Short Shrift for the World’s Poor

Clare Short, the international development secretary, is selling poor countries down the river

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 25th November 1999.

The Ugandan government knows that the dam it’s proposing to build across the Nile at the Bujagali Falls could be a major liability. It knows that the scheme could add substantially to Uganda’s debt, that it will destroy an important tourist attraction, and that the only body certain to gain from it is an American construction company. But a few weeks ago President Museveni told parliament that the US government had warned that a failure to approve the dam would threaten Uganda’s relationship with the world’s only superpower. Uganda could not afford to alienate America, so he had decided to build it.

Certain forms of development have often been described as little better than colonialism. The Bujagali Dam takes the politics of exploitation a step further. It is colonialism without the development.

But while the United States has used its political muscle to seize the resources of powerless countries all over the world, it is Britain which is fast becoming the most potent threat to the equitable development of the earth’s poorest nations. Over the last year, it has been devising means of forcing developing countries to hand over their key natural assets to First World multinationals. It has helped persuade the European Union to place these among its central demands at the world trade talks starting in Seattle next week. The champion of this new colonialism, to the astonishment of many, is a woman renowned for promoting rather than destroying the economies of impoverished countries, the international development secretary, Clare Short.

Clare Short’s political transformation over the past few years has been more comprehensive than that of anyone else at Westminster. She has quietly shifted from leftwing firebrand to centre-right technocrat. Happily for the government, most people in Britain have yet to notice her metamorphosis. The result is that she still holds moral credit with the left, and this is proving to be an indispensable weapon. The government is using her residual credibility to sell developing countries down the river.

The United Kingdom wants the new round of talks to cover every economic sector. The result, Clare Short insists, will be trade reforms with “the potential to bring real and lasting benefits to the world’s poor”. Introducing public procurement and foreign investment onto the agenda, she argues, will reduce “opportunities for corruption” in developing countries. The government’s proposals, she maintains, are supported by poor nations all over the world, while the voluntary organisations contesting them are speaking on behalf of no one but themselves. None of this is true.

The world’s poorest nations have insisted repeatedly that they want the new trade round to concentrate on addressing the abuses of the last round, rather than piling new issues onto the agenda. There is plenty to be sorted out. The Uruguay round of trade talks, completed in 1993, has, according to the United Nations, cut the export earnings of the poorest countries by up to $265 million. Many of the Third World’s tarriff barriers have been pulled down, while those erected by the First World have stayed up. Rich countries used the last round to introduce a new form of protectionism, granting corporations exclusive rights over plant varieties. The Organisation of African Unity and several Asian countries argue that this provision facilitates the theft of national resources and poses a serious threat to food security. But corporate rights over key resources are likely to be extended still further by the new round of talks, as the United States seeks to prevent Third World countries from producing essential medicines at low prices during national emergencies.

The UK’s attempt to force investment policy onto the Seattle agenda could turn developing nations into little more than sweatshop economies, assembling foreign-made components in foreign-owned sheds. Our government’s proposals will strip away the national regulations which ensure that foreign investors leave something behind, rather than simply grabbing what they want then disinvesting. Nineteen developing countries have set aside valuable negotiating time to contest them.

The United Kingdom’s public procurement proposals effectively forbid developing nations from kickstarting their economies by stimulating domestic production. Alongside the IMF’s iniquitous structural adjustment programmes, they will force these countries to privatise and contract out great swathes of state provision. State corruption will be augmented, as in privatised economies all over the world, by corporate corruption, as companies reshape national spending to suit their own needs.

Last year, Clare Short demonstrated that she is prepared to sacrifice the interests of the poor to the interests of big business by backing the proposed Multilateral Agreement on Investment, a charter for corporate rule formulated by the world’s richest countries. Now she is enhancing her government’s corporate credentials again, by using the World Trade Organisation to facilitate plutocracy. Her loyalty to the New Labour project is unshakeable. Her loyalty to the world’s poor is negotiable.