Neo-liberals, development and solidarity

(Sept. 19, 2011)

I identify with an approach to development that emerges from social movements and emphasizes community participation and political engagement for health, education, employment, democracy, ecology and respect for diversity. In Latin America today, this approach is gaining ground.

Another approach (sometimes called neo-liberalism) facilitates the advance of globalized capitalism. It focuses strongly on infrastructure, industrialization and export-oriented market economies. An example is the Mesoamerican Integration and Development Project, a basket of initiatives commonly called Plan Puebla-Panama.

From the neo-liberal side in recent years, two books caught my attention.

In 2009, former Goldman Sachs investment banker Dambisa Moyo offered a sloppy rant called Dead Aid that became popular with ideologues who see no useful role for governments (except when they bail out errant bankers). In ways not helpful to her cause, Moyo conflates all kinds of development and loan packages into what she calls “aid.”

If she were only talking about the mega-scale World Bank or International Monetary Fund style of “aid,” we might find some common ground. But she does not distinguish between funding for mega-projects and aid that is delivered through non-governmental organizations, or between pre and post Cold War eras, or military aid and other kinds of aid.

Shrimp and other fishing boats at the pier in Bilwi (Puerto Cabezas), Nicaragua (2002)

In the book’s second half, Moyo dips into a grab-bag of ideas promoted by conservatives as solutions for developing countries.

  • Reduced trade barriers to improve access to northern markets by southern farmers—okay, but no mention is made of the differences between small-holder farmers and industrial-scale farming: if you attack small farmers, as in Mexico and Colombia, you get massive migration into cities and across borders and dependence on food imports.
  • Micro-credit—okay, but in the credit union/co-operative style of community development, not as training in capitalism.
  • “Property rights” that Moyo advocates so that poor people can have title to their homes and then use them as collateral in loans—but this requires land reform including urban land titles that the left always advocates and that the far right always blocks (and property rights must never be absolute, but always subject to consideration of the common good).

The Bottom Billion

More useful than Moyo is Paul Collier’s 2007 book, The Bottom Billion. While it is a conventional defence of growth as the way out, Collier’s precision about different approaches and particularly how most attention should be given to about 60 of the most impoverished countries merits consideration.

Even so, I would say that many countries that have supposedly escaped “the bottom billion” still maintain massive parts of their populations in conditions of extreme poverty (India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and perhaps China). The perspectives of social movements and NGOs give us insight into what happens to those who are marginalized within countries that seem to have escaped the bottom billion. Problems of governance, income distribution, natural resource management, and civil conflict continue even while macro-economic indicators show overall “improvement” in recent years.

But what if we take Collier at his word, and work in some North-South partnerships differently? Many countries are not mired in poverty in the way that they might once have been, but most people still face dramatic challenges. We work alongside partners who seek to address systemic justice questions in their countries just as we do in Canada.

Perhaps our discourse needs to shift a bit too. We’re not talking anymore about “third world” or even “five-sixths world,” but often about inequitable conditions within countries, including our own.

I like the trans-border coalition approach of groups like Common Frontiers and the World Social Forum: rather than blaming others for taking jobs, they build solidarity among, for example, energy or steel workers who face common challenges across borders—and sometimes the same employers.

In those countries that in Collier’s terms are “failing,” our work should strengthen civil society voices in the face of poverty reduction schemes imposed from outside that sometimes facilitate exploitation rather than human development.

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