Book review:

Contesting the Politics of Allocation

Ed: Lyla Mehta – Earthscan, 2010

The chapters in this book were originally presented by their authors at a conference in 2005, on 'Scarcity and the Politics of Allocation'. The authors are from a wide range of backgrounds, and refer extensively to each other's contributions, as well as to many other sources. Each chapter is followed by copious notes and references.

The general theme is that 'scarcity' is generally 'the result of exclusion and unequal gender, social and power relations…' and is commonly a manufactured concept, not directly related to gross availability in relation to needs – though it is strongly related to manufactured 'wants'.

As illustrations of its general theme, it focuses on distribution of water, food and energy, debating the roles of centralised policy against local initiatives based on local conditions, and finding generally in favour of the latter, especially if supported by the centre.

Generally critical of neo-Malthuanism's prediction of population outgrowing food supply, while not denying that this could eventually happen, it is argued that this ignores the unequal distribution of power and wealth, which is a basic current cause of 'scarcities'. It is a political matter, and commonly used to support centralised 'solutions' where local remedies, based on local knowledge, are more appropriate and effective – especially if given support from the centre. The 'scare' of scarcity has led to scarcity emerging as a political strategy for powerful groups.

'Shortage' is not the same as 'scarcity', and is related to expectation and demand, which itself in today's world is generally related to ability to pay – a matter of wealth distribution, which is a theme addressed by many of the authors. While a more egalitarian sharing of wealth would not cure all the problems of 'scarcity', solutions would be much easier.

The causes of this obscenely unequal distribution of wealth are not taken as relevant to the book's subject, but perhaps they should have been: on page 109, for instance, it is remarked that "Perhaps being disabled by the dependence on commodities would be acceptable were cash to grow freely on trees. But the collision between insatiable desires and a finite purse leaves the consumer in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction." The author should look into the way money is created, and by which entity; this is the major cause of the growing levels of inequality, as well as the 'need' for everlasting 'economic growth', with the advertising 'industry' working hard to create those 'insatiable desires' to maintain it!

The scarcity postulate (in other words, that needs, wants and desires are unlimited and the means to achieve these are scarce and limited) that underpins modern economics need not be universal. Needs, wants and desires do not have to be endless and unlimited. The book's starting point is that 'scarcity' has emerged as a totalizing discourse in both the north and south with science and technology often expected to provide solutions, but such expectations embody a multitude of unexamined assumptions about the nature of the 'problem', about the technologies and about the so-called institutional fixes that are put forward as the 'solutions'.

Brian Leslie