Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for January 2010

Imagine that you live on the lovely island of Lilliput. Like its namesake in Gulliver’s Travels, Lilliput is inhabited by a small people: mostly small in stature and mental outlook, small and insignificant in the world of nations. Your island, too, as in Gulliver’s Lilliput, is ruled by a self-styled emperor. But, since your Lilliput is also a constitutional democracy, this emperor is compelled to hold national elections to secure another term as head of state. This he does successfully, retaining power with a handsome majority. He invited a few international monitors to observe the polling process, wined and dined them sumptuously, and they all had a wonderful holiday on Lilliput at local taxpayers’ expense. They returned to their homes and wrote glowing reports of how peaceful everything had been and how democracy was flourishing on Lilliput.

But you who live there know this is all eyewash. The emperor had already shredded the Constitution of Lilliput in his first term as head of state. There are no more independent commissions in Lilliput. The Chief Justice and the Elections Commissioner are the emperor’s appointees.  Every law under the Lilliputian Election Act was violated by the emperor’s supporters in the run-up to the election: public funds were utilised for his advertising campaign, the state-controlled media were dominated by the emperor and rival candidates excluded, government officials and the police were employed as the emperor’s private employees, mobile phone service providers were compelled to transmit his campaign messages, and journalists who criticized  these abuses of power were intimidated and physically assaulted by goon squads.

On the day of the election itself, the emperor declares on TV that his main rival is legally disqualified from the race:  a lie that the Elections Commissioner is compelled to correct later. In parts of Lilliput known to be hostile to the emperor, public transport is withdrawn on election day and a series of explosions early in the morning deter some from trekking to polling stations. Two days after the emperor’s victory, the campaign office of his main rival are raided by army commandos, without any search warrant, computers and files are taken away and campaign workers arrested. The emperor alleges that they were plotting a coup, although computers and filing cabinets are poor substitutes for guns and rocket launchers. An opposition spokesman claims that the motive was to forestall the collection of evidence to prove that the election count was rigged. Another vicious crackdown on journalists and critics has begun….

Gulliver fell out of favour with his emperor, after having helped him win a war against his neighbour. He had to flee Lilliput for fear of execution. In your Lilliput, ironically, the same fate awaits the failed opponent of the emperor.

How do you feel? And what can you do? What would you like your friends and other governments to do? Whether or not the election was rigged is unclear, and may prove impossible to demonstrate. But the multiple violation of Constitutional safeguards and election laws are blatant. They are surely enough for this election to have been declared null and void. If it is not, the message that has gone out all over Lilliput is this: he who breaks the law, wins.

The failure of democracy in Lilliput is thus much more than that: it is the loss of respect for the rule of law, which is more fundamental than democracy. Indeed, democracy can only flourish in societies where at least two things are in place. Firstly, citizens must have access to information. Where the media are tightly controlled by the state, and other voices suppressed, citizens (especially the majority poor) are deprived of the right to be properly informed of what is happening in the nation and the choices before them. Illiteracy, ignorance, and willful misinformation undermine democracy.

But, secondly, and most importantly, democracy assumes that the majority of citizens cherish freedom: freedom of thought, of worship and of expression. Indeed, that the majority of citizens have a moral outlook, willing to resist tyranny even when it costs them. All dictators can only succeed because they have millions of “yes men” and “yes women” to do their bidding. Some of these are bureaucrats or highly-paid professionals (such as those who design websites and marketing campaigns). Schools and religious institutions, even universities, promote passive conformity rather than conversations about freedom, justice and truth.

Isn’t it an illusion to think that we can have a democratic society based purely on laws and “procedures”, without paying any attention to the moral formation of individual citizens? The kind of people we are -and become- shapes the kind of society we have (though it is also true that the kind of society we live in shapes what we become).  Honesty and integrity are the presupposition of public life, not their product.  The parties to an agreement must already have a sense of what is right, and a willingness to abide by it,  even when it is in their own interests not to do so. A contract is no contract at all if it is kept only when it is convenient to do so. Also, if elected representatives, and officials, cannot be trusted to be concerned with our interests, faith in democracy will wither.

This is a deep challenge to Western liberal democracies too. Versions of political liberalism that hold all morality to be purely a private matter, not to be taught through public education, are vulnerable not only to the charge of incoherence, but also to challenges from an increasing population of egoists who care for nobody’s well-being but their own.

Karin’s article on “The Fourth Cup of Tea” provoked some criticism, but not as much as we had expected. But let us move on from charitable actions by individuals to the more important issue of structural injustices.

The poor don’t really need us. Unless, of course, they are utterly destitute, severely sick or disabled, or the victims of war and natural disasters. What they need is not our charity, but a recognition by us of their rights. They want us to remove the barriers that we (the rich) have erected, locally and globally, that prevent them from participating in their own sustainable development. On the global level, this would mean such things as removing the massive subsidies given by rich nations to their agribusinesses, ending the discriminatory practices of taxes (tariffs) on imports from poor nations, access to the life-saving pharmaceuticals stolen from their forests, and a stop to the destruction of their water-sources, soil, wetlands and atmosphere by the luxury greenhouse emissions of the well-to-do.

Americans are among the most generous and kindhearted people I know. But it is difficult for them to accept that their lifestyles are actually subsidized by the world’s poor. It is why books such as Mortensen’s are “inspiring” to conservatives, but a Chomsky or a Pilger instantly demonized (if they are read at all).

Despite all the rhetoric about “market efficiency” and “foreign aid”, the net financial flows in the world economy every year are not from the rich to the poor but from the poor to the rich. Debt repayments, tariffs on exports and falling prices of agricultural goods caused by rich nations’ farm subsidies mean that the low-income nations transfer to the rich nations around $50-60 billion a year more than what they receive in so-called aid. We need to add to this figure the cost to the poor of the export to rich nations of engineers, scientists, doctors and accountants, most of whom have been trained in state institutions at local taxpayers’ expense (and they are actively recruited by rich governments and corporations). But to obtain a more accurate figure, one should also include the fortunes of Southern politicians and businessmen that are exported to banks in Europe and North America, and the profits of multinational corporations which are sent back to their parent base in the North.

Moreover, corruption in poor nations would not be possible without the tacit support, and often active involvement, of rich corporations, banks and governments in the North. For every bribe taken, there is a bribe offered. These bribes are stored, not in local banks, but in the banking system owned and controlled by the rich nations (including, in recent years, Dubai and Singapore). And what about the status of offshore tax havens (most of which are the playgrounds of super-rich American and European tourists)? These are major means of tax evasion and money laundering, and are homes to vast pools of speculative capital that destabilize poor economies. Billions of dollars, enough to pay for the entire primary health and education needs of the world’s developing countries, are being siphoned off through offshore companies and tax havens.

I asked an African friend of mine who once worked with a UN agency in Sri Lanka, “Have any of your colleagues chosen to work in the UN because they care about the poor in Sri Lanka?” He looked at me as if I had come from another planet: “Of course not”, he said, “it is a good career move to spend a few years in a place like Sri Lanka.” Now I am sure that there are many who are motivated by genuine compassion to work among war victims, abused women or the economic poor. But it is easy to become cynical of the “development game” (yet another high-priced “foreign consultant” being flown in for yet another seminar on poverty held in a luxury hotel; yet another “think-tank” or “policy institute” on poverty alleviation or conflict-resolution; yet another doctoral thesis or paper on these topics because the funds are readily available, but none of the results of the research ever circulate down to help the people who were interviewed, measured, or categorized and on whose hospitality the researcher depended). Poverty, almost as much as War, has become big business. So it is easy to be cynical when those who suffer are so often exploited, when they become stepping-stones to academic honour or personal fortune.

More than 200 years ago Adam Smith and William Pitt recommended that the American colonies concentrate on agricultural goods and leave manufactures to Europe which had a “comparative advantage” in that area. Americans are very fortunate in that their first Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, persuaded Congress in 1791 not to heed the economic wisdom of the day. Perhaps we should do the same for the poor of the world- suggest that they would do well to turn their backs on the high-priced “experts/consultants” from the IMF and World Bank or UNDP and even the “development NGO workers” who flock to them in their SUVs, and instead learn to trust more in their own abilities and pragmatic knowledge.



January 2010