In this important essay Edward Goldsmith explores why development, whether described as ‘sustainable’, ‘ecological’, ‘appropriate’ or otherwise, will only deepen the poverty and misery of poor tropical nations.
Published in Ecoscript No. 35, June 1993 by the Foundation for Eco-development (stichting Mondiaal Alternatief).
This essay was previously published under the title “Development and colonialism”.
I doubt if anyone today would dare state in public that the policies we are applying to improve the welfare of the people of the Third World have proved effective. Their ineffectiveness is apparent in every domain. Some critics might go further and suggest that, not only are they ineffective but rather than solve the problems of the Third World, they are in fact exacerbating them. Others would go further and suggest that, they are in fact the basic cause of the escalating poverty, malnutrition and famine – which we are now witnessing throughout the Third World.
Whichever one of these positions one adopts, the case for reconsidering these policies appears to be very strong. In fact not to reconsider them appears to be at best irresponsible, at worst callous arid cynical. Those responsible for our policies must be fully aware of this. Indeed they assure us that the old type of development is over, to be replaced by ‘appropriate’ or ‘eco’ development (a term used in particular by the United Nations Environment Programme) or ‘sustainable’ development (one particularly favoured by the World Bank).
However, it is difficult to see how the vast livestock projects, the huge dams and other water development schemes and the mechanised plantations which are still routinely set up by the Development Industry can in any way be regarded as ‘appropriate’, ‘ecological’ or ‘sustainable’. Indeed it is the rhetoric that has changed, the policies remain the same.
Development and colonialism
Why, we might ask, are we so keen to develop the Third World? Obviously for the same reason that we were once keen to colonise it. The object of colonialism, let us not forget, was a purely practical one. It was to obtain access to cheap raw materials, cheap labour and a captive market for manufactured products. Thus, in Tanzania, according to Spearring (1984):
“it was to meet the demands of an increasingly affluent Europe that the trade in ivory, having begun with India, expanded greatly in the 19th century. With the trade in ivory came the trade in slaves and firearms. At the same time Tanzania provided a ready market for Europe’s textiles. There can be no question but that the British and German interests were dominated by commercial motives. These interests were encouraged, but not subordinated, to humanitarian and religious concerns. clearly political domination followed traders and missionaries. The ‘scramble for Africa’, in which Tanzania was one of the prizes, was primarily the consequence of commercial necessity. The need was met by bringing Tanzania and the rest of Africa under the commercial and political dominance of Europe.” [Spearring, 1984]
That such was the reason for colonialism was explicitly stated by the early promoters of colonialism themselves. Cecil Rhodes (quoted in Dumont & Cohen, 1980) for instance, declared that:
“We must find new lands from which we can easily obtain raw materials and at the same time exploit the cheap slave labour that is available from the natives of the colonies. The colonies would also provide a dumping ground for the surplus goods produced in our factories”.
Lord Lugard said much the same thing:
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“We have spoken already of the vital necessity of new markets for the old world. It is, therefore, to our very obvious advantage to teach the millions of Africa the wants of civilisation, so that whilst supplying them we may receive in return the products of their country and the labour of their hands”. [Lugard, 1595]
The consequences of colonial rule
It is interesting to see just how the colonial system functioned. Harle (1978) describes it thus:
“The colonial government sector was controlled in such manner that most government revenues were derived from the trade sector and development expenditures were directed toward promoting growth of exports. This pattern was not dependent on de jure political control by the developed country. Foreign influence, while more subtle, was no less important in controlling the trade and government sectors of the countries now under de jure control.
In any case, there appeared a circular development process within the controlled countries: government expenditures heavily favoured public works, which encouraged the expansion of export production, which led to the further growth of government revenues and expenditures due to the dependency of revenues on exports. The dynamic relationship of increased exports, increased revenues, and increased expenditures tended to increase exports of food and agricultural raw materials.
The colonial rule simplified the diversified production of food plants to single cash crops – often to the exclusion of staple foods. The seeds of famine were inherent in this process. For example, rice farming was once common in Gambia, but with colonial rule so much of the best land was taken over by groundnuts – for the European markets – that rice had to be imported to counter the mounting prospect of famine. Through a production system based on enriching the large landowners, Vietnam became the world’s largest exporter of rice by the 1930’s, and yet many landless Vietnamese went hungry.
Colonial powers had to force the production of cash crops. The first strategy was to use physical or economic force to get the local population to grow cash crops instead of food on their own plots and to then turn them over to the coloniser for export. The strategy was the direct takeover of the land by large scale plantations growing crops for export.
In effect, colonialism forced peasants to replace food crops with cash crops that were then expropriated at very low rates, took over the best agricultural land for export crop plantations, and then forced the most able-bodied workers to leave the fields to work as slaves or for very low wages on plantations, encouraged a dependence on imported food, and blocked native peasant cash crop production from competing with cash crops produced by settlers or foreign firms”. [Harle, 1978]
The colonialist process described above explains the simultaneous existence of under-and overproduction of agricultural products in the Third World. It also explained the terrible ecological damage that occurred during the colonial period. On this subject, Baker (1984) notes with regards to the French African Empire that it:
“was divided into major crop zones specialising in groundnuts, cotton or rice. Cotton planted. year after year exposed the topsoil in places such as Mali to serious erosion and depletion as the same spectrum of nutrients was extracted continually with nothing added. Wind and water were able to work their ravages on the soil leaving the scarred and gullied landscape we see today. Continuous cultivation of groundnuts drained the soils of Senegal.
It was assumed of course that once Third World countries achieved independence: they would abandon those colonialist policies and seek to repair the social and ecological destruction that they had caused. Such an assumption was perhaps naive. In any case, nothing like this .has happened. Third World Governments, once they take over the reins of power, pursue what are in effect the same policies as their colonialist predecessors. Baker sees things very much the same way:
“Essentially the story is one of continuity. Virtually nowhere was there any attempt to look back into history at the rationale of the so-called ‘traditional’ systems of land use . . . Those who emerged to form the elite did so within the mores of the colonial system – whatever the rhetoric leading up to independence. This elite was often embarrassed by the pre-colonial past since they had always seen it portrayed as barbaric, primitive or chaotic . . .”
At the same time continuity was a characteristic of the economic system and the ‘development’ models of most Third World countries. In the context of “modernisation” the Third World sees itself often as engaged in a struggle with the developed world to ‘catch. up': to emulate the rich. Most of the Brandt literature is based on liberalising the system to allow this “catching up” to take place. In this model the cash crop economy and the pursuit of foreign exchange is critical, especially since the oil price rises of 1974 and 1979.” [Baker, 1984]
Emancipation has, in effect, done nothing for the rural masses. Ironically, the peasants, who, as Jacoby (1983) notes: “identified the struggle for national independence with the fight for land”, never recovered their land. National independence simply led to its take-over by a new brand of colonialists.Back to top
The concept of ‘development’
The idea that Third World countries. should ‘develop’ and that development was in their own interests, as opposed to ours, was a new idea that was first formulated after the last war. President Truman is supposed to have been the first to have used ‘development’ in this new sense of the term. [Nandy, 1986] It has provided a subtler method than political colonialism for bringing Third World countries within the orbit of international trade. Let us see how it was set into motion.
The first step was to set up a local elite imbued with our values and committed to our lifestyle and hence capable of. fulfilling the same functions that were previously fulfilled by colonial administrators and settlers. This work was already set into motion by the missionaries. Bohannan (1964) notes:
“It was they who taught the Africans to read and write and thereby supplied government clerks and traders’ clerks . . . and ultimately the national leaders”.
The missionaries thus provided the core of the local elite that we required. Since then, by ‘educating’ ever greater numbers of young people from the Third World, both locally and in our schools and universities, we have greatly extended the size of the elite and the extent of its indoctrination with western values and ‘knowledge’.
To provide this elite with the necessary power, it was then necessary to set up the monolithic nation state on the western model. It is important to note, that in the Third World, there is no precedent for the nation state. It plays no part in the culture of Third World peoples who previously lived in tribal societies or other vernacular social groupings in which there were no formal governmental institutions, the governmental functions usually being carried out by the society itself headed by its elders.
What is more, the boundaries of the nation states we set up in the Third World were totally artificial, corresponding to no ethnic realities. Their governments, usually derived from a dominant ethnic group, were and still are seen by members of other groupings as totally alien and often hostile bodies. The interests of these governments, though they may coincide with those of the commercial elite from whose ranks they are often drawn, are very different from those of the traditional societies that survive in the countryside.
The fact is that Third World elites have been absorbed into the Western socio-economic system. They are our representatives in the countries that they dominate just as were their colonial predecessors – and as, in the case of the latter, their interests, as Partant (1982) notes, are largely “antagonistic to those of the bulk of their countrymen”.
The final requirement was to provide this elite with capital and in exchange impose on it a set of rules governing the way this capital was to be used – compliance with which would lead it to adopt those policies which best satisfied our political and economic requirements. The device for assuring the Third World countries did just this was called ‘aid’! Ironically though it was supposed to relieve the growing poverty of Third World people it was paid to precisely those who, in such countries, must contribute to creating it.Back to top
Only those with a superficial knowledge of the development process remain convinced that aid is designed to help Third World people. In the face of the worst and most widespread famine Africa has ever known, the British government has actually reduced its aid to the people of that continent so that, as Madeley (1986) noted, “there is more in the kitty for better off countries such as Turkey and Mexico”, which unlike the Africans have the money with which to buy British manufactured goods.
This is the crux of the matter. Indeed the US Department of Agriculture admits that American food aid is a means of creating a demand for imports from the US. It declares:
“Food Aid can pave the way for US commercial exports. For example. in 1956-58 the United States food aid to 17 overseas markets was $3.1 billion, and commercial sales of all goods were $3.6 billion. Two decades later, food aid from the United States 10 these same countries was only $756 million, and commercial sales had grown to $43 billion” [US Department of Agriculture, Yearbook 1985]
One of the main reasons why aid is sound commercial practice is that much of it is officially tied. In the same way that colonies were once forced to buy their manufactured goods from the country that had colonised them, aid recipients must spend much of the money that is supposed to relieve their poverty and malnutrition, on irrelevant manufactured goods that are produced by the donor countries.
What is more, if they dare refuse to buy any of our manufactured goods or sell us some resource, that for some reason, they want to keep for themselves or simply conserve – they are immediately brought to heel by the simple expedient of threatening to cut off aid on which they tend to become highly dependent
Thus Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries of the world, decided a few years ago to take seriously WHO’s study, that revealed that only a fraction of commercial pharmaceutical preparations was of any real therapeutic use, by banning the superfluous ones. The US government immediately reacted by threatening to withhold food-aid if Bangladesh discriminated in this way against US pharmaceutical manufacturers.
Last year, the British government behaved in a similar manner with the government of India by threatening to cut off aid it it did not go ahead with its plan to buy 21 ‘Westland 30′ Helicopters costing $60 million – an effort which, it is encouraging to note, was bitterly opposed by responsible elements within the CDA.
This is simply a slightly more sophisticated means of achieving what Commodore Perry achieved by bombarding Osaka in 1854 in order to force the Japanese to trade with America and what Britain achieved in going to war with China so as to force that country to buy opium from British merchants in India.
However, it was at the Bretton Wood Conference in 1944, held under US leadership that ‘aid’ was institutionalised as the Industrial World’s principal tool of economic colonialism. At that conference, 44 nations agreed to set up the key international institutions. They were the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank (IBRD) and the General Agreement of Tariffs and Trade (GAU). These highly interconnected agencies formed a single integrative structure for world trade which until the early 1970s was basically dominated by the United States of America. [Tofler, 1980]
The original role of the IMF was to make sure that member nations pegged their currency to the US dollar or to gold, of which 72 percent of world supply were in the possession of the USA. This expedient was among other things to make it difficult for Third World doctors to get out of their financial obligations to the Western Banking System by manipulating their currencies.
The World Bank, whose first function was to reconstruct Europe’s shattered economy, soon moved into the business of Third World development, its main activity, for a long time being to build roads, harbours, ports etc. i.e. the infrastructure required for making possible the import of manufactured products and the export of raw materials and agricultural produce. It then invested heavily in energy generation, in particular in hydro-power.
More recently, since the 1970s, it has played a leading role in financing the commercialisation of agriculture in the Third World and in particular the substitution of export oriented plantations and livestock rearing schemes for traditional subsistence farming designed to feed local people. In doing this, it has, as we shall see, made a massive contribution to the growth of poverty and famine in Africa and South East Asia.
The role of GATT, the third of those institutions, was to liberalise trade and hence to make sure that Third World countries should not try to manufacture locally products they could buy from western countries, ie, indulge in highly frowned upon ‘import substitution’. The IMF has of course complemented the work of GAU in this respect. Loans, either from the IMF itself or the World Bank, have only been provided to governments that have undertaken to observe IMF ‘conditionalities’.
This had meant above all, abolishing import quotas and reducing import tariffs to a minimum, thereby preventing Third World countries from protecting their fledgling industries against competition from the established. and highly capitalised enterprises of the industrial world – industries that during the early stages of their own development were themselves well protected from foreign competition – and many of which still are.
Third World governments must also undertake to mechanise their food production, i.e. adopt the Green Revolution, which provides an important market for our agricultural machinery and agro-chemical industries. They must also replace subsistence agriculture with export oriented agriculture so as to provide us with the agricultural produce we require, through this they have to do in any case in order to pay for the capital equipment they need for mechanising their agriculture and for financing the mass of manufactured goods that must flow inevitably flow into their countries.
This package of policy prescriptions has been imposed on Third World countries by all the multilateral development banks as a condition for granting them loans. Since the early seventies, the amount of capital pumped into the Third World to finance such policies has increased massively, as has the destruction it has financed. The reason has been the need to recycle the vast sums of money accumulated by the OPEC countries into the western economic system.
Unfortunately, the process is about to be repeated, since, with the aid of the World Bank, we now plan to recycle, via the economies of Third World countries, Japan’s annual $50 billion surplus – which is equivalent to the OPEC surpluses of the late 1970s. [US Dept. Agriculture, Yearbook 1985]
The impact that the vast development schemes, that alone can sop up all that money, must inevitably have on the already devastated environment of the Third World, is too awful to contemplate.Back to top