The 'Globalisation' debate : Alleviation of inequalities, not poverty

by Roushan Zaman

As the wind of "globalisation" keeps blowing across the world, Md. Anisur Rahman, who was a Member of the first Planning Commission in post-independent Bangladesh, has sounded a note of caution about an open-ended free market which, he believes, may not protect the interests of the poor nations.

Giving a lecture on "Globalisation and the Emerging Ideological Struggle", Md. Anisur Rahman, a veteran economist known for his left-leaning and egalitarian views, was critical of the ideology of globalisation through which, he warned, unbridled capitalism is trying to consolidate its triumph and expand its influence over the world in today's post-Cold War era.

While the last decade of the last century of this millennium is characterised by a general collapse of initiatives for social transformation, and also total disillusionment with the development assistance of the developed nations for the so-called 'developing' nations, capitalism has emerged as the "victorious ideology of the day," he said.

Anisur Rahman went on to explain how capitalism today has been seeking to consolidate its victory with a call for globalisation -- for the freeing of markets for unchecked exploitation by private capital across the whole earth "with total disregard for national and global welfare." But resistance to this latest capitalist move came for the first time through large-scale protests during the WTO and the World Bank/IMF conferences at Seattle and Washington.

Rahman's lecture was part of a 'millennium public lecture series 2000' organised by the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) at its premises on July 6. Presided over by M. Asaduzzaman, Director General of BIDS, a national think-tank on economic and development issues, it was attended by a select group of the country's leading economists and development practitioners, including State Minister for Planning Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir.

In his lecture, Rahman looked retrospectively at the experiments and efforts at social change in this century and at the latest capitalist move of globalisation as well, and tried to trace elements of the new protest movement challenging globalisation, posing some central questions that the development discourse needs to address today.

He pointed out that Marxism, calling for radical action for the liberation of the oppressed and exploited and for promotion of the communal spirit in social life, has inspired social and political action across the world. This has resulted in great convulsions in a number of societies and a world-threatening arms race between the powers for and against such changes.

Rahman went on to explain that changes inspired by the Marxist ideology "have nowhere yielded a social order that does justice to the vision; and the edifices built upon major social upheavals for such change have finally collapsed." This, he said, has put the radical camp in disarray, and left mankind without an alternative ideological mooring to challenge capitalism.

On the 'liberal' side, Rahman said, the last half-a-century saw the rise and fall of a faith in 'development' that also mobilised thinking and action on a world scale. The call of 'development' promised prosperity to the 'developing' nations without radical social upheavals. During this period, development discourses swept the social sciences and national and international establishments; foreign "development assistance" flowed to the developing countries to hasten the promised prosperity; and state powers swelled to deliver the product.

But on the whole, Rahman believes, no significant dent on the material condition of the poverty-stricken people has resulted while economic and social inequalities have skyrocketed. He sardonically pointed out that social corruption and crimes have grown alarmingly, and the money for development has been looted by the elite for their personal enrichment. The developed countries are not unhappy at this development, because they know that this stolen money will create a greedy and Westernised oligarchy which will be easier to manipulate than the general people.

Rahman believes that today there is little left of the faith in "development", although national and international establishments and the mainstream economists continue to use the term, saying "now that state efforts have failed, the 'free market' is the best way for nations to develop".

Taking a diametrically opposed view of the conventional as well as the currently practised development economics, Rahman pointed out that concern for distribution equity has been virtually abandoned "in reverence for the competitive pursuit of private greed acclaimed as the main stimulation for growth."

"In its place," he said, "we find a loud concern for poverty alleviation". And then again, Rahman pointed out, the measure of poverty is based on a set of presumed "basic needs" of life -- an absolute measure that ignores human aspirations and the misery derived from one's relative material status in society.

Said Rahman : "Such a concern for poverty alleviation in a minimalist and static sense amounts, in effect, to a concern for barely maintaining the productivity of labour of the ordinary people, as if they are nothing but 'livestock' to be fed and sheltered to yield returns for the privileged society (i.e. for their surplus to be appropriated -- essentially confirming Marx's theory of exploitation)."

He further elaborated: "This 'livestock' notion of poverty provides only for maintenance of 'human capital', and the real question of distribution, or right to a share, of social income comes in fact after this provision!"

Rahman believes that universalisation of this notion of poverty and concern for poverty alleviation only in this maintenance sense signifies, indeed, the final ideological triumph of capitalism on a global scale.

One may see the hollowness of such concern for 'poverty alleviation' in a global strategy of development that entails the flow of international capital to exploit cheap labour in developing countries -- promising on the one hand greater employment to their people to alleviate their poverty, and on the other hand, high returns to capital, but actually ensuring the permanence of poverty so that the Western capitalists continue to have a pool of cheap labour to draw from.

"This, a process which is well on its way, is the essence of rationalisation of 'globalisation' for world development for which client states are being purchased with so-called 'development assistance', confined now more to building of infrastructures to facilitate private entrepreneurship (sic), with the condition that they open up their capital and labour markets to international capital to exploit their cheap labour," says Rahman, a former economics professor who once had a stint at the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

He believes that the notion of poverty, by genesis as well as in the perception of the people concerned, is a relative notion. "As a corollary, poverty can never be alleviated within the framework of gross inequalities in wealth and consumption, and what we, therefore, need is alleviation of inequalities rather than alleviation of poverty as such."

Source: The Holiday, July 1 4, 2000