring of the world economy could take place. Three related goals were immediately adopted by Prebisch; (1) the establishment of a commodity price stabilization mechanism, (2) a scheme of preferential tariffs for goods from Third World to First World markets and (3) a demand for greater foreign assistance, viewed by many not as charity but rather compensation or reparations  for decades of declining commodity purchasing power. The immediate impetus for convening the April 74′ Special Session of the UN General Assembly which passed the charter of the New International Economic Order and the Charter of the Economic Rights and Duties of States was the summit of NAM held in Algiers in September 73′. It was attended by an unprecedented 33 heads of state, including key delegates from OPEC.But these advances must be seen within the context of a strong bargaining hand.

Two years before, huge US deficit spending to finance Vietnam led to an overvalued dollar forcing Nixon to decouple and suspend dollar-gold convertibility thereby ending the 30 year Bretton Woods arrangement. The global financial system eventually convulsed with the stock market crash of January 73′, a death by a thousand cuts affair which only bottomed out in Dec 74′. But most of all the G-77 were emboldened by the success of the ex-colonies within OPEC whose embargo in late 73′, a protest over the Yom Kippur War being waged by Israel, compounded this misery. In the two years from 1972 to 1974, the US economy slowed from 7% growth to -2.% contraction, with inflation jumping from 3% in 1972 to 12% in 1974 and by 75′ in the UK it had hit 25%.

At the meeting of UNCTAD IV in Nairobi in 1976 the Integrated Programme for Commodities (IPC) was set up guaranteeing protection from excessive price fluctuation for 18 specified commodities through the creation of a common fund. 

The resolute language within the NIEO/CERDS documents certainly sprang from what must have been pragmatic assessments of what was attainable under the prevailing climes – and should not be viewed as a species of charitable concession granted by Western powers in the grip of some inexplicable egalitarian fever.

Eventually, it is true, the documents became anachronistic’ their long funeral cortege marshalled by the Brandt Commission throughout the 70’s with last rites applied by Reagan at Cancun in 81′ as he re-symmetricalised the cosmos under the Washington Consensus’, but at the time there must have been every expectation that an epoch stirring breach’ was on the horizon.

So the highpoint of UNCTAD’s success was the fourth trade conference in Nairobia in 1976 after which right-wing think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation became increasingly vocal over what they saw as a disturbing realignment of global economic power through the medium of UN mechanisms. Disputes became more rancorous and bitterly contested and in the end no new commodities were added to the IPC. UNCTAD was eventually wound down and defanged through G7 lobbying and today concerns itself only with analysis, technical advice’ etc. surviving on a relatively minuscule budget of $100 million per annum. The issues that were its bread and butter are now debated within the – far from democratic – green rooms’ of the WTO, viewed by many critics as a neoliberal Trojan horse created by corporate lobbyists and their legal teams. The principle of preferential tariffs however still holds good today and their compatibility with WTO regulations are a source of contention for instance between the EU and the African – Caribbean – Pacific (ACP) countries in the current Economic Partnership Agreements. Likewise the Monterrey Consensus has tried to get a meaningful commitment (.7% of GNP) on overseas development aid by the OECD countries.

But the bottom line with respect to the protection of indigenous labour and resources is that the spirit of this compact as signalled by the 1962 GA Resolution on the Permanent Sovereignty of Natural Resources has not been met. Though these principles then became customary international law and have subsequently been imposed on developed states through arbitration awards it is sadly the case that without the support and funding of UNCTAD the power of the IPC and other like initiatives has withered substantially over the years along with the living standards of millions of primary commodity producers across the developing world. Nowadays the call for reparations and the acknowledgement of the injustice of declining terms of trade has been replaced by the promotion of fairtrade; conceived as a species of charity.

Here is a link for those interested in how the IPC is doing today;

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