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

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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