Britain’s development secretary is helping to destroy the lives of 20 million people.
By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 2nd April 2002
Clare Short is a paradoxical figure. She has hinted that she might resign if Britain helps the US to invade Iraq. She has bravely blocked the aid money which would have been spent on a useless British air traffic system due to have been deployed, at great expense, in Tanzania. Her picture appears on the cover of this week’s New Statesman magazine clutching a diminutive Tony Blair, whom, we are told, she is “cutting down to size”. The development secretary is widely portrayed, as the Sunday Times puts it, as “the cabinet’s left wing conscience”. Yet many of those she claims to be helping regard her as the angel of death.
For the past fortnight, a delegation of Indian farmers has been travelling around Britain, raising support for their campaign to prevent Clare Short from destroying their lives. Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID) has promised £65 million to the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, to help implement a programme which the state government claims will “totally eradicate poverty”. The people it affects say it is more likely to eradicate the poor.
The scheme envisages the “rationalisation” of farming in Andhra Pradesh. Small farms will be consolidated into large ones, bullocks will give way to tractors and combine harvesters, traditional seed varieties will be replaced by genetically modified crops. Some 20 million people will lose their land or their jobs on the land.
Last month, a “citizens’ jury”, composed of people drawn from the social groups the scheme is supposed to help, rejected the project unanimously. Last year the Guardian obtained a leaked copy of an internal DFID report, which warned that the scheme suffered from “major failings”, threatened the food security of the poor, and offered no plans for “providing alternative income for those displaced.” Yet the “cabinet’s left wing conscience” continues to back it.
So why should the minister who claims to put the lives of the poor above all other considerations and who is prepared, when necessary, to take a principled stand, have decided to support a scheme which her own department says is “confused”, “unfocussed” and “inconsistent”? There are several possible explanations.
The first is that she genuinely believes that development of this kind can help the poor and feed the starving. The government of Andhra Pradesh says it will increase food production and enhance exports, by switching from traditional peasant farming to biotechnology and industrial monoculture. But the problem with relying on new technology to solve hunger is that the technology generally resides in the hands of those who are not hungry. The companies producing genetically engineered crops, for example, have spent billions of dollars on buying up seed banks, altering their contents, then advertising and distributing their new products. They did not spend those dollars to reap rupees. The cultivation of these crops must attract hard currencies to be viable.
This is why, despite all their bombast about feeding the world, the biotech companies have put so much of their effort into developing animal feed. The feed market in the rich world is enormous, and expected to grow by between 30 and 50% in the next 20 years. Millions of acres in the poor world, in other words, are now dedicated to helping the fat to become fatter, with the result that the thin become thinner. Clare Short herself has observed that “those who focus their efforts simply on increasing agricultural production must be under no illusions that they will therefore help the poor to obtain food.”
The government of Andra Pradesh would counter that by selling crops for hard currency, it can obtain the money necessary to raise living standards and feed the starving. But this vision relies on a “trickle-down” theory of economics which even the World Bank has stopped promoting. It is particularly inappropriate where new agricultural technologies are concerned. The biotech companies, for example, have gone to great lengths to ensure that the profits stay in their own hands, patenting crops and the technologies associated with them, designing seeds which cannot reproduce. Food, land and the wealth arising from them are all removed from circulation in the local economy, and shifted instead between the foreign corporations and the new landlords, who in some cases are one and the same.
Already people leaving the countryside in Andhra Pradesh have nothing to go to: private sector employment is declining, and the state has stopped recruiting. When the unemployed are joined by a further 20 million, almost everyone’s prospects are likely to decline. The state government appears to be proceeding on the grounds that enclosures lead to industrial revolutions: a kind of doctrine of historical signatures.
The second possible explanation for Clare Short’s support for this scheme is that, like everyone else in the Cabinet, she has succumbed to corporate pressure and the neoliberal ideology associated with it. Her enthusiasm for corporate protectionism in the form of global intellectual property rights suggests that this is at least partly true. It is also clear that governments tend to club together against their people. Short’s deputy Hillary Benn recently made the extraordinary assertion that “the future is a matter of political will and choice, and only governments have both the legitimacy and the opportunity to exercise that will.” Development policy, in Britain and elsewhere, has often been a matter of brokerage between global elites, at the expense of everyone else. But this doesn’t really answer the question. Why has she aligned herself with power against the people of India, but not against the people of Iraq or Tanzania?
One of the few consistent themes in Clare Short’s speeches and public statements is her visceral loathing of environmentalists. While making the appropriate noises about “sustainability”, she is furiously dismissive of those who seek to promote it. Environmental protesters, she has claimed, are white, priveleged people, opposed to the interests of the poor. She appears to see her battle with the greens as the last outlet for a class war she is no longer permitted to fight on any other front.
Though the great majority of the world’s environmentalists live in poor nations, and though environmental destruction, as her own department acknowledges, hits the poor hardest, environmentalism is still perceived by many people as the preserve of toffs and proto-fascists. Indeed, in its early days as an acknowledged movement in the West, it was. But, now led by the poor world, it has come to represent the very opposite interests to those it championed in the 1930s. Clare Short, however, still appears to see the greens in the rich world as class enemies, while not seeing the greens in the poor world at all.
This formulation provides the necessary cover for her abandonment of the socialist principles she once defended, and her support for corporations and governments against the people. The development secretary’s outdated worldview permits the destruction of 20 million lives.