Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for May 2013

“Give a person a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. So runs a popular traditional adage about economic development.

But poor fishing communities don’t need us to teach them how to fish. They may have much to teach us about more sustainable fishing practices. We are not the ones denuding their lakes and oceans, or polluting them with our refuse. And what if they are unable to fish, not because they lack the skills, but because the fishing rights to their rivers and lakes have been sold by their governments to foreign corporations and governments as a way of servicing the nation’s external debt?

Libraries groan under the weight of academic theses and books analysing poverty and theorising about development. They have provided employment and financial security to economists. They have done precious little for the world’s poor. The biggest single obstacle to ending poverty is not the lack of economic knowledge but the lack of political will. Politicians who truly care for the poor will somehow find pragmatic solutions rather than being bound by ideologies of the right or the left.

One doesn’t have to be a high-paid consultant or “poverty expert” to know that, for instance, corruption robs the poor; that social class is the principal determinant of school performance; that nutrition, healthcare and education are more vital for a nation’s security and well-being than missile systems, national airlines and superhighways. Yet the rich states continue to sell arms to poor nations and invest in projects that benefit their businesses more than the poor. Kofi Annan recently stated that capital flight from Africa to banks in the West (including tax havens which are British and American protectorates) amounts to three times what is given as official development aid.

The individualistic approach to poverty is most evident in organizations that promote child sponsorship programs. Whenever I visit friends in the US or Europe I often notice pictures of African or Asian children pasted on their fridge doors. They pray for these children, whom they have never met but know by name, and support them monthly through a non-governmental organization. I am impressed by their concern for children in the Two-Thirds World. (Rarely, however, do I see pictures of impoverished children from their own cities!). At the same time I share my reservations with them and also try to give them a bigger picture of what hinders the development of poor communities.

No doubt child sponsorship is a near-perfect marketing strategy for raising funds. That is why it persists despite repeated concerns expressed by local people. If the money raised does go to support a specific child, then there is at least a financial integrity about the program. But it raises some difficult questions. Who gets chosen and why? What about the children in the village or slum community who are left out? Since the cost of living varies enormously, how does a child-sponsoring organization based in the US determine that (say) $30 per month will meet the needs of a child in South Sudan, the Philippines or Bolivia? Are local economists and educationists consulted in the process? Never, in my experience. Quite simply someone or some group in the donor nation is employed to work out how much an average donor is willing to donate each month and this suddenly becomes what sponsorship costs! It has little to do with real costs on the ground. It’s also a very expensive process to manage, which means a large fraction of the money raised is swallowed up in the bureaucracy of the organization.

Many child sponsorship programmes have long moved away from real child sponsorship, and the photos and stories of children boil down to a means of hooking people into funding community development projects in which the children in the photos are among the beneficiaries. At a local development level this makes far more sense. At the fundraising level I think it does raise issues of integrity. Are the donors informed that this is how their funds are being used? Whatever the style of sponsorship, the process also inevitably exaggerates the importance of the donor over that of the local people providing the care and training on the ground.

The biggest and best-known of the child sponsorship organizations promises its donors, largely drawn from conservative evangelical American churches, that they will “present every child with an opportunity to become responsible and fulfilled Christian adults”. For those of us living in societies largely hostile to Christian faith, and where churches working with the poor are often accused of using financial help as an incentive to “conversion”, such promises send shivers up our spines. Are parents and guardians consulted? Or does the promise mean that only orphans are helped, and that parents who oppose their children being taught Bible stories will be sidelined? This, too, raises ethical concerns.

Moreover, when a sponsor asks on the organization’s website questions such as “Should I visit my sponsored child?”, it is other sponsors who reply, not local people on the ground.

There is no shortage of Christians in poor nations who have learned the skills necessary to court donors from rich nations. They know what is the “flavour of the month” where giving by evangelical Americans or Singaporeans is concerned. That foreign donors need to be educated does not seem to register on their thinking.

My Danish brother-in-law has been unemployed for more than six months. The economic situation in Scandinavia, though complained about by locals, is not as grim as in southern Europe. Spain recently announced that more than one in four people were out of work. Youth unemployment in Italy runs at nearly fifty per cent. People all over the world are desperate for jobs. And those who have jobs are desperate to keep them, at whatever cost. Under the present regime of global capitalism, small businesses struggle to survive, and self-employment is limited in scope.

On the one hand we are told that we live in an era of unparalleled freedom of choice. On the other hand, there is a profound sense of resignation to fate.  Managers complain that their decisions are controlled by impersonal “market forces”. They are compelled to “downsize” or move their operations elsewhere, otherwise they lose out. When profits dip, workers are laid off. Nobody thinks of a proportionate pay cut across the board. Thus the paradox we see today of prosperous stock markets and struggling economies.

The values espoused by capitalism are not optional for people who wish to remain employed. Worldwide, few labourers can choose to work part-time or with flexible hours in the interest of being available to their families. We are forced on to a treadmill of consumption in a 24/7 economy. Unbridled capitalism demands that we prioritize work over family, greed over generosity, shareholders over employees and neighbours. Like Marxism, this is a fundamentalist religious faith.

Thus it is not new technology per se that puts people out of work. Rather, technology that goes hand-in-hand with a particular mindset. According to the latter human beings are expendable,  simply means towards the end of ever-increasing profit. The few who keep their jobs are highly paid but over-worked. The many who lose their jobs find that the social security network is simultaneously being dismantled. There also seems little opportunity for work outside regular employment.

A dysfunctional work environment where individuals are discounted also affects those who remain employed. A study in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet showed that workers who kept their jobs during a major downsizing were twice as likely to die from cardiovascular disease, perhaps triggered by work stress.

The wise employer, unlike the neo-classical economic theorist, knows that people don’t work just for money. Work is an important aspect of human fulfilment. Our self-esteem is bound up with what we do. As long as they perceive their work to be interesting and useful, men and women  are usually willing to do it for less pay. Meaning is often more attractive than a bigger salary.

The best description I have come across of what forced unemployment does to sensitive men and women (of whatever age) is the following passage from the Chilean writer Isabel Allende’s novel Of Love and Shadows:

“His activities in the union were a stigma, in the eyes of the new authorities. First they watched him, then they hounded him; finally, they fired him. Without a job and without hope of finding another, he began to decline. Pale and wan, he shambled through nights of insomnia and days of humiliation. He had pounded at many doors, suffered long hours in waiting rooms, answered advertisements in newspapers and, at the end of the road, found crushing hopelessness. Without a job, he gradually lost his identity. He would have accepted any offer, however mean the pay, because he desperately needed to feel useful. As a man without employment, he was an outsider, anonymous, ignored by all because he was no longer productive, and that was the measure of a man in the world he lived in.

During recent months he had abandoned his dreams, renounced his goals, considered himself a pariah. His children could not understand his constant bad humour and unremittent melancholy: they looked for jobs washing cars, carrying shopping bags from the market, performing any task to bring home a little money. The day his youngest son put on the kitchen table the few coins he had earned walking rich men’s dogs, Javier cringed like a cornered animal. Since that moment, he never looked anyone in the eyes: he sank into total despair. He often lacked the will to dress and spent a large part of the day in bed. His hands trembled after he began to drink secretly, feeling even more guilty for draining much-needed money from his family. On Saturdays he made an effort to be clean and neat when he showed up at his parents’ home, in order not to distress his family further, but he couldn’t erase the desolation from his face.

His relations with his wife disintegrated; in such circumstances love grows weary. He needed consolation but, at the same time, reacted with fury at the slightest gleam of pity… Apathy enveloped him like a cloak, obliterating any notion of the present, sapping his strength, and stripping him of courage. He moved like a shadow. He ceased to feel he was a man as he watched his home collapsing about him and the light of love dying in his wife’s eyes. At some moment that his family was too close to perceive, his will snapped. He lost his desire to live, and decided to seek his death.”

This should be read by all politicians, business employers and armchair economists.



May 2013