Noble Thoughts and Nobel Prizes

In 1994, Dr Paula Vaz was the first person to work in pediatric AIDS in Mozambique. Her story is inspiring, her vigilance unstoppable. I had the recent privilege of interviewing her, and discuss not only the changes in treating children with HIV, but the successes of her efforts in micro-financing for the extremely poor in Mozambique.

Dr Vaz spoke about how the women actually change not only in terms of economic hope, but self-esteem and even posture. Those involved, able to survive, literally rise up.

And so, another little article on micro-credit and finance and its Nobel prize winning banker, Muhammad Yunus, to see how the rich and powerful are now getting behind the micro-financing bandwagon.

There are, of course, some counter voices.

Check out this blog in response to Thomas W. Dichter’s caution against micro-financing being seen as a global poverty panacea.

Dichter’s concerns about the problems with development aid are legitimate. But for me his concluding ideas of the necessity of a “level playing field” ring too much of neo-liberal/neo-conservative economic policies. Are these policies not in many ways the offspring of the paternalistic, racist policies that have crushed people in both hemispheres since at least the days of colonialism?

Anyone can criticize development aid, and what it hasn’t accomplished—learned, passionate debate is vital. Too much money is wasted. As Graca Machel said, paraphrasing, we don’t need billions, we need thousands—with intelligence.

But Dichter is for me curiously selective in his critique when he writes:

In short, once a country gets its act together, it doesn’t really need much aid. And when it’s in chaos, it cannot make effective use of aid anyway. Either way, more money won’t help…

In using the phrase, “…once a country gets its act together,” how can one then honestly omit the ongoing policies and conditions that have contributed so much to said chaos, from the World Bank (one of Dichter’s employers), the IMF structural adjustment programs to the continued pillaging of Third World resources by Western interests and shareholder demands and the propping up of Third World dictators by Western interests, for economic and geo-strategic positioning, et cetera ad infinitum?

Continuing this avoidance of historical context, and the ongoing “scramble for resources,” Dichter writes:

The ineffectiveness of aid has little to do with a lack of resources. Its roots lie instead in the complex nature of poverty and the flawed nature of institutions and governments in poor countries (my italics).

In another article, Dichter writes:

What about shifting the money we now use for public relations—most of which goes to produce glossy, smiling-peasants-on-the-cover annual reports—to a campaign to convince the world about the wisdom of a level playing field for trade?

Anybody who has read economic histories of either Great Britain or the United States knows how insistently, and at times punitively, these two super powers used protectionism to build up, say, their textile industries.

In Profit Over People, Noam Chomsky writes:

How did Europe and those who escaped its control succeed in developing? By radically violating approved free market doctrine. That conclusion holds from England to the East Asian growth area today, surely including the US, the leader in protectionism from its origins.

What is needed is not a level playing field, which is deadly for smaller countries who need to not only produce cash crops (coffee etc) to please institutions obsessed with raising the GNP, but produce food for their own people. What is needed is a fair playing field that allows first and foremost the feeding of their people.

And something else I’ve been thinking lately, which is worth deep pause—and wonderfully phrased by Historian Paul Kennedy, on page 176 of his book, The Parliament of Man: The Past, Present and Future of the United Nations (as cited here):

[I]t is difficult to imagine how much more riven and ruinous our world of six billion people would be today had there been no UN social, environmental, and cultural agendas—and no institutions to attempt, sometimes well and sometimes poorly, to put them into practice on the ground. It is a mixed record, but it is hard to see how it could be otherwise.

And to give Dichter his due:

If some things still need to be done in project form, how about making staff really accountable for results? To do that, long-term measurements of success should be designed into all projects. Staff should be given a decent salary, not at private sector levels. Fifty percent of that salary could be put into an escrow account and released in six or 10 years only if those long-term goals were met. If the goals are not met, that bonus would revert to the institution.

Perhaps what is needed is for more aid workers to live with the people they are attempting to economically and educationally uplift, to see what they’re going through day in, day out—instead of living miles, even countries, away from the problem.

The process of effectively aiding developing countries is confusing, inspiring, flawed and hopeful. It is itself wrapped in exorbitant waste and good intentions, generosity and stupidity, idealism and bad governance, and even greed.

Micro-financing is not a panacea, but it is hopeful in its commitment to the poorest of the poor, in choosing people over profits (although it makes a profit), and creativity over credit rating. Its grassroots understanding of the desperate situation, and humanity, of all people, is refreshing.

There but for the grace of God, or the universe, or some brutal dictator or economic collapse, go I…

In my opinion, one should not underestimate the sustainable power of seeing everybody as sisters and brothers, as dignified and worthy of kindness, respect and social justice. Nor should one minimize the effects of long term degradation—thus my argument against Jeffrey Sachs’ unbridled support of multinational corporation owned sweatshops.

Dichter writes unabashedly:

To move forward the best operators of microcredit need to become banks, move more seriously into savings mobilization, and learn to deal with banking policy and other (institutional) aspects of the enabling environment. And they need to come to terms with the constraints imposed by political correctness – by being unafraid of lending to real businesses, and unafraid of abandoning the subsistence activities in the informal sector.

I’m more than willing to be proven wrong, but for decades now have not big banking institutions, with their cohorts of power, cunningly plunged countless billions of people and hundreds of countries into massive, virtually unstoppable debt with use of usary—not to mention the continued production of money out of thin air?

In a sane world based on freedom and equality (which can be in opposition), would this ongoing process of creating onerous, useless debt to be leveraged against not only the average western worker, but the poorest of the poor, be considered not only cruel and cancerous, but criminal?

This debt, in my opinion, should be cancelled. But does canceling the debt ultimately mean much if the systems that contributed so deeply to the creations of these debts continue as they do?

Debt cancellation is offered weakly, with conditions. What about the lenders, the banks who profit so much? Nobody in the mainstream media, or politicians of any stature seem to ever suggest their reworking.

This from an article by activist academic Dot Keet.

There are many causes for the growth of debt, and responsibility rests with many ‘culprits’ including Northern governments, banks and other lenders. The corollary is that if anti-debt groups in the North support their governments’ demands for proof of ‘good governance’ as a political condition for debt relief/reduction, they should place equally demanding conditions on the self-serving, unprincipled, irresponsible lending agencies.

Amen.

How does one believe in the future? Only, I think, by pouring joy into the present, with love and vigilance: with ourselves, with lovers and family, with strangers.

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