Let your doubts and your self melt away, Mr. Wolfensohn

By Jan Oberg

Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research (TFF) , 29 January 2002

Centre for Research on Globalisation (CRG),  globalresearch.ca,   30  January 2002

In the Fall Issue of Development Outreach, World Bank president James D. Wolfensohn reflects on the consequences of September 11 and says that we must fight terrorism and poverty, with "and" in italics. It is one of these Úlitist articles that states what an unidentified global "we" must now do to make the world a better place. While I do not doubt his wish to see a better world, the lack of both causal analysis and strategy for change in this article raises concerns.

There are already thousands of such statements and many more will be made when the World Economic Forum is held in New York from January 31. Wolfensohn's exposÚ, in spite of all the seemingly idealistic words, makes it abundantly clear that we live in a time in which political power is inversely related to intellectual power and truth power.

He starts out asserting that "we know that because of the terrorist attacks, growth in developing countries will falter, pushing millions more into poverty and causing tens of thousands of children to die from malnutrition, disease and deprivation." There is no reference to the analysis from which this is taken, neither - if there is one - how that analysis was done. Will these tens of thousands die in a month, a year or a decade from now? How will they be distinguished from the 40,000 children who already die every day? How are the deaths of 2900 people in New York and Washington connected with the deaths of these children?

Our common goal, says Wolfensohn, must be to a) fight poverty, b) promote inclusion and justice, and c) bring the marginalised into the mainstream of the global economy. We can do that, he says, through steps that help prevent conflicts. Such general goal formulations are not exactly new. Stating them with no example of concrete steps to be taken toward their realisation doesn't help anybody.

First of all, the World Bank president - himself an investment banker - says nothing about the causes, as he sees them, behind world poverty and exclusion. If "we" want to do something about a problem, it would be helpful to know what caused it in the first place. Does he simply not know what these causes are? If Wolfensohn is aware of them, are they too controversial to put on print? Is he afraid of singling out certain activities, structures, organisations or actors that are rather more part of the problem than of the solution?

Secondly, he talks about the global economy. Taken literally, it means that there is only, or can only be, one economy. Logically, it must be the one we have, filled with poverty and exclusion. It is the globalising economy. Wolfensohn indeed mentions that well over 1 billion people, around 20 per cent of the human family, live on less that $ 1 a day. How shall they be included? Imagine that the World Bank employed just ten of them, to show a good example. If that sounds unthinkable, the reason is that we live in different worlds, in spite of Mr. Wolfensohn's assertion that we all live in one and the same economy. If "we" can't care for the few, how can we care for the many?

In this single global economy, 51 of the world's largest 100 economies are private companies. Globally, 358 dollar billionaires have as much wealth as the poorest 49 per cent of the world' population. 359 corporations account for 40 per cent of the world's trade. Korean Daewoo with a work force of 91,000 has the same annual revenue as Bangladesh with a population of 116 million.

Neither the companies nor the world financial institutions have seen the type of democracy they applaud in the sphere of politics. None of their boards have elected representatives from raw material producers, workers in the countries in which they operate, consumers or from environmentalists who deal with the consequences of waste disposal from these industries. There are hardly any plans to elect the board of the World Bank itself through some kind of world wide citizen-based democratic procedure - or change the fact that one country, the U.S., has 16 per cent of the voting power. People are, to put it crudely, excluded. There is no economic democracy.

What comes through is an increasingly manifest authoritarianism of Western-based leaders. They see themselves as defenders of freedom and choice and as liberals but there shall be only one economy. Globalisation is about one economic philosophy spreading to the rest of the world; it is not about different economies - say Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, green, women, barefoot, Gandhian, Keynesian, welfare, mixed models, etc. - co-existing and co-operating. It is about unity in standardisation, not unity in diversity. Those who are excluded and "ill" shall, consequently and in gratitude, receive the World Bank standard medicine now enforced throughout the world.

Third, the World Bank President thinks it is important to prevent conflict. However well-meaning, it is not very well thought out. There can be no human, free and democratic community anywhere without conflict. Only an Orwellian society in which thought control is practised and everybody thinks the same. What is desirable is to reduce violence: direct, psychological, cultural and structural violence.

But much violence is committed through the use of weapons and, thus, the military-industrial complexes, the profiteering from arms production and arms sales, cannot be mentioned. This is a world in which US $ 800 billion is being squandered every year on the arsenals of violence and killing, over 40 per cent of that by the United States alone.

Imagine a World Bank President who argued, with determination, that we ought to reduce the military arsenals of the world and abolish nuclear weapons, beginning with the highly developed countries. Imagine he made himself the world's #1 advocate in support of the fine old idea of converting military production and consumption into civilian. After all, Wolfensohn is also a citizen of the United States; it first bombs Afghanistan, then promises US $ 300 million dollars to help its recovery and then increases its own military defence to US $ 400,000 million! The basic priorities among Mr. Wolfensohn's peers are dead-wrong and dead-dangerous. They prevent him from ever achieving the better world he says he wants. But dare he say so?

So, what shall "we" then do in the wake of September 11, according to Wolfensohn? One, "scale up" foreign aid. Two, reduce trade barriers. Three, focus development assistance to ensure good results. This means, he states, improving the climate for investment, productivity, growth and jobs, and empowering and investing in poor people so that they can fully participate in growth. And, four, act internationally on global issues such as terrorism, AIDS, financial stability, etc. "And all this we must do with developing countries in the driving seat - designing their own programs and making their own choices."

Well, perhaps we should eradicate this sort of intellectual poverty first? The pursuit of these (and other) goals has caused increasing disparities over, say, the last 50 years. Since the 1950s, the global economic growth has increased more than during any other period in human history without reducing the basic in-equalities of humanity in terms of wealth, opportunities and well-being. If these things did work to the benefit of all of humanity, there would be no more people dying from starvation, lack of medicine, housing, education, or clean water, anywhere on earth. Indeed, humanity would have celebrated the coming of this much better world Mr. Wolfensohn wants for future generations years ago! And it is impossible to see Western military and economic policies around the world as respectful of local drivers at the steering wheel!

Finally, Wolfensohn's article is devoid of an actor and strategy perspective. In short, who should do what, or abstain from doing certain things, in order to move in the direction of a better and safer world. Instead he talks about a "global coalition" talk predicated on the mistaken, but convenient, assumption that there are no conflicts of interest, no class divisions and that the system is fundamentally good, if only adjusted a little here and there to serve the poor. It is this type of reasoning that makes it impossible for American leaders to grasp some of the roots of terrorism. Indeed, they help it increase.

Writing articles like this, speaking at great forums, and giving press conferences probably serves some kind of marketing function for the organisations involved. For the individual there must be some therapeutic function as well, better left unsaid. Be this as it may, ten years of Western triumphalism after the end of the Cold War seems to have undermined both a sense of creative competition, urgency and intellectual quality control. Pseudo-politics is gradually replacing democracy and debate.

Listen to what M. K. Gandhi once said, not to Wolfensohn of course, but to like-minded people in power:

"I'll give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test: Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to Swaraj (home rule/self-reliance) for the hungry and the spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melting away."

If only there could be one statesman, one businessman and one president of an economic institution who had the courage to express doubts and let his/her self melt away in New York, this World Economic Forum would make a difference. But will it happen?

Copyright  TFF 2002   Reprinted for fair use only. 

Jan Oberg is the Director of the Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research (TFF)

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