Global wealth, global poverty. Part three.

In the first blog, I argued that massive global wealth tended to be framed in ways that were politically limiting because:


(a) inequality has become so globalised and extreme that, as a problem, it seems altogether impossible to think about what to do about it;


(b) the global ‘one per cent’ are increasingly identified as remote, powerful, and almost outside of any legitimate political process.


In the second blog, I argued that general understandings of poverty and development were hamstrung by our representation of the poor and especially the connection between ‘the global poor’ and notions of aid, charity, and external intervention. I ended by suggesting a way to move beyond all of these limitations exists in:


(a) shifting from discussions of poverty and wealth as conditions towards seeing them as relations between people;


(b) moving morally away from charity and aid and towards justice.


This final blog explores how this shift changes our thinking and potentially action in regards to global poverty.

Justice is a tricky term, although it is one that everyone likes to use because of its power. The term ‘global social justice’ has become part of political discourse from the mid 1990s and it might be very broadly defined as a socialist-inspired concern with the way globalisation has worked in the last three decades. It concerns itself with the concentration of power and wealth on a global scale, the increasing power of multi-national companies to maximise profits through the extremely harsh exploitation of workers and the environment, the various double standards of powerful states and the organisations they control when setting rules for the global economy, and the socially-damaging effects of economic liberalisation.


Taken together, these concerns portray a world of systemic inequalities. That means that massive global inequalities are not the result of the fact that ‘some people do better than others’ or that ‘some people need a little help’. Rather, global inequality is the outcome of laws and rules that give systemic advantage to the rich and powerful because they are rich and powerful and they do so because the rich and powerful are the ones that author those laws and rules! This kind of closed system of power protecting wealth protecting power is often called an oligarchy. Let us take a whistle-stop tour of the most notorious instances of this systemic injustice and the damage it does to the poor.


  • Trade regulations and reforms that have damaged development prospects by: abolishing price support for poor countries’ major exports, undermining the ability of governments to protect and plan their own industrial growth, and making illegal trade regulations that might give workers, local businesses or the environment support and protection. All of these aspects of anti-developmental trade reform are carried out in the interests of ‘free trade’.


  • International debt which creates a flow of interest payments to international banks in countries that have severe budgetary restraints on any plans to provide social care to populations. Indeed, debt regimes often create outflows from poor countries that exceed inflows of aid.


  • The anti-social behaviour of multi-national companies. Tax evasion and various kinds of opaque transfer of profits made in poor countries in order to take as much money to headquarters and shareholders. The tendency for companies (especially mining companies) to treat the environment as a resource or dumping ground rather than a lived-in place that supports livelihoods.


These issues (and there are many others that are similar) all have some important things in common.


  • They do not identify a global poor and ask how we can help. Instead, they identify a global injustice, associate it with governments and institutions over which ordinary people in the West – even if only very remotely – have legitimate influence, and campaign to address that injustice.


  • They focus on the major issues which constrain the development possibilities of governments and peoples where mass poverty exists. They do not try to rescue the poor, change the way they live, or reorganise their governments.


  • And they attempt –albeit clumsily and with partial success – to build different ways of representing and connecting with those previously framed as distant and poor. This difference might be summed up as a shift from help to solidarity. Let us explore this a little further.


Solidarity campaigning tends to concern itself with the construction of linkages between campaign groups in the West and groups in countries with mass poverty where people have mobilised against injustice or to defend against all sorts of unpleasant aspects of investment, government policy, or socially damaging liberalisation. This is a tricky process, but what it does is attempt to make the distant others less distant not by providing (intrusive) images of poor family lives but by listening, learning, discussing. The credo is ‘nothing about us without us’. Solidarity politics generates narratives in which ‘their struggle is our struggle’ and it does so in ways that are more equitable than the standard charity-aid representation. Solidarity campaigning affords greater agency to mobilisations by poor people, taking a cue from the words and deeds of these organisations and their intellectuals. It is considerably more self-aware of the power relations that underpin international development.


None of this is perfect, far less does it offer us a clear model for campaigning. What is does do is provide a more effective starting point to address substantial development issues in ways that do not start from the premise that we should help the distant poor and hope that we can bring some of the super-wealthy on board in doing so.


And, although solidarity’s core purpose is to construct new forms of association with the poor, it is not premised on grand interventions in poor countries. Here, we come to the final component in our discussion of global poverty: sovereignty.


A great deal of mainstream development practice undermines sovereignty: aid always reinforces a kind of dependency in the recipient state; policy advice always sets constraints on the politics of the possible in those governments that receive the advice; charitable development projects commonly work according to the preferences and imperatives of the charity. But, development is a profoundly political project – indeed real experiences of successful capitalist development are always driven by a desire to construct robust sovereignties. A historian of early modern Europe’s state-building coined the phrase ‘war makes states and states make war’. It might be more appropriate to say of present-day post-colonial regions that ‘development makes states and states make development’. Countries with mass poverty need the ‘space’ to develop strategies to transform their economies, even if the principal motivation for doing to is to ensure a state’s security and stability rather than to pursue poverty reduction.


And the poor people within those countries – workers, farmers, small-scale traders, men, women, fisherfolk – will improvise, engage, and struggle against government in order to ensure that whatever developmental sovereignty might be attempted is equitable, inclusive, ‘caring’. Solidarity links with outside organisations can help in this, but it is profoundly the task of poor people and their organisations to tether strategies of capitalist transformation to some sense of the commonwealth.


If, as all three blogs have argued, poverty is political then poverty reduction will crucially depend on the political struggles of the poor in countries undergoing capitalist transformation. ‘We’ need to let go of the narcissistic belief that global poverty is something we can solve. People in the West can mobilise against systemic global injustices and they can support the struggles of ‘the poor’. Beyond this – and perhaps discomfortingly for many who assume the world is being made in our image – the writing of history is elsewhere.

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