Wage war on poverty
by David Ransom
New Internationalist magazine,
James Wolfensohn, President of the World
Bank, appeared on television in Britain shortly after the catastrophe
on 11 September and concluded that poverty is now the greatest
economic challenge facing the world. He is one of very few metropolitan
mandarins to have broken ranks and opened up debate in recent
weeks. For the most part the pillars of the global economy have
seen it as their duty to remain unruffled, to radiate confidence.
Not so at 'Ground Zero' on Wall Street.
Here dealers precipitated the biggest stock-market crash since
the Great Depression. Fears grew that the destruction of the Twin
Towers would tip an already 'teetering' world economy over the
brink into full-blown recession. Manic uncertainty prevailed.
If there's one racing certainty, however,
it is that the cost of any recession would fall most heavily on
those least able to bear it. In the Great Depression of the 1930s
the privations in poor Southern countries far exceeded those in
the North. More recently, during the 1989 currency crisis in Argentina,
the incidence of poverty all but doubled, to an astonishing 47
per cent of the population; in Russia it increased from 22 per
cent to 33 per cent following the collapse of 1998.'
Lest we forget, half of humanity already
lives on the equivalent of just two dollars a day or less. More
than a billion people live on less than one dollar a day. This
outrage visits agonizing death on millions of innocent people,
including children, every day. As things stand, there is no prospect
of a remedy within the meagre life expectancy of its billions
of potential victims. Rather, inequalities are spiraling out of
control, to what the UN Development Programme calls 'historically
unprecedented' levels. This represents an ocean of humiliation
and suffering, of violence against the dignity of human life,
from which indiscriminate outbursts of homicidal rage are surely
more - and certainly not less - likely to surface.
Yet, by any orthodox economic measure,
the world economy was until quite recently in rude good health,
particularly in the US. We are now being told that only the mighty
consumers of America can save us from recession - by consuming
even more. Unfortunately, their ability to do so rests on an over-inflated
bubble of consumer credit, and on the ability of the US to run
a ballooning trade deficit, thereby consuming the rest of the
world's resources as well.
No wonder the US Government therefore
feels compelled to project military might. But, as the days passed
after 11 September, calls for a military 'firework display' became
strangely muted. Consumers were urged to 'go shopping for freedom',
but their loss of confidence evidently related quite as much to
the prospect of an endless, ill-defined 'war on terrorism' as
to terrorism itself
Gigantic sums of public money have now
been spirited into existence as if from thin air: $40 billion
for 'reconstruction', $15 billion for 'airlines'; $18 billion
for the 'military-industrial complex'; untold support for insurance
and finance houses; $500 million by way of a bribe to the military
dictatorship in Pakistan; a blank cheque for the war on terrorism
itself. The anticipated US Government budget surplus of $173 billion
was 'made available' within a matter of days.
In practice, this money goes straight
into the pockets of the already rich and powerful. It is, nonetheless,
three times what the UN says is required to eliminate the very
worst kind of poverty from the world - a sum which the wealthiest
nations have sagely dismissed as impossibly vast up to now. The
resources, it is evident, are not lacking. What we lack is the
political will to fight a war on poverty, rather than terrorism.
But that political will could emerge once it becomes clear that
a war on terrorism is impossible either to fight or to end. A
war on poverty would, after all, be more effective in restraining
terrorism - and more likely to succeed. It would be waged against
an easily identifiable enemy: and a start could be made by cancelling
the $59 million a day the world's poorest people are still required
f to give their creditors.
But a serious war on poverty would also
entail some check on the increasingly liquid movement of money
around the world. Here there is a sickening twist. Immediately
prior to 11 September dealers with foreknowledge were evidently
making fortunes for the terrorist cause on financial markets.
In its wealth and sophistication Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda group
has, like the drug cartels, come to resemble a transnational corporation.
All such financial transactions will have to be brought under
much stricter democratic control in future. Hitherto this has
been rejected as both undesirable and impossible. If it turns
out to be possible after all, then so are desirable democratic
measures like a 'Tobin' tax on speculation, properly deployed
to reverse the downward spiral of inequality.
A strategy that pins our fate to a war
on terrorism backed by excessive consumption in America - or anywhere
else for that matter - will ultimately blow up in our faces. A
war on poverty, on the other hand, can and must be won.
David Ransom is a co-editor of the Nl
based in Oxford. firstname.lastname@example.org