Wednesday, April 16, 2008

the World Bank and poverty

According to the World Bank's website, 'at the heart of the World Bank’s work in more than 100 countries is the focus on poverty reduction. Almost one billion people live on less than $1 a day; 2.5 billion live on less than $2 a day. Beyond causing hunger and malnutrition, poverty makes people vulnerable to economic shocks, natural disasters, violence, and crime. They are often denied access to education, adequate health services, and clean water and sanitation.'

Excluding China, the number of people living on less than $1 a day has gone up since 1985. Excluding China, the number of billion living on less than $2 a day has gone up since 1985. This begs the question: if 'working for a world free from poverty' is at the heart of the World Bank's mission, why have the numbers of poor people increased in the past 20 years?

The people that work in the World Bank are not evil. They do not arrive at their office, in Washington, or in Hanoi, or in Maputo, and think 'How much poverty can I create today?' Indeed, the World Bank is full of well-meaning people who care passionately about poverty, who have learned a lot about the causes and consequences of poverty, and who have often worked very, very closely with poor people, in order to try and make the world a better place. I should know: many people I know have worked with, or still work for, the Bank, and they are not wicked people.

At issue, then, is how an institution full of well-meaning people can end up deepening the very phenomenon that they purport to want to remedy. How is it that the doctor ends up making the disease worse?

The answer lies in the institutional structure of the World Bank, and the career structure for those that work within it. The World Bank as an institution is dominated by representatives from the North, and, as Robert Wade of the London School of Economics has admirably shown in work that was published almost a decade ago, within those representatives, the role of the United States Department of the Treasury (the US finance ministry) is paramount. The US Treasury ultimately decides who becomes President of the World Bank. It has a disproportionate degree of influence in who assumes senior positions within the World Bank. Further, non-American Executive Directors at the Bank, who, along with the President, tend to set day-to-day policy and do pivotal things like approve loans, tend to understand the need to follow the lead of the United States in decision making. Thus, the Bank, which is staffed by a heterogeneous group of often very talented people, is an extremely hierarchical structure--almost Leninist in its design--in which those at the top make decisions in light of their belief system, and often (willingly) ignore good advice from those at lower levels of administration.

In terms of career structure, the World Bank tends to reward the orthodox. The World Bank is dominated by economists trained in the United States in neoclassical economics, which formally demonstrates the efficiency of free markets and private producers and the benefits of international trade and competition. People whose economic ideas stray from this agenda--people like Branko Milanovic and Joesph Stiglitz--have had a very hard time getting their ideas listened to, let alone accepted, and the message to the vast majority of the staff of the Bank is clear: don't upset the apple cart if you want to maintain the privileges that being a World Banker brings. Again, then, the career structure of the Bank is one that reinforces a pre-existing set of views, rather than challenging those views.

It is this combination of a hierarchical institutional structure and a career path that rewards orthodoxy over challenge which results in the World Bank clinging to a set of policy prescriptions that have, in essence, changed very little in 25 years and which have had a significant global impact, in that they have contributed to increasing the number of poor people in the world.

goodbye Rick Hillier

This weblog has been very quiet, for several months. The pressures of work have not allowed me to follow up several issues on which I have wanted to comment--the protests in Tibet, the elections in Zimbabwe, and the character of the World Bank and IMF, to name three. However, I have been roused out of my silence by the news yesterday that General Rick Hillier, Canada's Chief of Defence Staff since February 2005, is retiring.

Rick Hillier has been portrayed in the press as a straight-talking soldier concerned above all with the troops under his command, who has waged a struggle for the hearts and minds of Canadians to support the military while it undertakes its twice-extended mission in Khandahar. I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of Hillier's beliefs, but I do have reason to question them.

When Hillier became Chief of Defence Staff, Canada had 600 soldiers stationed in Kabul with NATO's International Security Assistance Force, known as ISAF. These soldiers were undertaking a fairly 'classic' Canadian international military operation: peacekeeping in the comparative safety of Kabul. Peacekeeping was what Canada's military, globally, was known for up until the appointment of Hillier. With that appointment, though, things changed.

As Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang convincingly demonstrate in their excellent The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar, it was Hillier who, in the wake of the Chretien government's opposition to the Iraq war and the Martin government's withdrawal from the United States' missile defence program, recognized an opportunity to placate the United States while at the same time fundamentally transforming Canada's military. That opportunity was the 'mission' in Kandahar, an infinitely more demanding assignment than Canada had undertaken in Kabul. The Martin government's agreement to send Canadian soldiers to Kandahar was basically Hillier's doing; those in the government had little idea about Afghanistan or Kandahar. They agreed because the 'mission' eased pressure on the United States military, both in Afghanistan but also in Iraq, and in so doing pleased those who had been unhappy with several foreign policy decisions that directly affected the United States.

It also did something else, however: Kandahar was and is a war zone. It is not a place where peacekeepers try to keep warring parties apart and maintain order. It is a place where order must be imposed through the use of force, because local warlords oppose the intervention in Afghanistan. As a result, Canadian forces have been heavily engaged, for the first time since the Korean War, in offensive military operations against opponents that the media dubs 'the Taliban' but whom, as Graeme Smith of The Globe and Mail has so ably demonstrated, are not the remnants of the former government of Afghanistan as rather an assortment of those opposed to Western military involvement in Kandahar. At best, the Pashtuns fighting the Canadians might be termed 'neo-Taliban'.

The point, then, is that Hillier has transformed the Canadian military from a peacekeeping force into a war-fighting machine. This has, no doubt, greatly increased the cohesion of the military themselves, and has also increased the recognition of the military amongst ordinary Canadians. It has, however, also led to the deaths of 82 Canadian soldiers and a significant reinforcement of opposition in Kandahar to the Canadian presence (many of whom are mistaken for American soldiers), which now totals 2500 soldiers. Most importantly, however, while the 'mission' has to terminate in 2011, Canada--and NATO--has no strategy in place to deal with the possibility that the country will remain largely hostile for the foreseeable future. This is a conflict that cannot be won militarily, as the history of Afghanistan shows, and will be difficult to win politically, given widespread views that the government of Hamid Karzai is not a national government but, at best, a weak Kabul government. Hillier has led Canada into what is, in essence, a no-win scenario; and for this, his tenure as Chief of Defence Staff will probably, over time, be viewed much more negatively than is currently the case.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

recent activities, winter 2008

The new year promises to be a busy one. My teaching a Trent University will, of course, dominate a lot of my time between now and late April. Both the courses I teach, Human inequality in global perspective and Agrarian change and the global politics of food, are going well--the fall term results were as I would have hoped them to be.

Editorial work on my next book, again co-edited with C Kay, and entitled Peasants and Globalization: Political Economy, Rural Transformation and the Agrarian Question will (finally) be completed in January; I will be glad to put that project to bed.

A review essay on Sardar Sarovar, entitled 'State, society and Sardar Sarovar', and dedicated to the memory of Ranjit Diwedi, will finally be published by Contemporary South Asia in March, as will my book chapter on gender relations and macroeconomics. Both have been in the pipeline for some time. Work on a book chapter on gender relations and the macroeconomics of the Millennium Development Goals is also almost complete. I will start work on a review essay on the World Bank's World Development Report 2008: Agriculture for Development, a note on landlessness in Vietnam's agrarian transition for the Journal of Agrarian Change, and catch up with two (somewhat delayed) book reviews for Development and Change. Finally, I will be giving seminars in the next 3 months at Queen's University in Kingston as well as at Trent University.

In terms of professional activities, I will be, as part of a team of external evaluators, be undertaking a review of York University's International Development Studies Program; that work will be done in January. I have also been asked, in my capacity as Co-Chair of the Editorial Board of the Canadian Journal of Development Studies, to review, along with other colleagues, the publishing model of the Journal, with an eye towards concluding deliberations on the future way in which the Journal will be published.

Clearly, it will be, as usual, a very busy few months.

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