John Gittings

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"Questions for the Decade of Decision"
The Guardian, 24 May 1990
Editorial on world poverty and climate change

[Thirty years ago, the BBC staged One World Week across its channels, to raise awareness on world poverty and climate change, and coinciding with the UN's Bergen Conference on Sustainable Development. The Guardian published this editorial in support (I wrote it as the paper's foreign leader-writer).
Also part of the week was the feature film The March, directed by David Wheatley and starring the Malian actor Malick Bowens as a charismatic Muslim leader from the Sudan who leads 250,000 Africans on a 3,000-mile march towards Europe with the slogan "We are poor because you are rich." Juliet Stevenson also starred as a conflicted UN official, and the film -- now mostly forgotten -- attracted wide attention.
The Guardian was not unusually far-sighted. Climate change and its likely consequences including desertification were well recognised, so was the poverty gap between North and South. And in its story of a desperate move to the North by refugees from the South (the film ends with them being blocked by military force on the coast of Spain) the film anticipates more recent events. The ending of the cold war was supposed to provide a new opportunity -- with funds released from the "peace dividend" -- to tackle these and other global challenges. But how far, in the end, have the policies and goals urged then by The Guardian and by informed international opinion actually been achieved?]

WHY SHOULD we be rich when they are poor? The question raised by the Bergen environmental conference is hauntingly familiar. But there are new reasons why the problems of starvation, under-privilege and exploitation in the Third World must be tackled with far greater urgency and clarity. We all know, even without the statistics for food consumption and infant mortality, that the absolute numbers of those living in misery have increased rather than decreased. We also know that the debt burden has worsened for many of those countries least able to afford it. We remember all the broken promises. Who was it who said at the World Food Conference in 1974 that "within a decade, no child will go to bed hungry, no family will fear for its next day's bread?" (answer, Henry Kissinger). Was it the last decade or the one before which they called The Decade of Development? We know, too, that it has been just the opposite, even if we did not notice the verdict of the Brandt Commission earlier this year that "the 1980s were virtually a lost decade.'
And, as the cold war fades, politicians have the mental time to spare for different sorts of doomsday scenarios. They should also have the cash to spend if there are going to be deep cuts in their war-making machines. But the single new factor which translates Third World poverty into a talking issue is one touching more closely on our own self-interest in the North, The greenhouse effect, rising seas, forced migrations... Beyond the occasional twinge of guilt that our consumerist sins are visited on those far away comes a more pressing concern that before long we may have to pay for them directly. As Gro Harlem Brundtland said at Bergen, the concept of interdependence ten years was only a moral question, But now "You cannot breathe the air, you cannot be secure without caring for others who are doing the same thing." If the 1990s are the Decade of Decision, we know that they are decisions which may affect us as well as them, for the next century, Our chickens (probably fed on diseased carcasses) have come home to roost in a circular demonstration of grisly, distinctly unpoetic, justice.
Feeling threatened personally by something which we could previously ignore may not be the most principled way to arrive at recognition of a problem which has been around for so long. But we should seize the opportunity offered by public concern. So, more importantly, should the Third World, which at last has something to bargain with. Why should it worry for a second about contributing to the green-house effect if its people can only stay alive by burning the rain forest? The argument has to rise above a flat discussion of bovine flatulence. Less constrained than the international TV consortium which is now staging One World Week, we do not necessarily have to exclude words like exploitation and colonialism. It is an unexpected bonus simply to be able to use again unfashionable terms like Third World. We must make sure that this will be One World Decade, not just Year or even merely Month before the bright candle of concern is snuffed out by next week’s programme schedules.
Yet it is characteristic of the haphazard way in which we tackle world problems that this one is being at last fully acknowledged when there seems less chance, and less time, to do anything serious about it than ever before. Of course there have been improvements in previous decades. The UNDP report, from which we print an extract today, is right to stress the gains made in investment in "human resources" which do not show on an ordinary balance sheet -- life expectancy, literacy, as well as (for some) a freer political environment. It is also true that a few Third World countries have shot ahead; everyone always mentions the lucky little Asian tigers. They have joined the Second World. But others have joined the Fourth and an entire continent -- Africa -- is very largely a disaster area.
The end of the European cold war is also double-edged, creating a new political necessity to provide aid to the dissolving socialist states which powerfully suggests that more for Eastern Europe will mean less tor the world's South. Another cause for gloom is simply the accumulated pessimism which stems from the many failures of so many years. Even the determined mood of Willy Brandt flagged at Bergen. He did not know whether the problem of world poverty could be solved. But he kept trying because "I do not have an alternative to behaving as if we could solve it."
The trouble is that the spirit of Good Samaritans like Mr Brandt -- and all those who are doing their TV bit -- may be absolutely willing. But it has to be fleshed out by the hard, impersonal reality of the actual One Economic World in which we live. It is simply not the case, as the 1989 OECD report on development sought to argue, that we were making tremendous headway until we "discovered acid rain." The Third World has been, is being, and will be screwed unless we do something very different from everything which has been done up till now. Intentions good or bad are subject to the larger logic of the world economy. Any idea that Third World countries could defend themselves against it by some form of self-reliance has been abandoned. It is not just Mao and African socialism which belong to the alternative roaders of the 1960s. It is the whole attempt to provide at least partial insulation from the dominant market forces of the rich world by tariffs and import substitution which has been abandoned,. The optimists say that the lesson of the little tigers can be copied elsewhere. A mixture of the market and State intervention to produce impressive rates of export- led growth is tempting, But how many Singapores or South Koreas can the world economy really accommodate? Most Third World countries now have nowhere else to go than the place which up till now gave them such a raw deal.
The other side of the coin bearing the benevolent head of Prince Charles carries the logo of the International Monetary Fund with its strictures on structural adjustment. Even those development economists who believe that the Fund is essentially right to demand deflation, no subsidies, and complete opening up to the world market regard it as totally ham-fisted in seeking to do in three years what could barely be achieved in fifteen. As for the East European countries this may not affect aid too badly but it will impact on the more vital area of foreign investment for the Third World. Already in Africa private foreign investment is negative almost everywhere except the Ivory Coast. Western business is excited by Budapest, not by Benin.
Yet Western environmental concerns offer the chance to strike a new historic bargain which reflect a real mutuality of interest, The North should be willing to offer cash now for future benefits which it regards as essential. Otherwise, as President Mugabe said in one of this week's TV debates, why should the South give up aspirations which are already a reality in the developed world? If we eliminate the causes of global warming today, it will not save the life of a single starving baby. The South also has an obligation, not only to the future but for the present, to eliminate the militarism and bureaucracy which in many countries discredits the case for special consideration. Both sides should attach a higher priority to regional stability than to arms sales: it is no accident that those countries dependent upon the super-powers generally spend more on weapons. Substantial sums could become available as Western arms spending is reduced, if the benefits of our own peace dividend are passed directly South,
The alternation of the terms of trade in favour of the developing countries is a far harder task which has to be tackled together with the debt problem which drains the South of funds for investment as well as trade, But if the North wishes to avoid a real-life March from the South, for whatever ambiguous mix of reasons, then the debts must be waived and the terms of trade changed so that Third World peasants and workers will have worthwhile jobs at homes. (The debt burden also decreases the ability of developing countries to purchase from abroad and thus increases unemployment in the North.) Any serious assault upon debt and trade requires a readiness so far evaded by the North to pay more for primary products from the South, and to accept higher consumer costs, It also requires a new international mechanism for raising funds which can be used either for direct aid and investment, or to buy out debt and subsidise commodity prices. In the past the UN has made a general levy to finance its peace keeping forces. Why not a supra-national levy on the rich countries to finance a global lifesaving force?
All the practical arguments, plus the environment, plus human morality,make a case which we ignore at what may soon be our terminal peril. Twenty years ago Barbara Ward described our time as "the hinge of history," in which "the door of the future is opening onto a crisis more sudden, more inescapable than any ever encountered by the human species". The door is already wide open, and the unknown is at our feet.

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