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Can Developing Countries Retain Genuine Independence in Today’s World?

8 Mar 2004



The Barry Amiel And Norman Melburn Trust/ New Statesman Prize For New Political Writing 2003 – 24/02/03

Can Developing Countries Retain Genuine Independence in Today’s World?

The back of toilet doors is always a source of amusement. Depending on where you are you can read anything from “down with American imperialism” to “Tasha luvs Mark” and of course, the most often quoted “I woz ere 2003”. Yet my recent loo experience courtesy of the British Museum, London, England told tales of a different kind. I quote:

“So how is everyone enjoying the stolen goods?”

“It’s horrid”

“Hate to sound all colonial but if they hadn’t been stolen they wouldn’t exist anymore”

The British Museum is a truly amazing feat. The curators and organisers have done a splendid job at making the museum an enjoyable and contemporary place to visit. Its educational value is simple and immense; it is a knowledge house showing wonderful historical artefacts and sculptures spanning years of millennia. Yet comments like the above prove that the British Museum possesses additional educational value, one that is underlying, deep-seated and beyond the naked eye.

Northern-based museums filled with historical artefacts from all over the world directly speak the language of expropriation, however; in the awe of the great mummies from Egypt most people seem to forget how they came to stand on Great Russell Street, WC1. Then again, as the loo door suggests, if this is thought about it is later rationalised by stating that the artefacts would no longer exist. But where is the proof? Who is to say that developing nations would not also see the beauty in these artefacts and try to conserve them for future generations? Is art conservation and preservation one of the 46 chromosomes only found in Anglo-Saxon descendents?

Political wrangling between the British and the Greek governments over the Elgin Marbles began in 1816 when Lord Elgin “removed” it from Greece. To date, the marbles are still in the possession of the British and feeble excuses have been given justifying their London residency. Adding insult to injury is the fact, that despite knowledge of its original Greek name, the Pantheon Sculptures, many of the British contingencies still persist in referring to them as the Elgin Marbles.

So what do this and the politically correct graffiti artist suggest? That non-Western culture is inferior? Maintenance and persistent usage of a name, and moreover a “removal man’s” name surely does not intimate to the Greek that their culture is of importance. Comments like the above, although possibly stimulated from a genuine multicultural culture lover is still imbued with a superior, salvationist undertone.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) sees independence as, “freedom from subjection; individual liberty of thought or action; exemption from external control or support;” In relation to this definition it seems hard to agree that developing countries can retain genuine independence in today’s world. A range of interlocking actors with a vested interest in maintaining the global politico-economic status quo have handicapped developing countries through their policies, laws and ability to work the international financial and legal system to their advantage. There is no need for name-calling, we all know who they are. Needless to say, pushing through with one’s method of social development has fallen on deaf ears for most developing countries, except Cuba, and they didn’t have a choice.

It is widely accepted that we now live in a global interdependent world. In fact, many theorists have postulated that we have always lived in a globalised world. Naill Ferguson in his latest book, “Empire: How Britain made the Modern World” (2003) states that colonisation was the first stage of globalisation. Yet, if we are to accept this fact then the sovereignty and independency of individual national states are simultaneously called into question. And if all national states’ independency is open to debate, then logic would suggest that a poorer state has a worse off deal. In a world based on imbalance, and the need for winners and losers, it is clear that a marginal entity will be more dependent.

But is it so clear? Surely if using the OED definition as a measuring rod one could see that not all of it’s compositional factors are realised? We live in the 21st century. Surely we are not going to find evidence of a lack of “freedom from subjection”? Subjection, that’s a strong word filled with connotations of lordship and control.

If you thought that the Ilios people, native residents of the US air and navel base Diego Garcia were about to see justice in 2000 after a Foreign Office unpublished report supported their “right to return”, you would have been sadly mistaken. Since September 11th 2001 and the ensuing “war on terror” the Ilios peoples’ entitlement to return has been quashed. But wait a minute; the United States’ government had blocked their right of return before September 11th! In fact, in June 2000 correspondence between the US and the Foreign Office claimed resettlement “would significantly degrade the strategic importance of a vital military asset unique in the region”.

What happened to the Ilios people is remarkable given the era (1960s), which spoke of decolonisation throughout the developing world. The leasing of a habitable island for military purposes, without the consent of its inhabitants and for a token gesture of £1, is amazing. The forced, illegal removal of people from their lives, transported to another island where they received no financial or social provision for their specific needs, is staggering. However, the persistence of this situation despite being 50 years on from the founding of the United Nations’ (UN) Charter (which, may I add, this is in breach of), and numerous appeals by the Ilios people for their human rights to be realised, is hard to understand. Add to this, confirmation from the original culprits (the British) that a grave error has taken place, and given that no attempts at revocation has been made, well, its just too impossible to comprehend. This is an extreme case of a developing country not having genuine independence, let alone being able to retain it.

The recent affray between the US government and several Southern African nations (Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia) concerning the provision of genetically modified (GM) food aid to Southern Africa has been as gripping to watch as any boxing match. Both contestants have held their corner. For every punch the US would throw, the Southern African trio would unflinchingly defend themselves. You would have been fooled to think this was a simple case of weak-David versus strong-Goliath. And although Zimbabwe and Malawi have both, since September 2002 relinquished and decided to accept GM maize on the condition that it is milled, Zambia is still holding her ground in spite of a possible famine, and recent moral pressure from several UN agencies.

The US’ verbal attack has been vitriolic. The government has denounced Zambia’s decision not to accept the GM food aid. Press statements have adopted a hard-lined and haughty tone. As one statement claimed, “in making this decision, the government of Zambia has disregarded the scientific evidence regarding the safety of the food for human consumption and is rejecting the advice of international relief organisations, governments around the world, and the European Commission” (31/10/02).

It is true. The Zambian government has chosen to disregard scientific evidence funded by American agribusiness companies and in doing so, has chosen to reject advice from other actors. However, their actions have not differed from say, the British, who still to this day have not issued a political statement in favour of GM crops. Like the British, Zambian independent scientists have not found the scientific evidence to confirm that GM food is safe for human consumption. Like the British, in Zambia there have been informal and government orchestrated public debates about the pros and cons of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Like the British, scientific research has been conducted in Zambia. Based on his findings, Dr. Lewanika from the National Institute for Scientific and Industrial Research in Lusaka has warned against accepting GM food aid, and urged his government to apply the ‘precautionary principle’ clause of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (2000).

The above process seems fairly standard. But somehow, Zambia’s doubts have been dismissed, discredited and disrespected by the US government. "People that deny food to their people, that are in fact starving people to death should be held responsible...for the highest crimes against humanity in the highest courts in the world," said Tony Hall, the US Ambassador to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) in December 2002. But this scathing statement hides the fact that Zambia has been trying to negotiate an alternative solution with the US Agency for International Development (USAID). It should not be assumed that her decision has been flippantly made. The government fear that GMOs will cross-pollinate with local varieties is a genuine concern based on scientific fact and proof, especially in light of Mexico’s experience. At the beginning of January 2002 numerous reports were written confirming that GM contamination of Mexico’s maize crop had taken place. This is significant, as Mexico is the world’s leader in maize genetic diversity. Like Mexico, in Zambia maize is a staple crop consumed by the local community. Thus wouldn’t it seem natural for Zambia to have such reservations?

In addition to this evidence, the European Union has only recently lifted its four year ban on genetically modified food products (October 2002). Zambia has imposed a ban, as did the Philippines, India, Bolivia, Colombia, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Ecuador, however, these countries’ bans have not been adhered to by USAID. In September 2002, a New Scientist report revealed that US food aid donated to the aforementioned countries, and including Zambia, were genetically modified. How could this have taken place? Would it have been as likely for the US government to contravene the EU ban on GM foods? Probably not, as they would have faced quick reprisals in a variety of forms: lawsuits, economic sanctions, not to mention, possible harsh repercussions from the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Appellate Body.

In light of this, on what grounds should Zambia have accepted GM crops in August 2002, when at that time, no other country in the world apart from the US were willing to receive it. Is desperation a valid reason? It would seem so according to a USAID official’s response when India was placed in a similar dire situation, and where she also opposed GM food aid. He remarked, “Beggars can’t be choosers”. Notably, being a poor developing country on the verge of mass starvation, Zambia should roll over and wag her tail signalling an affirmative.

It is this lack of respect that is the most disturbing facet of the US government’s response. Their persistent failure to accept Zambia’s decision as final highlights their arrogance and condescending manner towards countries that do not abide by their rules. Recent reports from the US go as far to blame the EU for their “anti-scientific policies [that are] spreading to other corners of the world”. Mr Zoellick, the US trade representative went further by saying, “I find it immoral that people are not being able to be supplied food to live in Africa because people have invented dangers about biotechnology.” Is he implying that Zambia’s decision derives solely from the EU’s views on GM food? Are Zambians incapable of conducting scientific research and drawing scientific conclusions on their own? It would seem that this is the implication.

Food, as power, is not new news. Food politics harks back to colonial times where colonies were fought over because of their abundant sources of raw materials (food and food derivatives). However, food power didn’t really get going till the 1970s, a time when the US agricultural industry began to flourish. Commensurately, developing nations’ agricultural industry started to decline. As Rothschild remarked in 1976, “The international food distribution system is at the heart of the [global] food problem. And this system is founded on American exports and American policies” (Foreign Affairs, 1976). Nothing has changed since the 1970s. The problem is still one of global food and distribution inequalities, rather than lack of food sources. In fact, many scientists and NGOs have come out proclaiming that there is enough non-GM food aid to presently feed Southern Africa.

This recent public furore has not only shown the desperate and insincere motives of the US government to get rid of their surplus grain under a philanthropic guise, but also, it has exemplified how the opinions of developing countries are treated with disdain and seen as insignificant when not in tandem with US interests. This is a perfect example of where part two of the OED definition of independence is called into question. Zambia is exercising “individual liberty of thought and action”, and as a result, is being penalised. Thus, can it be said that she is experiencing genuine independence?

The recent controversy surrounding the possible vote buying of the non-permanent members of the Security Council has been a source of contention for the US and UK governments. The fear of being tainted with “unclean hands” is an image neither nation would like to have bestowed upon them. But it is hard to believe both governments when they say no crooked deals are being made behind closed doors. History paints a different picture. In fact, a history not so long ago looks curiously colourful.

John Pilger in his piece “How the Bushes bribed the world” provides a vivid account of the “bribery, blackmail and threats” that took place before the majority voted in favour of resolution 678 that legitimised the attack on Iraq in 1990. The covert operation by the US government was impressive and working until Yemen had to be “difficult” and at the last minute sided with Cuba and voted “no” to an attack. Resultantly, the quote that has become infamous was born, “That was the most expensive “no” vote you will ever cast”, and it was. Not only was Yemen’s £70 million aid programme revoked days after but also, 800,000 Yemeni workers were expelled from Saudi Arabia, and the World Bank and IMF blocked Yemen’s loans. Yes, you did read that correctly. Maybe like me you are unsure as to why Yemeni’s were expelled from Saudi Arabia and why the World Bank and IMF, neither of which are American institutions, decided to penalise them. Maybe it is just a coincidence all that happened within a week, maybe not.

But wait a second, look at what’s happening now, or should that be, what some people are hoping will happen. It would seem that rich countries are not immune to being punished. The case of France shows how one may be chastised for not wanting to play ball.

Recently being “without us” for the French has proved to be a real pain. Its been noted that some US residents are boycotting French products. Some folk in the House of Representatives are even calling for a legal ban on vintage à la française. And the anticipated verbal lambasting has surfaced as expected. However, unlike poor Yemen, France can hold her own. She is economically independent and her position within her European family allows her to have the political security Yemen will never have. Essentially, it is the failure of not having economic independence, which leads to political independence where developing countries become stuck. This deficiency allows them to be pushed and pulled according to the whims of the rich North.

Yemen then, like Mauritius now, who was recently conveniently reminded of a ruling under the US African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) which stipulates that, the aid recipient '[should] not engage in activities contrary to US national security or foreign policy interests'.” cannot be said to be exempted from “external control or support”, the third point in the OED definition of independence. Luckily for Mauritius, after witnessing what happened to Yemen in the 1990s, she is aware of the consequences of batting for the wrong team.

It has been argued that developing countries do not have genuine independence and therefore, cannot retain genuine independence in today’s world. It is hard not to be pessimistic when considering the obstacles that prevent developing countries from entering the system. At present the politico-economic rules are rigged and stacked against them (Oxfam, 2002). In light of this, here are some pointers for developing countries to remember.

The present global economic and political system can be likened to any exclusive nightclub in any major city.

· Membership fees are high and have to be paid up front.

· Sometimes if you have “influential friends” you can be put on the guest list. However, this will not grant you free entry; you will still have to pay the going rate.

· Being generous with your cash when buying “rounds” will help you make friends. Fair enough, they may not be your soul mates but they may come in handy later on in life. For example, they may come to your assistance if someone tries to pick a fight with you.

· Here, image is everything. This is a place where the way you walk and talk speaks volumes. Being “lippy” and “outspoken” will not get you inside. Rather, the bouncers will “sort you out” in their own way. It is possible that they may warn other clubs in the area that you are a “difficult” person. They may even embellish the story and convey that you are dangerous. What is worse is that the bouncers may remember you and give you a hard time if you try to return, even though you may have “cleaned up your act”.

· In time, it is possible that new management may take over the club, but that doesn’t mean you will be forgotten. Information concerning “past problems” may be transferred to the new owner, and although they may let you in, they will keep an eye on your behaviour and will not flinch to “show you the door” if you misbehave.