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Making Poverty History or Understanding the History of Poverty

by Issa Shivji


Simply joining the throb to make poverty history will never be sufficient to banish injustice, writes Issa Shivji. Rather, in order to make poverty history, the history of poverty must be understood.


The GG8 (Geldof & Group of 8) fanfare in Gleneagles, Scotland is over. Its slogan was `Make Poverty History`. Originally this was the slogan of well-meaning NGOs and concerned young people who could not stomach the outrageous poverty of millions in the South existing side by side with the filthy wealth of a tiny minority on this planet.


The richest 225 people in the world own a combined wealth equal to the annual income of almost half the population of the earth. 1.2 billion of humanity exists in subhuman conditions at less than a dollar a day when 4 per cent of the wealth of these filthy rich 225 persons would be sufficient to pay the additional costs to achieve and maintain universal access to basic education, health care, maternity care, adequate food, safe water and sanitation for the whole human race.


The statistics are not new. They have been well known. Now even the perpetrators of the system which produces and reproduces this inhuman system quote them – of course for their own purpose.


But as these things go, the politicians of the system (euphemistically called globalisation) co-opted the slogan. The fun-idols of the well-meaning but naïve, privileged youth of the North were accommodated as the likes of Geldof were knighted by the queen and appointed to Blair’s Africa Commission to rub shoulders with the presidents of the African poor.


The point is that while it is necessary to campaign to Make Poverty History and shame the shameless classes of exploiters and oppressors and win over the uncommitted, it is not sufficient. To make poverty history, we must understand the history of poverty.


Poverty is neither our fate nor God-given. It did not and has not existed from time immemorial. It was not invented by the West either. It was created by them, who invaded our countries and imposed their system which continues to siphon off resources from the continent.


The history of the plunder and pillage of the African continent through the slave trade and colonialism; neo-colonialism and imperialism is known - although these days not taught in our schools since they have become “international” academies. If this was only history, we could have perhaps forgiven, although, not forgotten. But it is not just history. It is our present. New forms of slavery and colonialism and imperialism packaged and labelled in different forms continue unabated.


The mainstream media and politicians including our globalisation-friendly presidents and prime ministers continue to beg for forgiveness of debt and go round with a begging bowl to alleviate poverty. Yes, indeed, even preparation of Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSP) comes as a condition of aid. And as a further condition of aid we hire 1000-dollar a day consultants to help us draft those papers, all part of “aid”.


Meanwhile, we shower praises and send congratulatory messages to Mr Tony Blair for taking upon himself to chit-chat with his fellow G8’s on African poverty.


What is in there for the Blairs, Browns and Bushes of this world at this time to Brownwash (courtesy World Development Movement, WDM) African aid, debt and poverty? As I said, there are many a well-intentioned people in the North who have been campaigning to Make Poverty History. But also there are those – who are usually painted by the mainstream media with the brush of anti-this or anti-that minority “bent on violence” - who have and are going beyond it to understand the history and politics of poverty.


Martin Curtis, the head of WDM and a well-known British historian, says that the British Government has a political and an economic goal behind taking up the question of African poverty. The political goal is to maintain a big power status for Britain. “This boils down to invading a country from time to time, retaining nuclear weapons to make sure we can obliterate most of the world several times over, and professing our total support for US foreign policy.”

“The economic goal is to organise the global economy, and particular regions, so that the Middle East, southern Africa and South East Asia work in the interests of Western and British corporations.” Only ignoramuses would challenge this analysis.


The neo-liberal policies thrust upon African countries are clearly to integrate the continent further in the web of exploitative relationships and thus profit from the enormous resources of the continent. The US has now significantly moved its attention to Africa’s oil, as Middle East sources become more unstable due to the political resistance of the Arab masses which continue to simmer to a boiling point.


Britain’s interest is to develop African markets not only to dump its goods but also to sell services, the so-called invisibles. It thus firmly supports the privatisation and commoditization of water, energy, heath care, education, and land. We have had a taste of what this means for the “poor” in Tanzania.

A British secret Foreign Office file from 1968 says: “We should bend our energies to help produce a world economic climate in which our external trade, our income from invisibles and our balance of payments can prosper.”

In effect therefore it should not come as a surprise to anybody when Blair wields the carrot of aid and debt relief with one hand, while using the stick of World Bank-IMF-WTO rules and conditionality on liberalising and privatising the economy, with the other.


The Geldof-type Live Aid Bands and musical shows assuage the conscience of the wealthy inhabitants of the North while giving political legitimacy to the military interventions and political interferences of Western leaders in the lives and affairs of the African people – ninety per cent of whom have now been labelled “poor” and therefore disabled to resist and fight for their own salvation.


No need to cite another string of statistics. Just one may suffice. The 2002 Human Development Report of UNDP computes that developing countries lose more than twice in debt servicing what they get in net foreign investment, aid and grants to NGOs combined.


The Bob Geldofs of this world need to pay heed to their fellow campaigners like Martin Curtis when they say:


“We should not only be ratcheting up campaigning on individual issues. We also need to unite in a campaign to fundamentally change the system.”

Our own media and NGOs and the angry youth need to understand this message even more and not simply get subsumed in the globalisation mania in return for a few “trinkets” thrown on our NGO tables.


© 2005, Issa Shivji. Issa Shivji is Professor of Law at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Reprinted with permission.

Posted  August 02, 2005

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