A world without conscience
Ian on Sunday
By Ian McDonald
June 30, 2002
I have been asked why I criticise the way rich countries treat poor countries in this era of the much acclaimed New World order. Why do I keep writing about a "new tyranny" and the rabid cult of "free trade fundamentalism?"
Is this not a case of biting the hand that feeds you? Look at the aid rich countries give to poor countries, look at all the debt forgiveness. Poor countries wasted so much money in the past, it is right and proper that they be kept on a tight leash now lest they fall back into their bad old profligate and corrupt ways. Structural adjustment programmes are the strong medicine these poor unfortunate patients need. They deserve such strictness, it is for their own good.
In any case, it is said, private foreign investment will only enter countries if the new rules are abjectly accepted and we are all supposed to know that without this inflow of investment we are doomed.
It brings gall into my throat to hear these slick and much repeated reasons for imposing a system which simply seeks to organise the world in a way which will go on benefitting the rich and strong and continue disgracefully neglecting the poor and the weak. It makes me almost as sick as it does to hear the fanatics of the new free trade religion proclaim the glorious and inevitable triumph of market forces in a global economy where only the "efficient" and the "competitive" will have a place in the sun.
It is truly sickening. I once received a letter from Father Michael Campbell-Johnson, that great priest whose work for the wretched of the earth verges on the legendary. Guyanese will remember well his stay here. He is in El Salvador where he is in charge of the Jesuit Development Service among other responsibilities. What he wrote from his standpoint in the midst of the desperately poverty-stricken expressed infinitely better than I ever could the true nature of what is going on in the world:
"I sometimes wonder about the whole process of third-world NGOs financed by first-world funding agencies slaving away to bring a modicum of prosperity or development to small pockets of poor and oppressed people around the globe.
"On the whole both the NGOs and agencies do a good job ensuring that the money goes where it is most needed and is spent cost-effectively in an attempt to promote sustainable self-development. But all the funding added together is a mere drop in the ocean when compared to the massive amounts being plundered from the third world in a deliberate and systematic manner through unjust market structures, international financial institutions or multi-national corporations.
The so-called aid from first world countries to those in the third world is one of the major myths of our time, a lie presented in a hundred ways to disguise the truth of what is really happening: namely, that the aid is flowing in the other direction; that wealthy nations are continuing to live off the poor and exploit them with impunity. One sometimes wonders if the aid-giving agencies and NGOs are anything more than a sop to the conscience of hard-bitten governments or corrupt elites whose sole concern is to milk the cow to the last drop. The wealthy and powerful in both worlds seem to be saying: yes, we want justice and a better life for the poor provided that present power structures don’t change and our living standards are not threatened. I am reminded of something Gandhi is supposed to have said on the eve of India’s independence from Britain when asked if India would attained British standards of living. "It took Britain half the resources of this planet to achieve its prosperity. How many planets will a country like India require? In the meantime, one goes battling on in one’s own little corner, hoping to help a handful."
And in another passage he wrote of "struggling third-world countries swept over by the tide of free market reforms (so called) imposed by international financial agencies and Western governments.
"The policies of privatisation and deregulation, centerpieces of what used to be known in Europe as Thatcherism and in the US as Reaganomics, were seen as universal panaceas by the political right after the collapse of communism. And they are still stipulated as conditions for aid, trade or credit. The fruits of unbridled economic liberalism, roundly condemned over 100 years ago by Pope Leo XIII in the first "social" encyclincal, are becoming increasingly obvious and difficult to hide. Just as the citizens of the former Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe have seen capitalism bringing in corruption, crime and growing inequality, so in El Salvador workers’ demonstrations and union marches protesting the laying-off of thousands of state employees and rocketing prices for basic commodities have been repressed by tear gas and brute force. Visitors to El Salvador, including the Pope, praise the achievement of peace and democracy. But these are the delusions of a few. For the poor, the majority, neither exists: only the law of the jungle, the survival of the fittest."
In a recent letter Father Campbell-Johnson amplifies the argument. He calls attention to the writings of Ignacio Ellacuria, Jesuit theologian and Rector of the University in San Salvador when he was murdered by right-wing extremists. Ellacuria eloquently rejected the direction in which the world is being driven without any real regard for the poor and the weak.
First it is based on a self-seeking materialism that runs counter to Gospel principles. "The civilization of wealth and of capital is the one that, in the final analysis, proposes the private accumulation of the greatest possible capital on the part of individuals, groups, multinationals, states or groups of states as the fundamental basis of development, and individuals’ or families’ possessive accumulation of the most possible wealth as the fundamental basis for their own security and for the possibility of ever growing consumption as the basis of their own happiness."
Secondly the system, even if it were desirable, which it is not, is a false solution since the world doesn’t possess and never can possess sufficient resources for everyone to live like Europeans or North Americans. "If the behaviour and even the ideal of a few cannot become the behaviour and the reality of the greater part of humanity, that behaviour and that ideal cannot be said to be moral or even human, all the more so if the enjoyment of a few is at the cost of depriving the rest. In our world, the practical ideal of Western civilization is not universalisable, not even materially, since there are not enough material resources on earth today to let all countries achieve the same level of production and consumption as that of the countries called wealthy, whose total population is less than 25 percent of humanity."
The saddest thing in the world is that the new and sole masters of our destiny can exultantly exclaim "There is no alternative!" and find that there are few to say otherwise. Future historians will not treat this grim age very kindly.