Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Global human rights - 'trickle down' and other obscenities

As the world's economic commentators pontificate on the rights and wrongs of speculative trading in fancy debt products such as collateralized debt obligations, it strikes me that a significant paradigm shift is in the air.

Some mega-rich financiers and neo-conservative economists are appalled by government interventions in the market, expecting the unsuccessful players to go bankrupt, never mind the collateral damage that might wreak. Whilst it is easy to be swayed by this 'survival of the fittest' mindset, especially as it applies to egregious corporate executives who have farmed their wealth from dodgy speculations and self-serving short term credit strategies, the 'better to burn out than fade away' nostrum that works for US marines may not be the right prescription for these times. If the AIGs and CitiGroups of this world collapse in a smoking heap what will be the consequences for struggling working people and the poor? Many of the commentators just don't care about these groups.

Trickle down economics has been with us for several decades. As the middle classes in developed (and recently in developing) countries expanded, the moral bankruptcy of this stratagem has been veiled. The parallel realities which the aspiring 'player' classes and the legions of poor inhabit do not overlap in meaningful ways. In some countries the poor do not register on the human development index. They have dropped off the statisticians’ radar. They leave so little evidence of their daily struggle to exist.

As the industrial developed world and its middle class aspirants in developing economies such as China and India got richer, the poor in developing regions retreated into ever more grinding poverty. The spatial reality of third world urban landscapes symbolizes this cruel dichotomy more starkly than most city-scapes in the West (although examples from the US rust and cotton belts and inner-city ghettos must be writ large).

Dominant elites in developing countries tread the familiar track of comfortable jobs, serviced environs, nice houses, mod cons and domestic help. Behind this facade the poor make their way, as they always have, along rough tracks out of sight of comfortable residential enclaves, across barrens into slums and shanty towns. Their circumstances are getting worse and their story is repeated over and over again in the post-colonial world. The vast majority are either underemployed or unemployed, barely eking a living in market economies that have left them behind, housed cheek by jowl in squalid conditions with little or no services or amenities. Alternatively, they are part of the legions of rural poor, living hand to mouth on marginal land or with no land at all.

Let me put my cards on the table. Except in special circumstances, I don't like charity aid, which is a populist form of 'trickle down' to salve the collective social conscience. Intense media coverage of natural disasters invariably leads to a rush of charitable dollars and material aid, while less publicized structural poverty is largely ignored. In emergency situations this type of charity can have an immediate effect but it rarely leads to lasting change. In Western countries the line that money spent on overseas aid would be better spent at home is a common refrain heard across the political spectrum, while countless millions of people are on the edge of starvation or disease because their own domestic elites and international power brokers lack the will to redistribute resources to meet their basic human needs.

When so much aid is charity based it is little wonder that well-meaning middle class families get drawn into schemes run by religious groups utilizing manipulative media techniques. Many of these schemes do not address the underpinning structural circumstances of poverty but use aid to proselytize religious beliefs and leverage undue influence over vulnerable communities. Individual donors get vicarious comfort from the notion that someone is doing something, somewhere, for the poor, but it is typically at arm’s length and detached from the grinding reality of those in need.

The score card was bleak and going backwards. A sense of superiority pervaded the relationships of the developed and developing worlds. The hectoring of client states to conform to the West's security and governance templates became strident during the Bush years. Economic clout is used to bully weaker countries into accepting interference in their domestic affairs. Aid is provided to repressive regimes to shore up trade interests. Aid became more politicized and compromised as a means to strengthen relations with partner countries.

Now, the global economic crisis will see some serious questioning of the dominant paradigm that brought us to this precipice. Those that suggest the market driven global greed fest might not have been the best way forward for the planet may now do so without being labeled neo-Marxists, social misfits, or, just mad.

All is far from lost if notions that we engage the economically weak in our own society and in other cultures from a position of superiority can be put aside. In Australia we can wallow in the illusion that our resource base, acquired through colonial imperialism, and our institutional inheritance imbues us with greater wisdom and understanding of the human condition, and seek to project our 'superiority', but we will have missed a great opportunity to be chart makers and bridge builders in a fourth world, where the constructs of ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ no longer apply.

A fourth world would celebrate cultural difference; the dignity and worth of all labour; and the universality of human rights. We all have a stake in peace and security. The moribund ‘polarities’ and parallel development paths of the last century, blind us to the potential of shared horizons. Let 'trickle down' be replaced by notions of a fair redistribution of wealth and resources and the forging of real partnerships underpinned by mutual respect, joint security and genuine global community.

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