Accelerating Hopelessness

by Eunice Kazembe, Ambassador of Malawi to Taiwan

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Reprinted with permission of the author from the World Bank e-conference, May 2000, "Globalization, Development, and Poverty"

My name is Eunice Kazembe from Malawi, currently Malawi's Ambassador to Taiwan. I was born in an African village, my mother and relatives still live in villages. I have on-the-ground personal experience with the realities and effects of grand sounding economic theories thrust on people in the last three decades. But even I have not felt the full blunt of these effects therefore I speak as a partial observer. Those who would have given unadulterated testimony do not know that this forum exists, could not contribute to it even if they knew because they do not have the right language, and in any case they would be intimidated by the "learned" arguments. As long as we keep talking about the issue of liberalization, structural adjustment and now globalisation largely in terms of GNP, economic growth, competitiveness and such technical terms, we will continue to gloss over the real issues and the dehumanisation and indignity that supposedly well-meaning initiatives of the World Bank, IMF, WTO and such institutions can promote.

Times were when, in the villages I know, there was not just enough to eat, but (it was) of adequate variety to ensure healthy growth for children and physical stamina for the adults. Not anymore. Children are hungry and listless most of the time, their mental and physical potential sabotaged and limited from childhood. Adults, physically weakened, are unable to concentrate their minds and to work long hours as they used to.

Times were when schools had books and writing materials, teachers had motivation because they earned enough to live on and had respect in the local community. Now most children go to school yes, but with nothing to write on, nothing to read. Teachers have immediate grave survival needs to meet. Faced with such dire needs the enthusiasm to concentrate on teaching young minds takes second priority, after all Maslow argued that until the immediate survival needs are met, the human being does not have the luxury of pursuing other more lofty goals like self actualisation!

Time was when what the villager produced from the land had value. Now, thanks to the twin forces of deteriorating terms of trade and continuous devaluation and depreciation of local currencies, even buying salt, called common salt, in the developed economies is equivalent to a major investment decision, to be saved for over a long period. Time was when villagers could go to a hospital and get medicine for their ailments and when really ill they could count on a hospital bed and a blanket. Not anymore. The hospitals are empty of medicine, beds grossly inadequate, and cover a luxury.

Time was when an entrepreneur could start some little enterprise and make some money over time (after all initiative pays). The entrepreneur could count on real return, on borrowing at affordable interest rates, on getting honest and trustful workers. Not anymore. Inflation is a fixture (from all the progressively more expensive imports), interest rates above 50%, and workers too preoccupied with their own survival battles or too debilitated to give an honest days work.

Yes money can be made, by importing from the developed economies and the Asian Tigers at lower cost than can generally be produced locally, so you close your local farm or factory, rightsize, dabble in ecommerce and pour your excess profits on competing in life style with the Joneses in Silicon Valley. It is globalisation after all.

Money can also be made by growing things for export on foreign owned commercial farms, yes the hungry growing locally inedible vegetables for export, at nonsurvival wages. Money can be made by laying your hands on the national till or whatever till you find nearest you. After all isn't the seizing of opportunity, any opportunity, the essence of capitalism which is the driving force behind liberalisation and globalisation.

No money can be made by the villager working her own land (the most ready resource available to the villager), when she cannot afford the few bags of fertilizers, the seeds and the insecticides, courtesy of the structural adjustments, the liberalization, the removal of support systems and the massive devaluations. Still people till the land fully knowing they will not get much out of it, in the hope that somehow, for once the odds will change in their favour.

This debate should not be about theoretical elegance, efficiency of markets, linkages between democratisation and economic development, etc. It should be about being human and about leaving space for others and allowing them to be human. It should be about compassion and a genuine search for creating feasible, workable and accessible opportunities for the millions out in the cold. It should be about a different vision for the world, a world not only moved by movements in global capital markets and the pursuit of more and more for the few who must work out harder and harder to get leaner and leaner and will in any case not take it with them when they depart, as they must. I want to think that the next round of SAPs or whatever term will come into vogue will include in it a genuine initiative for re-humanising not just the poor but the rich who seem to think that history has no relevance. Otherwise how is it to be expected that globalisation will change the welfare of all those people in the village, all those poor out there, when from the word go it is such an unequal and unbridgeable race. Reprinted with the permission of the Ambassador.

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