Vinoth Ramachandra

The Lives of Others (Part 2)

Posted on: May 22, 2009

I wrote two weeks ago of how most of us are involved (to varying degrees, of course)  in the sufferings and tragedies of peoples elsewhere. Yet this awareness of our interconnected histories and global politics is lacking, even among students from some of the most prestigious universities in the world.

The late economist E. F. Schumacher famously coined a new ‘law’ about leisure: ‘The amount of labour-saving technologies available in a society is inversely proportional to the amount of leisure its citizens enjoy.’ In the same spirit let me propose a ‘law’ regarding information: ‘The amount of advanced information technology available in a society is inversely proportional to how well-informed the majority of its citizens are.’  (But there are some well-informed nerds and geeks out there…)

Global warming and climate change, as well as the global economic recession, is slowly bringing this awareness home to more and more people in the affluent world. It is the global poor who bear, disproportionately, the costs of the wasteful and unsustainable lifestyles of the rich. It is their air and water sources that are poisoned, their lands and forests degraded, their livelihoods threatened in the name of an ‘economic growth’ that usually benefits others.

Then there is suffering caused by deliberate policies pursued by the rich countries and the international financial institutions that they control.  When Indonesia was hit by economic collapse in 1997, foreign creditors were bailed out with billions of dollars but the government, under pressure from the IMF, refused to pay the far smaller sums required for food and fuel subsidies for the poor or for those workers whose wages plummeted. The latter were not responsible for causing the crisis in the first place. They suffered the consequences of irresponsible choices made by foreign speculators. The latter were bailed out by the IMF, and those who had an overwhelming case for compensation were left to suffer.

This is the same IMF, still unreformed and unrepentant, that was promised $750 billion by the G-20 last month. It needs no great effort of the imagination to know who will get the lion’s share of this wealth. While their own nations try to spend their way out of the recession, IMF economists are still pushing their ‘one size fits all’ remedy of cutting subsidies and slashing public spending on poor governments facing massive social turmoil.

Hedge funds have become a popular topic of conversation ever since the global financial ‘bubble’ burst last year. But how many people in the UK know of British investors who seek to buy up Third World debt at cut-rate prices and then sue these countries through UK courts if they fail to pay up the full amount? The Jubilee Debt Campaign has highlighted the activities of these ‘vulture’ funds, and legislation designed to curb such activities is being brought before the British parliament. In recent years at least 54 vulture funds are known to have taken legal action against 12 of the world’s poorest countries. Most notably the vulture fund Donegal International, based in the British Virgin Islands, won $15.5 million through the courts in repayment for Zambian debt it bought for $3.3 million.

Enthusiasm for power-at-a-distance has always been popular. None of us, Asian or European, is immune. It is so easy to forget that what is ‘freedom’ for me may be experienced differently by others elsewhere.

The moral theologian Oliver O’Donovan gives an everyday example: ‘When I have entered my credit card number and double-clicked on the “confirm” box, some packer somewhere has to act on my order, some driver struggle through the traffic on the motorway, some postman find my front door. For me, as for the slave-owners of the early modern colonies, it is all too easy to overlook those on whom the gratifying of my desires depends, and to succumb to the illusion that the tips of my fingers on keyboard and mouse have freed them from the constraints of place, too!’ [1]


[1] Oliver O’Donovan, The Ways of Judgment (Grand Rapids, Mi and Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2005) p.260

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