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Poverty could breed
more bin Ladens




January 9, 2002

LONDON - A reader of a column of mine published at Christmas on the social consequences of abandoned street children wrote to point out that my prognosis that these little Lords of the Flies would grow up as the new bin Ladens, primed to wreck vengeance on established societies, was mistaken. "Osama bin Laden's anger did not develop out of poverty," she argued, "but out of a middle class malaise". Of course. And so did Che Guevara's and Stokely Carmichael's and that of Marx and Lenin.

But this does not exclude the undisputable, well-researched, fact that poverty, particularly when it exists in a society of gross inequalities, breeds violence, crime and the urge to deal out deadly punishment on conventional society. The leaders may be educated; the shock troops often come from the underclass. Besides, humanity has never confronted before 100 million youngsters growing up on the street, without parents. Their anger, one day, will surely find a political channel as well as the inevitable criminal one.

I think, indeed, the argument can be taken even further: there are 800 million people living in hunger without sufficient nourishment. Many exist in a state of political torpor, barely able to summon the energy to plant next year's crop. But somewhere in the vast mass there are those who seethe with anger at their predicament. These days the mass media is ubiquitous, reaching even into the poorest villages, telling all. I'll never forget sitting on an African country bus, filled with peasants holding their live chickens, watching French-made videos portraying the most ghastly violence. Ideas travel. The only surprise is that it is has taken so long for a bin Laden type to hit us where it hurts.

Enormous progress has been made since the crucial World Food Conference in 1974 when it was realized the world was entering a danger zone with food stocks the world over perilously low. The U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger vowed in his speech "by the end of the century no child should go to bed hungry". And indeed the number of malnourished has fallen - as a percentage of the total world's population. It is down from 37% to 18%. But if it is no longer a billion people - it is 800 million with a good part of them concentrated in the very poorest 50 or so countries who, while everyone else prospered in the golden 1990s, fell further into economic retardation.

Sartaj Aziz, a former minister of finance in Pakistan and a key player at the World Food Conference recalls the 1970s as a "remarkably creative period ….the UN system began to elaborate an alternative development strategy focussed on the basic needs of the population, poverty reduction, income redistribution and employment. But before these new concepts could be translated into actual policies a serious debt crisis struck several Latin American countries and the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank relegated these ideas to the back burner. Privatisation and liberalisation were presented as the panacea for all economic ills." These days, concludes Aziz "there is no fiscal space for actually implementing pro-agriculture and pro-poor policies".

Few development economists question the need for continued liberalisation and globalisation. But what has to go hand in hand with that is an awareness that the richer countries have many of the most important markets rigged in their favour and that particular effort needs to be concentrated on the poorest and hungriest with methods that often supplement or, if necessary, bypass the market.

The World Trade Organization's policy of liberalizing trade concentrates on high tech products largely of interest to the richer countries, a few middle-income developing countries and the multinational companies. The simple manufactured products such as textile and leather goods, which are of greater interest to the developing countries, remain subject to many protectionist policies. As for agriculture, in particular, which could open the widest gate to the poorest countries, the rich countries are spending $350 billion a year in subsidies, which works to keep the potential agricultural exports of the developing countries at bay and often enough sabotages their internal markets with dumped products. This is almost six times the total the rich countries spend on foreign aid, of which, anyway, only about 10% gets spent on projects that directly help the hungriest.

If one survives to grow up in this environment and by some means of good fortune learns at least the rudiments of why one's family and people were neglected, is it not likely that an anger will burn within that one day might find its true target? When it does happen we might wonder, as with bin Laden today, why it has taken so long for someone to rise up and hit us in the solar plexus.

There were people who forecast a bin Laden twenty-five years ago and they were not taken seriously. Both for them and for us, let us not make the same mistake with the "wretched of the earth".



I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2002 By JONATHAN POWER



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