Power v poverty

Privatisation, free trade and market forces . . . the rich world insists poor states play by our rul

The global food price crisis is exposing frightening levels of vulnerability in poor nations around the world. Yet these are countries into which the rich world, for half a century or more, has diverted hundreds of billions of dollars of humanitarian aid in pursuit of the high ideal of ending poverty. It is a good moment to take stock and ask what went wrong.

Compare two of the most vulnerable economies, Haiti and Botswana. In Haiti, spiralling food prices have in recent months prompted widespread rioting, claiming the lives of six people and forcing the resignation of the prime minister. This unrest has set back the search for political stability in an archetypal "fragile state". No such riots have occurred in the Southern African nation of Botswana. In a country that imports 90 per cent of its food, soaring prices have undoubtedly hurt the poor, but the state has the money and capacity to help them cope.

Why does Haiti sink while Botswana swims? A landlocked state with a small population and an arid landscape, Botswana has a high dependence on diamonds - the very "curse of wealth" that has destabilised many other African countries. At independence in 1966, it had just two secondary schools and 12km of paved road, and relied on the UK for half of government revenues. Botswana ought to be a basket case.

But Botswana has become Africa's most enduring success story. Its GDP per capita has risen a hundredfold since independence. Over the past three decades it has been the world's fastest-growing economy. It negotiated hard-fought deals for its diamonds with De Beers and used the royalties well. It has throughout remained one of sub-Saharan Africa's few non-racial democracies, despite being bordered (and occasionally invaded) by racist regimes in South Africa and Rhodesia.

The secret of Botswana's success lies in politics. The country's elite come from a single dominant ethnic group (the Batswana) whose governance systems, emphasising broad consultation and consensus-building, emerged largely unscathed from colonialism. Botswana's leading human rights activist calls it "gentle authoritarianism". The government broke every rule in the so-called Washington consensus, setting up state-owned companies, nationalising mineral rights and steering the economy via six-year national development plans. "We are a free-market economy that does everything by planning," one local academic told me, laughing.

In the second half of the 20th century, dozens of developing countries emulated Botswana's success and achieved similar growth rates. "Getting the politics right" was key for them all. These countries have built effective states that guarantee the rule of law, ensure a healthy and educated population, control their national territories and create a positive environment for investment, growth and trade. For many, the growth spurt began with the redistribution of land and other assets.

This story bears little relation to the cruder theories of development advanced by rich-country governments or, for that matter, some NGOs. Yet, getting the politics right really can "make poverty history". Aid alone cannot.

In many countries the state remains a work in progress and the rosy picture is not without flaws. Power battles and shifting alliances mean reverses are frequent. Raw power and gangsterism prevail in states that are more master than servant to their citizens. In his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, written at the onset of the Cold War, George Orwell portrayed a totalitarian state built around the cult of Big Brother: "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - for ever." In the 20th century, some 170 million people were killed by their own governments, four times the number killed in wars between nations. But the worse deprivation and suffering now are not Orwellian in nature. They exist where states are weak: half of all children who die before the age of five live in states defined as "fragile".

Fixing this is not easy, but it can be done. Some states once branded as "failing" provide evidence. Malaysia went within a few decades from a post-independence meltdown of ethnic rioting to an industrial powerhouse. The economist Ha-Joon Chang points to his own country, South Korea, from where, in the 1960s, government officials were sent by the World Bank to Pakistan and the Philippines to "learn about good governance". The pupil swiftly outstripped the master.

If you define development merely as rising GDP per capita, then the story almost ends there - effective states create the basis for rapid growth. But development, parti cularly tackling poverty, is about far more than that. When the World Bank, in an unprecedented exercise, asked 64,000 poor people around the world about their lives, what emerged was a complex and human account of poverty, encompassing issues that are often ignored in the academic literature: the importance of being able to give one's children a good start in life, the mental anguish that poverty brings. The overall conclusion was that, "again and again, powerlessness seems to be at the core of the bad life".

Tackling such powerlessness is not just about election campaigns and government. Building "power within" - for example, women's assertiveness to insist on their right not to be beaten in the home - and "power with" - in the form of collective organisation - is essential to achieving the wider empowerment that transforms politics and societies.

In 1900, New Zealand was the only country with a government elected by all its adult citizens. By the end of the century, despite severe reversals, including fascism and communism, and succeeding waves of military coups against elected governments, there were ostensibly 120 electoral democracies in place. Democracies are often flawed and, as we have seen in several African countries, progress is reversible, but the overall trend remains positive.

Successful transformations

Effective states in east Asia and elsewhere have typically taken off under autocracies. In Latin America, active social movements and political organisations have rarely been accompanied by effective states. Does this mean active citizenship and efficient governments are mutually exclusive? Happily, the evidence suggests that the "Asian values" argument for benign dictatorship, once espoused by leaders in Singapore and Mal aysia, is wrong. A recent survey by the Harvard economist Dani Rodrik found that democracies produce more predictable long-run growth rates, greater short-term stability and more equality, and are better able to handle economic shocks.

Many of the countries that have had active citizens and been run efficiently have already ceased to be poor and disappeared off the development radar. Some of the most successful transformations in the past century, such as those of Sweden and Finland, have been triggered by social pacts within a democracy, showing what the combination of activism and good government can achieve.

Yet, though this combination is at the heart of development, it is seldom acknowledged in debates about the "development industry", typified by international institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF. Here, economic policy is king, and politics is often seen as an irritating process through which unworthy individuals use their power to unravel the plans of wise economists. "Getting the prices right" requires the state to get out of economic management, freeing the stage for the true heroes of development: the entrepreneurs.

It hasn't worked. The retreat of the state in Latin America, once a faithful devotee of Washington consensus prescriptions, failed to lead to lasting progress. Meanwhile, countries such as China and Vietnam, which maintained a central role for the state, prospered.

The importance of politics in development will only grow. The world is entering a new age of scarcity, in which food, water and carbon are rationed, either explicitly, through regulation, or implicitly, by price. In this environment, conflicts over access to basic resources are bound to intensify. Politics and power will decide who gets what.

All this poses challenges to the $100bn global development industry. Official donors such as the UK's Department for International Development are trying to reassess their thinking to understand better the role of politics in development. But they face a dilemma: any outside body, especially a government institution, interferes with domestic politics in developing countries at its peril. To get round this, there is always a temptation to turn political issues into technical ones - for example, by focusing on "governance" or "institution-building". But, by failing to confront issues of power, such approaches often give rise to the same frustrations as those that focus on economic policy: why won't these countries do what's good for them?

From grass roots to government

International organisations such as Oxfam have long been criticised by some developing-country partner organisations for preferring policy to politics. But they face real limits. Charity law, mission and bitter experience should dissuade them from becoming mere support groups for any political party in a given developing country. Instead, they have to promote empowerment without becoming politicised. It is a fine line to tread, but it is eminently feasible.

In Bolivia, for example, 20 years of support for the Chiquitano Indians helped them move from semi-slavery to becoming a political force, with the founding of indigenous people's organisations, such as that led by José Bailaba, and the election of Chiquitano mayors and senators. Following the election of South America's first indigenous president, Evo Morales, a land reform bill gave the Chiquitanos rights to a million hectares of traditional lands.

Even though the alchemy of development takes place primarily in the crucible of effective states with active citizens, global institutions such as aid donors, the UN and transnational corporations play a significant role.

Nation states will not wither away, even if their actions are constrained by an ever-growing web of global and regional trade agreements, bilateral investment treaties and the proliferating "soft law" of international conventions and codes of conduct on everything from financial services to human rights. Rich-country governments and their citizens need to ensure that this system of global government supports national development efforts based on the state and its people working together. They must also deter powerful countries and corporations from doing harm, whether through paying bribes or imposing policies that hurt the poor.

The fight against poverty, inequality and environmental collapse will define the 21st century, as the fight against slavery or for universal suffrage defined earlier eras. It is hard to imagine a more worthwhile cause.

Duncan Green is the author of From Poverty to Power
published by Oxfam on 23 June

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Truly, madly, politically

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“I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”: why aren’t we taking mental health sick days?

Some employees with mental health problems fake reasons for taking days off, or struggle in regardless. What should companies be doing differently?

“I would go to the loo and just cry my eyes out. And sometimes colleagues could hear me. Then I would just go back to my desk as if nothing had happened. And, of course, no one would say anything because I would hide it as well as I could.”

How many times have you heard sobbing through a work toilet door – or been the person in the cubicle?

Jaabir Ramlugon is a 31-year-old living in north London. He worked in IT for four years, and began having to take time off for depressive episodes after starting at his company in 2012. He was eventually diagnosed with borderline personality disorder last January.

At first, he would not tell his employers or colleagues why he was taking time off.

“I was at the point where I was in tears going to work on the train, and in tears coming back,” he recalls. “Some days, I just felt such a feeling of dread about going into work that I just physically couldn’t get up ... I wouldn’t mention my mental health; I would just say that my asthma was flaring up initially.”

It wasn’t until Ramlugon was signed off for a couple of months after a suicide attempt that he told his company what he was going through. Before that, a “culture of presenteeism” at his work – and his feeling that he was “bunking off” because there was “nothing physically wrong” – made him reluctant to tell the truth about his condition.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem; the way they treated me amplified that”

Eventually, he was dismissed by his company via a letter describing him as a “huge burden” and accusing him of “affecting” its business. He was given a dismissal package, but feels an alternative role or working hours – a plan for a gradual return to work – would have been more supportive.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem. The way they treated me definitely amplified that, especially with the language that they used. The letter was quite nasty because it talked about me being a huge burden to the company.”

Ramlugon is not alone. Over three in ten employees say they have experienced mental health problems while in employment, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Under half (43 per cent) disclose their problem to their employer, and under half (46 per cent) say their organisation supports staff with mental health problems well.

I’ve spoken to a number of employees in different workplaces who have had varying experiences of suffering from mental ill health at work.

***

Taking mental health days off sick hit the headlines after an encouraging message from a CEO to his employee went viral. Madalyn Parker, a web developer, informed her colleagues in an out-of-office message that she would be taking “today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health – hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100 per cent”.

Her boss Ben Congleton’s reply, which was shared tens of thousands of times, personally thanked her – saying it’s “an example to us all” to “cut through the stigma so we can bring our whole selves to work”.

“Thank you for sending emails like this,” he wrote. “Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health – I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organisations.”


Congleton went on to to write an article entitled “It’s 2017 and Mental Health is still an issue in the workplace”, arguing that organisations need to catch up:

“It’s 2017. We are in a knowledge economy. Our jobs require us to execute at peak mental performance. When an athlete is injured they sit on the bench and recover. Let’s get rid of the idea that somehow the brain is different.”

But not all companies are as understanding.

In an investigation published last week, Channel 5 News found that the number of police officers taking sick days for poor mental health has doubled in six years. “When I did disclose that I was unwell, I had some dreadful experiences,” one retired detective constable said in the report. “On one occasion, I was told, ‘When you’re feeling down, just think of your daughters’. My colleagues were brilliant; the force was not.”

“One day I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”

One twenty-something who works at a newspaper echoes this frustration at the lack of support from the top. “There is absolutely no mental health provision here,” they tell me. “HR are worse than useless. It all depends on your personal relationships with colleagues.”

“I was friends with my boss so I felt I could tell him,” they add. “I took a day off because of anxiety and explained what it was to my boss afterwards. But that wouldn’t be my blanket approach to it – I don’t think I’d tell my new boss [at the same company], for instance. I have definitely been to work feeling awful because if I didn’t, it wouldn’t get done.”

Presenteeism is a rising problem in the UK. Last year, British workers took an average of 4.3 days off work due to illness – the lowest number since records began. I hear from many interviewees that they feel guilty taking a day off for a physical illness, which makes it much harder to take a mental health day off.

“I felt a definite pressure to be always keen as a young high-flyer and there were a lot of big personalities and a lot of bitchiness about colleagues,” one woman in her twenties who works in media tells me. “We were only a small team and my colleague was always being reprimanded for being workshy and late, so I didn’t want to drag the side down.”

Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which was then changed to anxiety and depression, she didn’t tell her work about her illness. “Sometimes I struggled to go to work when I was really sick. And my performance was fine. I remember constantly sitting there sort of eyeballing everyone in mild amusement that I was hiding in plain sight. This was, at the time, vaguely funny for me. Not much else was.

“One day I just felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen so I locked myself in the bathroom for a bit then went home, telling everyone I had a stomach bug so had to miss half the day,” she tells me. “I didn’t go in the next day either and concocted some elaborate story when I came back.”

Although she has had treatment and moved jobs successfully since, she has never told her work the real reason for her time off.

“In a small company you don’t have a confidential person to turn to; everyone knows everyone.”

“We want employers to treat physical and mental health problems as equally valid reasons for time off sick,” says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at the mental health charity Mind. “Staff who need to take time off work because of stress and depression should be treated the same as those who take days off for physical health problems, such as back or neck pain.”

She says that categorising a day off as a “mental health sick day” is unhelpful, because it could “undermine the severity and impact a mental health problem can have on someone’s day-to-day activities, and creates an artificial separation between mental and physical health.”

Instead, employers should take advice from charities like Mind on how to make the mental health of their employees an organisational priority. They can offer workplace initiatives like Employee Assistance Programmes (which help staff with personal and work-related problems affecting their wellbeing), flexible working hours, and clear and supportive line management.

“I returned to work gradually, under the guidance of my head of department, doctors and HR,” one journalist from Hertfordshire, who had to take three months off for her second anorexia inpatient admission, tells me. “I was immensely lucky in that my line manager, head of department and HR department were extremely understanding and told me to take as much time as I needed.”

“They didnt make me feel embarrassed or ashamed – such feelings came from myself”

“They knew that mental health – along with my anorexia I had severe depression – was the real reason I was off work ... I felt that my workplace handled my case in an exemplary manner. It was organised and professional and I wasn’t made to feel embarrassed or ashamed from them – such feelings came from myself.”

But she still at times felt “flaky”, “pathetic” and “inefficient”, despite her organisation’s good attitude. Indeed, many I speak to say general attitudes have to change in order for people to feel comfortable about disclosing conditions to even the closest friends and family, let alone a boss.

“There are levels of pride,” says one man in his thirties who hid his addiction while at work. “You know you’re a mess, but society dictates you should be functioning.” He says this makes it hard to have “the mental courage” to broach this with your employer. “Especially in a small company – you don’t have a confidential person to turn to. Everyone knows everyone.”

“But you can’t expect companies to deal with it properly when it’s dealt with so poorly in society as it is,” he adds. “It’s massively stigmatised, so of course it’s going to be within companies as well. I think there has to be a lot more done generally to make it not seem like it’s such a big personal failing to become mentally ill. Companies need direction; it’s not an easy thing to deal with.”

Until we live in a society where it feels as natural taking a day off for feeling mentally unwell as it does for the flu, companies will have to step up. It is, after all, in their interest to have their staff performing well. When around one in four people in Britain experience mental ill health each year, it’s not a problem they can afford to ignore.

If your manager doesn’t create the space for you to be able to talk about wellbeing, it can be more difficult to start this dialogue. It depends on the relationship you have with your manager, but if you have a good relationship and trust them, then you could meet them one-to-one to discuss what’s going on.

Having someone from HR present will make the meeting more formal, and normally wouldn’t be necessary in the first instance. But if you didn’t get anywhere with the first meeting then it might be a sensible next step.

If you still feel as though you’re not getting the support you need, contact Acas or Mind's legal line on 0300 466 6463.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Truly, madly, politically