Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Illusion or Opportunity: Civil Society and the Quest for Social Change

By Henry Veltmeyer, 136 pages, Fernwood Publishing.

This hard-hitting book examines the attempt by the U.S. since the 1970s to force countries into its neo-liberal agenda. The move to build one economic system under American stewardship and its individualistic capitalism is usually called “globalization.”

Veltmeyer, a professor of development studies in Mexico, calls this imperialism. He traces this American imperialism from its start in the Cold War, when the U.S. tried to keep countries away from Soviet domination by sponsoring “development,” which included controlling the politics and economies of these countries.

Globalization since the 1970s, the heir to this original development, tries to put a pretty face on imperialism by masquerading as democratic and economic freedom. Non-governmental agencies (NGOs) work in these countries close to the poorest people, and mask this imperialism by pretending to take their needs into consideration.

Yet these NGOs are hardly doing that, considering that they don't ask the people what they need, but instead tell them what they need – including birth control for women in Catholic or Islamic countries, where such practice goes against the local religious culture.

“Aid,” Veltmeyer concludes, “more likely serves the interests of the donor country.” Aid does not empower the poor, disempowered people, but aims to keep in place the same, neo-liberal structures that cause poverty and environmental and social destruction in the first place.

The author continues: “However, it was clear that the agenda behind these policies was not economic development but rather globalization,” which he calls “the new world order.” The only authentic policies for the poor and disenfranchised are those that confront the wealthy and powerful and that overturn the corrupt, unjust system.

Micro-policies, programs that put small amounts of resources into the hands of local poor people, do not work – and are not meant to work – because too many people have to fight over “miserably” few resources. NGOs bill this as social capital. This concept looks worthwhile at first, as it aims to empower the poor. Yet Veltmeyer condemns the number one rule of such programs, which is that the poor must work within the system in order to get the resources.

Social capital programs are therefore counter-productive.

Illusion or Opportunity
takes a big look at the world economic system. By its nature, this system impoverishes and dehumanizes people, tearing them away from their communities and poisoning their land and water. Rampant financial speculation in London, New York, and elsewhere, is particularly hard on the poor. Yet if governments taxed only 1% of the value of this speculation, people the world over would have enough resources for clean water systems.

Veltmeyer demands change to the entire structure of the world economy. Only that will help the poor. He cites terrible statistics to prove that neo-liberalism is a ghastly thing for the world's poor: “The richest quintile [one-fifth] of the world's people consume 86 percent of all products ... while the poorest quintile consumes only 1.3 percent....the three richest persons in the world have assets that exceed the combined GDP of the 48 poorest countries.” And so on.

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