Book review

4   Making Poverty – A History

Tom Lines, Zed Books, 2008

The aim of this book is to analyse the causes of poverty, especially in ‘developing’ countries, and indicate the changes needed to improve matters. The author is well versed in the history and causes of the growing levels of poverty and severe malnutrition in recent decades, and his analysis is systematic and extensively referenced, with a bibliography covering seven pages.

He identifies ‘globalisation’, driven by the neo-conservative ideology of the World Bank and IMF, as the prime cause of the serious deterioration of the situation of the poorest countries since the 1970s, and details how powerful elements in the ‘supply chain’ in food supply exploit and impoverish the weak links – such as the small farmers.

His main expertise is in international agricultural markets, and this is evident in his analysis, but with the underlying assumption that all countries need to export to ‘develop’, though he recognises that food security should prioritise local production for local needs. In his final chapter he looks back to compare the current era with a century ago – late 19th C up to the First World War, noting that European imperialism then was driven by the profit motive, despite the claimed ‘civilising mission’ and the many sincere charitable efforts to bring benefits to the colonial populations.

The profits were to be found not just in exploiting the people and natural resources of the colonies, but in using them as markets for European manufactures. What is not remarked is the desperation of the ‘advanced’ countries at that time, and ever since, to find ways of exporting more in value than is imported – until, that is, the alternative of ever-growing sales ‘on tick’, after a slow start at the end of the 19th C, was pushed from the early ’80s on, with the consequent ever-growing levels of outstanding debts leading up to the present financial crisis which promises to put 1929 in the shade. This was the prime cause of both World Wars, and the underlying cause is to be found in the combination of unequal shares of wealth (c.f. Henry George, and Basic Incomes/National Dividends), and a financial system which grows debt faster than incomes, making for a ‘surplus’ of goods unsaleable within each country, despite unfulfilled needs – at the same time as facilitating its exploitation by the rich and powerful, to increase their wealth and power.

Commenting on the early post-WW2 period, he notes uncritically that the industrial countries’ domestic policy aim was ‘to maintain full employment’ and a ‘welfare state’, etc. – without noting, as I learnt to my disgust at that time, that ‘planned obsolescence’ was being introduced – to prevent abundance from developing and ‘collapsing markets’ and so destroying the profits of the industrialists and moneylenders. ‘Full employment’ has always been a false objective, as an alternative to fair distribution of entitlement to the wealth produced.

He does note that ‘each [industrial] country by 1945 had it own national markets and domestic companies which supplied them, protected from competition by import tariffs’ – local production for local need, which is as it should be for all countries/regions/districts, but has long since been abandoned under ‘globalisation’!

He notes with cautious approval the recent growth of ‘South-South’ trading, and is rightly concerned by the demand for crops for biofuel, though noting that the resulting boost to the prices of some crops benefits some farmers.

In summary, he lists six main policies as needed to end poverty: 1. Restore governments’ power to determine their own policies; 2. End any requirement for export orientation; 3. Restore international prices for agricultural products; 4. Restore the balance of power along international supply chains; 5. Support domestic agriculture and the production of staple foods; and 6. Promote domestic and regional trade, especially in staple foods.

Hinted at throughout but not directly addressed is the underlying struggle for power and wealth of the ruling elites – or the conspiracies they engage in for this against their own populations – with their main weapon being debt, due to the now-worldwide financial system operated by the banks. Over millennia, philosophers and religious leaders have recognised the power of compound interest on debt to destroy society. A money supply depending for its existence on the parallel creation of interest-bearing debt is, as predicted by informed monetary reformers, a clear recipe for the disasters now reaching climax.

Brian Leslie