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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Left revival, poverty and 'terror'

Daily Mirror: 09/03/2006"

SOCIALISM: In this "brave new world" where markets and money glitter alluringly, how does one account for the "Socialist backlash" in Central and South American countries, such as, Venezuela, Bolivia and to a lesser extent Peru?

This is the poser the ardent advocates of economic globalization - the eloquently enunciated mantra promising, "progress and prosperity" - need to grapple with and answer.

The increasing election of Socialistically - inclined governments in the backyard, so to speak, of the US, with a history of vibrant Socialist governance, is stark proof that economic globalization is not the great leveller it promises to be.

Broadly speaking, the quick-fix formula of economic liberalization has helped the already economically powerful countries to reap vast benefits from the world of money and markets which has opened-up, but if the continued squabbles in the WTO between the world's poor and rich nations are anything to go by, then the globalization mantra should be seen as having let the developing countries down.

To be sure, over the past decade many a Third World country has moved into the upper rungs of the league of prospering nations, but for the vast majority of developing countries, economic globalization has only proved a great divider - relentlessly widening the gap between their rich and poor. Sri Lanka is a case in point.

We are now believed to be a "middle income" country but a substantial number of Lankans are continuing to languish below the poverty line, with unofficial estimates putting this at almost 40 percent of the population.

Nevertheless, in even Sri Lanka, a microscopic minority continues to thrive and grow rich, thanks to the exuberant endorsement of market principles by the power elite and its backers.

Interestingly, the "development paradigm" of "deregulation, liberalisation and privatisation", is receiving fresh, enthusiastic endorsement at an economic forum currently being held in Britain.

Titled "Asia 2015: Promoting Growth, Ending Poverty", the forum which was organised by Britain's Department for International Development, quoted speakers such as Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair and Pakistani Premier Shaukat Aziz as saying that growth and global trade hold the key to easing Asia's poverty problem.

Stating that in the past 20 years, 75 percent of world poverty reduction had happened in Asia, Blair went on to say that the number of people living on under two dollars a day will halve by 2015, but "the road to get there will be long and hard."

The most thought-provoking points in Blair's address, however, were to follow. Tackling poverty, he said, was "a way to tackle extremism. We've seen in Afghanistan how terrorism can take root in a failed state." The stimulant to thinking is in this "tail".

True, economic deregulation and unfettered access to markets promotes growth, but growth only. The challenge is to make this growth filter down to the poor and this is unlikely to happen unless the State intervenes in the redistribution of economic goods and services.

This is the point that does not find sufficient emphasis in the current advocacy of globalization and its perceived benefits. In this era of globalization the State cannot afford to "wither away" because wealth would then tend to accumulate in the hands of the wealthy and powerful.

The State has to remain vibrant to ensure that the wealth thus gained, trickles down to the masses. If it fails in this task, poverty would grow, leading to social discontent, lawlessness and indeed "fundamentalist" violence.

Blair has done well to see this link between poverty alleviation and the State, coupled with the growth of poverty and the upswing in "extremism", but would have contributed more substantially to the current debate on development if he had elaborated on the positive role of the State in this context. Besides, the link between poverty, deprivation and "terrorism" needs to be greatly expanded.

One could only hope that Blair's counterparts in Washington would also see these inter-relationships with the same degree of clarity. Helping in alleviating poverty in the developing world is one of the most effective ways of containing extremist violence and "terrorism".

Rather than the West militarily intervening in trouble spots in the Third World, a far more cost-effective exercise would be to enable these Third World states to avail of development opportunities, besides strengthening their democratic institutions. This holds good for Iraq as well as for the Palestinian Authority areas.

What better way to neutralize any perceived threats to the West, from the Hamas administration in the Palestinian Authority region than by supporting it in the development process?

Rather than go in for heavy-fisted military intervention in those hot spots which are seen as the breeding ground of "terror", the West would do well to ensure that developing countries' primary exports find ready Western markets and that development opportunities and assistance go the way of the Third World. On the other hand, Western military intervention, as could be seen, only leads to spiralling bloodshed and further intensifies "terror".

So, economic liberalization without strong, even-handed States, would only sow the seeds of social discontentment and deprivation in the developing world. Perhaps it is growth only and no equity or redistributive justice which has prompted some Central and South Asian publics to give Socialist governments another try.

This trend would intensify to the degree to which the wealth gap goes unaddressed by particularly Third World administrations.

If China and India are seen as economic powers on the rise in Asia, it is because the problem of balancing growth with equity is to some extent being addressed by their governments.

It would not do, therefore, to minimise the importance of the State in the development process. On the contrary, the State should be revived.

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