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.


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