excerpts from the book

World Poverty

the No-Nonsense guide

by Jeremy Seabrook

New Internationalist / Verso, 2003


John Berger

The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied... but written off as trash.

According to the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, different parts of the country draw migrants from different countries. Overall, the greatest percentage of undocumented migrants comes from Mexico (54 per cent). In California, out of an annual total of some 200,000, it is thought 64,000 are from Mexico, 23,000 from the Philippines and 1,000 from China. In New York, out of about 154,000, there are 25,000 from the former Soviet Union, 21,000 from the Dominican Republic and 11,000 from China. In Florida, out of 79,000, 22,000 are from Cuba, 8,000 from Haiti and 4,000 from Colombia. In New Jersey, out of 63,000, 6,000 are from India, 5,000 from Dominican Republic, 3,000 from Colombia.

Poverty USA

Writer Barbara Ehrenreich spent months living in the low-wage economy of America, to see how difficult it was to survive. She worked waitressing, in a care home, marketing and cleaning. She offers great insight into the invisibles, whose labor is unnoticed, who go to and from work at unpredictable hours. At times, she had to take two jobs to make ends meet. Finding affordable accommodation is an heroic undertaking, even trailers and rented rooms proving beyond the means of the low paid. Having paid rent, and waiting for a pay check, she has no money for food. Following labyrinthine inquiries, she learns that food vouchers are available for the working poor. 'My dinner choices... are limited to any two of the following: one box spaghetti noodles, one jar spaghetti sauce, one can of vegetables, one can of baked beans, one pound of hamburger, a box of Hamburger Helper, or a box of Tuna Helper. No fresh fruit or vegetables, no chicken or cheese, and oddly, no tuna to help out with. For breakfast I can have cereal and milk or juice... Bottom line: $7.02 worth of food acquired in 70 minutes of calling and driving, minus $2.80 for the phone calls."

Ehrenreich also writes of the disappearing poor. Quoting from an article by James Fallows, she says of the blindness of the affluent: 'As public [state] schools and other public services deteriorate, those who can afford to do so send their children to private schools and spend their off-hours in private spaces - health clubs, for example, instead of the local park. They don't ride on public buses and subways. They withdraw from mixed neighborhoods into distant suburbs, gated communities or guarded apartment towers; they shop in stores that, in line with the prevailing "market segmentation", are designed to appeal to the affluent alone. Even the affluent young are increasingly unlikely to spend their summers learning how the "other half' lives, as lifeguards, waitresses or housekeepers at resort hotels. The New York Times reports that they now prefer career-relevant activities like summer school or interning in an appropriate professional setting to the sweaty, low-paid and mindnumbing slots that have long been their lot.'

Everyone knows unemployment creates poverty. But full employment, too, has the same effect if people are not paid a living wage. Ehrenreich says that in 1999 Massachusetts food pantries reported a 72-per-cent increase in demand for their services over the previous year. The percentage of Wisconsin food-stamp families in 'extreme poverty' - less than 50 per cent of the federal poverty line - has tripled in the last decade.

Anti-poverty agency Bread for the World states that 33 million people - including 13 million children - live in households that experience hunger or the risk of hunger. This represents one in ten households in the US.

In August 2000 19.7 million people participated in the food-stamp program. The US Conference of Mayors reported in 2002 that requests for emergency food assistance increased by an average of 19 per cent. The study found that 48 per cent of those requesting emergency food assistance were members of families with children and that 38 per cent of adults requesting such assistance were employed.

America's Second Harvest, the nation's largest network of food banks, reports that 23.3 million people turned to the agencies they serve in 2001, an increase of over two million since 1997 - 40 per cent were from working families.

Locking the poor away

There is another reason why the poor are inconspicuous: so many are locked up. The US presents the strange paradox of a society which constantly professes its devotion to freedom in an aggressively carceral society: a higher percentage of its people is jailed than in any other country in the world. That these people are, overwhelmingly, poor and black is no secret.

Since felons are subsequently disfranchised, the US now has 1.75 million people disqualified from voting because of their criminality- 1.4 million black men have forfeited their right to vote, almost 15 per cent of the black male population.

Between 1980 and 1996 the US prison population rose from 1,330,000 to 1,630,940 and has since risen above 2 million. During that time, prison spending rose from $4 billion to $40 billion. Including all those passing through the judicial system at any one time, some four million are caught up in the mechanisms of justice.

With privatization of the prison system, punishment is a major source of economic growth. What more effective way of placing the poor out of sight of respectable citizens? Of course, this is no new thing, as any student of the Poor Law in Britain will be aware - incarceration in the workhouse in the l9th century was also an attempt to compel the persistent and willful poor to conform to values devised by the possessing classes.

In the 15 years after 1982, almost 50 new prisons were built in New York State alone, at a cost of $5 billion. Blacks are almost eight times more likely to be imprisoned than whites. At 1997 prices, it cost nearly $150,000 for the construction of each new cell. The cost of maintaining a prisoner is about $50,000 a year. ln spite of this, 47 per cent of prisoners released in New York re-offend within a year.

Britain cannot match this level of imprisonment, although in February 2003 it had the distinction in the European Union of overtaking Portugal with the proportion of its population it now locks up.

There is another secret about poverty buried in the statistics. Crime has another social role - it represents the privatization of social justice. Collective action for self-improvement has been delegitimized, done away with by official declarations over the death of socialism. Crime is the response of individuals to socially created wrongs: it is both a caricature of mainstream values (criminals, too, show great enterprise and ingenuity in their operations), and a celebration of heroic individualism at the heart of capitalism-made-global.

Women work two-thirds of the world's working hours, produce half the world's food, yet earn only 10% of the world's income and own less than 1% of the world's property.

Three families - Bill Gates, the Sultan of Brunei and the Walton family (Wal-Mart) - have a combined wealth of some $135 billion. This equals the annual income of 600 million people living in the world's poorest countries

Identifying poverty


* The richest fifth of the world's people consume 45% of the world's meat and fish; the poorest fifth 5%

* The richest fifth consume 58% of total energy, the poorest fifth less than 4%

* The richest fifth have 74% of all telephone lines, the poorest fifth 1.5%

* The richest fifth use 84% of all paper, the poorest 20 per cent 1.1 %

* The richest fifth own 87% of the world's vehicles, the poorest fifth less than 1 %.


* There are today about one billion non-literate adults; two-thirds of them are women, of whom 98% live in developing countries

* 52% of non-literates live in India and China

* In sub-Saharan Africa, primary school enrollment has declined from 58% to 50% since 1980

* In the least developed countries 45% of children do not attend school

* Per-capita income in countries with a literacy rate of less than 55% averages about $600

* In countries with a literacy rate between 55% and 84% income averages $2,400

* Where the literacy rate is between 85% and 95% income reaches $3,700

* Countries with a literacy rate above 96% have an income of $12,600

Life expectancy

* In the richest countries, average life expectancy climbed from about 67 years in 1950 to 77 in 1995

* In the developing countries it grew from 40 to 64 years

* In the least developed countries it has increased from 36 to 52 years, although in large parts of Africa it is falling once more as a result of HIV/AIDS

* In 1950 287 children in every 1,000 born in the developing world would die before reaching the age of five. By 1995 this had dropped to 90.

Least developed countries

These are the countries which the UN believes, by a variety of measures, have the most 'development' still to do.

Burkina Faso
Cape Verde
Central African Republic
Democratic Republic of Congo
Equatorial Guinea
Myanmar (Burma)
Sao Tome & Principe
Sierra Leone
Solomon Islands
Western Samoa

Global poverty is not a matter of lack of resources but a consequence of economic control by the rich countries.

'Development'... was a strategy formulated the beginning of the Cold War. The competitive battle with Communism (which broke out in open warfare in Korea and Vietnam) was to last until the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1990. Over time, 'development' became a showy display of affluence, in contrast to the austerity associated with socialist economies.

Bangladeshi economist Anisur Rahman recognized this early on. 'It was the threat of Bolshevik revolution inspiring social revolutions in the Third World that was countered by a promise of "development" to help the underdeveloped societies to catch up with the "developed". Development was defined exclusively as economic development, reducing the degree of progress and maturity in a society to be measured by the level of its production."

'Development' evokes organic growth, flowering and maturation, not only of the human being but of nature itself - a process inherent in the very birth of 'new' countries in Asia and Africa. It also smuggled in the idea that 'underdeveloped' countries were infants, their destiny was to grow up like those which had once cast themselves as 'mother-countries'. Thus racism continued to dominate Western attitudes towards the countries they had dispossessed in the colonial period. The concept of 'emerging' countries strengthened a sense of dateless non-being out of which they had come - darkness, ignorance, the womb. The association of development with 'growth' made it easy to identify it with constant economic expansion.

The creation of wealth was central to the Western model. It seemed obvious that a system which could produce so much would easily abolish poverty. The accumulation of goods masked other realities - for instance, that the richest societies in the world were increasingly blemished by crime, violence, addictions, social breakdown and psychic disorder. In other words, the true cost of its version of riches did not appear in the apparent price.

Many Third World leaders were suspicious of the change of heart of former imperialists. They sought to vary, but not to question, the basic developmental paradigm. They came up with 'human development', 'indigenous development', 'participatory development', building on the capacities of their peoples. A more recent form is 'sustainable development', which the West has re-colonized: it now means whatever the rich can get away with. Since then, 'post-development' has emerged, with its suggestion that we are already living in a kind of blessed afterlife.

While development was pitted against its socialist rival, its promises remained largely in the realm of fantasy. Poor people regarded it with skepticism, concerned as they were with filling their bellies, finding shelter from the monsoon rains, clean water, healthcare and the safe passage through childhood of a new generation.

The existence of the alternative - Communism - held the world in frozen immobility for half a century. The dissolution of the USSR, however, didn't only vanquish the rival to 'development'. It also called the bluff of the developmental mirage that the West had promoted. The time had come for the world to call in the promises made in the heat of rivalry. Could they be realized? Could the West deliver?

The benefits of the Western way of wealth are not in doubt, although they remain out of reach for the majority of humanity. Everywhere in the world people have voted with their feet, seeking out the golden realms of peace and plenty. Graduates from all over the South queue up to work as houseboys or maidservants in Jeddah or Abu Dhabi, as factory labor in economic priority zones all over Asia, as fast-food servers in the have-a-nice-day culture of Europe and North America. Some have traveled in leaky boats to pick potatoes or beet in the icy winter dawns of Northern Europe or, packed into refrigerated containers and suffocating trucks, sometimes perished in pursuit of oppressive labor at destinations they never reached.

It has seemed to more and more people that the good things promised will not come to them: these would have to be sought out in the places where they have accumulated in bewildering profusion.

The epic migrations of our time are a response to promises of modernization and progress. Are the caravans of hope now crossing the world following pathways to prosperity, or merely tracing to its source the agent of their impoverishment? There is a severe prohibition on economic migrants, painted as the chancers and opportunists of the world, who seek to pass through barriers made porous by globalization. Suffering peoples, once lured by promises of improvement so that they should not be tempted by the doubtful attractions of socialism, now face barbed wire, No Entry signs and armed guards at the corners of closed-off avenues of global mobility.

The flaws in the capitalist model, concealed by the glaring defects of its ideological rival, are now clearer. The West will share with the world, not its wealth but the mysteries of its capacity for wealth-creation. The messages, however, omit certain details, the most important being that the West grew rich by the exploitation of the very territories and peoples it now exhorts to follow in its footsteps. Indeed, the best-kept secret of 'development' is that it is a colonial concept, a project of extraction. Since most countries have no colonial possessions from which wealth may be squeezed, they must place intolerable pressure on their own people and environment. The rights of minorities are violated, the resource-base of forest people and subsistence farmers plundered to earn foreign exchange, the labor of the poor sold to the lowest bidder, 'surplus population' moved as settlers into ancestral homelands of tribal and indigenous peoples.

A system of limitless economic expansion in a limited world - this is the ideology of development. It is no more capable of being realized now than it was when inhibited by the controls of socialism.

Institutionalizing development

Unfair development has been institutionalized. It lies in the mechanisms that 'manage' globalization, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the World Trade Organization, transnational companies and governments of the rich countries. These preach a fictitious doctrine of 'free' markets.

'Freedom' in the economic sphere is code for whatever advantages the world's wealthy people. Free trade is no such thing. Poor farmers in the South cannot compete with the European Union and America, whose governments pay vast subsidies to their own food producers. 'Free markets', similarly, are a myth. Money moves freely around the world at a touch of a button, and some commodities may move too (subject to quotas and tariffs), but human beings (or 'labor', as they appear in the economic calculus) are severely controlled - as panic over 'economic migrants' in Europe shows.

The IMF and World Bank were set up at the end of World War Two to help reconstruct Europe after the ravages of war. They were to provide unconditional loans to avoid economic crises and to steady exchange rates. The growth of these institutions was phenomenal: they financed infrastructural and developmental projects in the South in the 1960s, became agents for recycling the capital generated by oil price increases of the 1970s. They provided the loans to the countries of the South which created the debt crisis. The IMF moved in with structural-adjustment programs which pressured countries to export more in order to 'service' that debt, even if this meant increasing poverty.

Debt is a major tool for control. The indebtedness of people of the West keeps them in line: students leaving university owe thousands of dollars for an education already consumed; people will 'own' their houses courtesy of a 'redemption day' 25 years hence. Everything, from the goods people take on credit to the pensions they hope to enjoy, ties individuals to a global financial system. How much more powerful is debt in attaching whole countries to a global order from which there is no escape!

Under the neoliberal ideology of the 1980s (the 'Washington Consensus'), the IMF became the enforcer of the integration of all countries into the global economy. The answer to debt was further loans and new 'conditionalities' - liberalizing the economy, opening up domestic markets to competition, deregulation, devaluation of the currency (to increase 'competitiveness') and cuts in government spending (except on arms, purchased mostly from the 'advanced' industrial countries). These cuts were overwhelmingly in healthcare, education, nutrition and welfare services, which impoverished people already poor. Indebted countries were also compelled to export more to 'earn' the money to 'honor' the debt. Since many compete in exporting primary commodities like coffee, sugar, cocoa, or manufactured goods like garments, shoes and toys, prices are continuously falling. They must then export more and more to earn the same amount.

Jubilee 2000 campaigned worldwide for the G-7 and financial institutions to forgive the debt of the poorest countries: 24 million people signed the largest petition ever seen. By the end of the campaign in December 2000 it was clear that debt cancellation didn't match the rhetoric of the powerful. The Jubilee Debt Campaign is the successor to Jubilee 2000 and carries forward the pressure on decision-makers for debt cancellation and poverty reduction. The movement has a base in many countries across the world.

Identical programs were forced upon all countries by the IMF, increasing debt and dependency. In parallel, negotiations of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade became institutionalized in the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995. This was supposed to set up a rules-based system for implementing global compliance with a highly skewed version of 'free trade'. Poor countries would have to open themselves up to the rich countries for agricultural imports and industrial manufactures, as well as to the service sector, not only in finance and banking but also electricity, water and power, telecommunications and the 'cultural products' of media conglomerates.

The drug companies Pfizer, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Abbot Laboratories, Merck & Co, which manufacture the anti-retroviral drugs that inhibit the progress of AIDS, were major donors to George W Bush's election campaign in 2000. At a meeting of the WTO in Doha in November 2001 it was agreed that the poorest countries be permitted to buy cheaper drugs in the interests of public health.

The Bush Administration is pressuring countries which make cheaper versions of the anti-AIDS drugs to observe the rigorous patent laws designed to protect 'intellectual property rights'. Despite the administration's donation of $15 billion to alleviate AIDS, it is threatening producer countries of very much cheaper 'generic' drugs with economic sanctions if they export them to Africa at prices that undercut those of the main transnational companies. Jean-Pierre Garnier, CEO of GlaxoSmithKline.

There is one rule for the G7 (richest countries) and another for the South. The G7 now preaches open economies and liberalization, as well as 'good governance' and 'transparency'. Yet none of these things was conspicuous when the West grew rich. In

Britain industrialization took place without democracy. It was constructed on the wealth extracted from empire and never had the slightest pretensions to free trade. After 1945 Japan became industrially powerful thanks to government protection for its growing industrial base.

Most Western countries provide basic welfare for their most vulnerable, medical care for the aged, support for the long-term sick and disabled, and for those thrown out of work by cyclical or structural economic change.

Yet the South is expected to develop without such protection. It is instructed to open itself up to organizations even more powerful than governments - multinational companies which in some cases have a turnover greater than the country in which they are investing. In 2000 the Institute of Policy Studies revealed that of the world's largest 100 economic entities, 51 are now corporations and 49 countries. The 22 largest entities are countries, with Turkey just ahead of General Motors. After Denmark follow Wal-Mart, Exxon Mobil, Ford Motor and DaimlerChrysler. Indonesia and Greece are slightly ahead of Mitsui, Mitsubishi, Toyota, General Electric, Itochu and Royal Dutch/Shell, which are all bigger than Venezuela, Iran and Israel.

Democracy, too, is undermined by the work of the IMF and World Bank. Over and above the welfare of people, giving priority to foreign investors and financial markets is the price paid by governments of the South for 'stability'. Indeed, this is often a precondition of their 'electability'. Countries like Cuba, which refuse to follow the Western model, have been the object of sabotage and continuous propaganda. Life is easier for elites of the countries that go along with the 'advice' offered by their Western mentors.

After all, the interests of ruling classes everywhere coincide. The rewards from the privatization of public assets fill their pockets, permit them to travel abroad for healthcare (their own systems being inadequate), to send their children to study in the US or Europe (their own education system being run down by neglect), to own property in California or London (in case they are ever driven into exile by ungrateful electorates) .

The World Bank and the IMF are controlled by the governments of the world's richest countries. The G-7 together have more than 40 per cent of the directors' votes. The US holds 16.45 per cent of the votes at the World Bank and 17 per cent of those at the IMF. Since an 85-per-cent majority is required for the most important decisions, the US effectively has the power of veto.

The Bretton Woods Project (an organization set up specifically for the reform of the IMF and World Bank) revealed that an 'internal World Bank report - The Effect of the IMF and World Bank on Poverty by William Easterly- has concluded that the poor are better off without structural adjustment'. The report says the poor 'may be ill-placed to take advantage of the opportunities created by structural adjustment programs', which suggests it is the fault of poor people themselves - for being so uneducated and unskilled.

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