Wednesday, May 30, 2007

rural development in Afghanistan

I am about to head off for the annual meetings of the Canadian Association for the Study of International Development (CASID), where an important subject for ongoing discussion will be Canada's position in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is, in the history of international development in the post-World War II period, perhaps unique: unfortunately, not because of its 25-plus years of conflict, and not because of its abysmal human development. Rather, Afghanistan is unique because, to my knowledge, no country that is in essence tribal has received so much development assistance. In 2005 Afghanistan received almost US$3 billion in official development assistance (and, of course, much, much more in military assistance). Yet these efforts are, without doubt, failing, for reasons that are entirely predictable.

The heart of the 'development issue' in Afghanistan is the agrarian question: the vast majority of the Afghan population lives in the countryside, practicing forms of subsistence and petty commodity-producing agriculture. Many Afghans, especially in the Pashtun regions of the country, live under a strict set of social and cultural norms, called Pakhtunwali, that generate sets of patron-client relations between relatively weak peasants and relatively more powerful khans. In order to 'develop' Afghanistan, these social relations must be transformed. Unfortunately, current trends in development and military co-operation make this highly unlikely.

Surveys in the south of the country suggest that 80% of rural Aghan men worry about feeding their families. In order to feed their families, many resort to the cultivation of poppies, which feed the international drugs trade. These peasants, of course, receive small shares of the final value added of the opiate. So too do their patrons. Nonetheless, these poppies represent the best livelihood opportunity for rural families. The response of the international community to this situation has been to promote diversification, to lower value added crops, and eradication, following the methodology used by the US in Colombia: chemical spraying. This is an illogical strategy, in that it asks poor peasants to either earn less or have their crops destroyed. Their response, not surprisingly, is to increase support for tribal leaders resisting the international community. The international community calls these leaders Taliban, and, no doubt, some of them support the previous regime. Many of these leaders, however, are not Taliban per se. Rather, they are local tribal patrons that have to maintain the support of their clients. The result, unfortunately, has been an increase in conflict between local leaders and NATO. NATO has increased military operations in the south, targeting the Taliban, but killing scores of civilians, and substantially increasing local resentment against the international community, who, of course, are opposed to the interventions of the international community in any event because of the poppy eradication campaign.

The only sensible solution to this impasse has been suggested by the Ottawa-based Senlis Council--the international community should start buying poppies and using them as inputs into medical opiates that can be sold in developing countries. That way, rural livelihoods in southern Afghanistan would be sustained, support for the international community might rise, and support for Taliban elements might, just might, fall, as families found themselves able to feed themselves.

The Afghan crisis is portrayed in the international media as a conflict between a resurgent Taliban and NATO. This is highly misleading. The international community has intervened in a livelihoods crisis in a way which many rural Afghans see as being one-sided--and not to their benefit. It is little wonder that, day by day, failure in Afghanistan becomes more and more likely.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Afghanistan: war and hunger

After a week of taking a pounding in the press, Canada's Conservative government has yesterday concluded a new deal with the Afghan government regarding access to and treatment of prisoners captured by Canadian military units and transferred into Afghan detention facilities. Previously, Canada had no ability to monitor the treatment of detainees, and Graeme Smith of The Globe and Mail has done a first-rate job of exposing how, on a series of occassions, prisoners that had been transferred into Afghan hands had been subsequently tortured. Now, Canada has secured the most demanding monitoring abilities of any of the external military forces in Afghanistan. Canadian diplomats will have full and unfettered private access to any detainees transferred into Afghan prisons, will have the right to veto the onward transfer of detainees (say, to US authorities), and will have the power to instigate investigations into allegations of torture by prisoners.

These are, of course, extremely welcome developments. One can only wonder, though, of the feelings of those who have been held, for prolonged periods of time, in Afghan facilities, having been originally captured by Canadian forces in the months and years prior to this agreement having been signed. The abuses that these detainees have faced--many of whom are likely to have been totally innocent of any offence--will, no doubt, have provided some fresh recruits for the insurgents fighting coalition forces across Afghanistan. This week fighting has been reported outside Jalalabad in the east, Herat in the west, as well as Kandahar and Helmand provinces. In short, fighting is raging across the breath of Afghanistan more than six years after the collapse of the Taliban.

It was not meant to be like this. The coalition has fallen into the same trap as did the Soviets in the 1980s--intervening in a nation where the state has limited sway, where ethnic identities are strong, and where allegiance to kin and community far outstrips allegiance to notional forms of national identity. As a result, coalition forces, having killed, since the start of the war, tens of thousands of non-combatant Afghans, have created the very opposition that they did not want to fight. This week alone, the UN has found credible reports of 49 civilians killed by US forces around Herat, including women and children. Earlier this week, 6 civilians were killed in Jalalabad in a raid on a compound by US forces. The western media avoids the issue of civilian deaths by continually referring to the insurgents as the Taliban. This is highly misleading. To be sure, there are, no doubt, elements of the Taliban fighting the coalition. However, driving many of the insurgents is a desire for revenge driven by decades of conflict, as well as the knowledge, especially in the south, that while those allied with the Afghan government are doing quite nicely by skimming off large amounts of the aid that is coming in, the vast bulk of the Afghan peasantry is facing a prolonged livelihoods crisis as a result of possibly climate-induced drought. Hunger amidst war in an environment full of weapons, corruption on an endemic scale, vast deaths of non-combatants, and a culture that continually recreates ethnic and kin-based rivalry that can be solved, in a socially legitimate way, by violence, is a formula for a war without end. The west has been intimately involved in Afghanistan for more than 125 years. The recourse to force has never worked in all that time. What is needed is a way of building peace.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

globalization and labour

The International Monetary Fund has, in its most recent edition of the semi-annual World Economic Outlook, made an astonishing, if not, for them, heretical, discovery: that globalization, that great force for worldwide economic prosperity and social justice, has reduced the share of national income going to labour, and, as a consequence, increased the share of national income going to capital, in the form of profits. Has the IMF discovered that globalization is bad for global labour?

Not quite. The IMF argues that while labour's share of income has gone down, the total size of national income has gone up: in other words, the elasticity of income with respect share is both positive and greater than one. This means that labour's income has still gone up, because of the increase in national income, even though the fraction of national income accruing to labour relative to capital has gone down. In a sense, then, the IMF is proposing that globalization is producing an economic valhalla--more money for workers, more profits for capital. Talk about a virtuous circle that global capitalism creates!

The IMF also evaluates what is driving changes in the labour share of income: technological change, an expansion of the global labour force, or labour market policies. The Fund finds, consistent with the dominant economic orthodoxy, that technological change benefits capital and that the expansion of the global labour force benefits capital, but that liberal labour market policies benefit labour. So technological innovation and technical change benefits firms, the expansion of the global labour force as a result of the 'entry' of China and India onto the world stage benefits capital, by driving down global wages, but political economies where it is easy to 'hire and fire' benefit labour.

The IMF has, for the most part, apparently re-discovered elements of classical and Marxist political economy! Marx was, along with some of the classical adherents of the labour theory of value, extremely clear that technological change was biased in favour of capital. Marx's revenge on this point, however, was that as the share of labour in commodities declined, and the organic composition of capital rose, this would lead to a fall in the extraction of surplus value, and hence a fall in the rate of profit. This, according to Marx and others, could, to an extent, be partially offset by tapping into new labour forces had the benefit of increasing the reserve army of labour, fostering competition amongst the labour force that could generate relative, if not absolute, cuts in wages. This could counter, temporarily, the decline in the rate of profit. As for liberal labour market policies, this had a similar effect: disciplining labour so as to offset declines in the rate of profit. Thus, from a Marxist point of view, the Fund has discovered long-standing cyclical and counter-cyclical tendencies within capitalism which were already known by some but which were not accepted by the global economic orthodoxy.

Of course, it is important to stress that Marxist and Marx-inspired measures of the rate of profit are not the same as the profits reported by companies in the Standard and Poors 500. Thus, although Marx believed in a falling rate of profit, this is perfectly compatible with an increasing rate of profit amongst global firms. The two are measuring quite different things; and estimates of Marxian-based profits drawn from conventionally-based measures demonstrate that the increasing profitability of the corporate sector is perfectly compatible with Marx's theory of crisis.

Of course, the IMF does not see its findings as heralding a crisis. Far from it. What is interesting is the extent to which the Fund, the Bank and other global institutions feel the need to justify policies in the face of widespread discontent with the downside of globalization. In an era when resistance is widening, there is a need to shore up the defenses. The IMF offers a fresh pillar for the defense. However, the redoubt is extremely weak. Moreover, it is unlikely to convince global labour, excluded as they are from the prosperity that is accruing to the few during the latest bout of neoconservative globalization.

Iraq: the price continues

From The Economist, 21 April, 20077: 'It was one of the bloodiest weeks for Baghdad since the American invasion fours years ago...Baghdad suffered its worst-ever bombing: nearly 200 people, almost all of them Shia civilians, were killed by five suicide bombs'.

From the Financial Times, 27 April, 2007: 'General warns Iraq violence may worsen'.

The most shocking aspect about the continued bloodbath in Iraq is how mundane it has become. Every day, tens of people die, brutally and violently, and on many days the death toll reaches into more than 100. However, now, unless you carefully read a newspaper, unless you watch a cable news channel all day, unless you relentlessly surf the net, this is not reported. The US and its allies are an occupation force in a Middle Eastern country. They have helped to create a civil war that did not previously exist. As a direct result of their actions, on top of the more than 100000 Iraqi children that died in the 1990s as a direct result of sanctions, an estimate published in the Lancet suggested last year that some 650000 Iraqis have died as a result of the invasion. Four million people are internally displaced refugees. More than one million have fled abroad, and neighbouring countries are struggling to cope with the influx.

Following a prolonged, bloody dictatorship, Iraqis have been subjected to a prolonged, even bloodier, occupation. The US and its allies are creating an entire country so brutalized that when they decide to bring their war to the West, they will know no compulsion, will know no boundaries, in what they are prepared to do. Yet the root cause remains with the West, with the brutalities that we in the West have forgotten about, with the death and destruction that we have wrought, with a war that currently is without end, and whose repercussions will be felt for years, if not decades, to come.

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