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Economic growth or economic sufficiency?

With global warming creeping up on us, it is clearly time to take stock of the way we do things. Few people would dispute that our pattern of unbridled economic growth is contributing to climate change as never before. Factories spew toxic emissions into the murky skies, lorry and car exhaust pipes belch fumes into the air while bulldozers mow down pristine rain-forests.

And yet there is a reluctance to point fingers at the corporate culprits and our unsustainable model of economic growth. We cannot aspire to higher and higher levels of consumption without harming the ecological balance and depriving others of a decent standard of living.

Let’s take a look at the choices that Thailand is coming to grips with. It has put its negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement with the United States on hold. Certainly, we could learn a thing or two about what a “sufficiency economy” is all about from our northern neighbour.

This is an article I wrote for Inter Press Service last September:

The king, who has travelled extensively in remote areas of the country to see firsthand the impact of policies on the poor, is hugely revered in Thailand. His vision of self-sufficiency based on the eradication of greed is rooted in Buddhism and Thai culture. The sight of the king sitting down on the ground, chatting with villagers about their livelihood is familiar among many Thais, winning him many admirers. Guided by a philosophy of economic self-reliance, and emphasising agrarian reform, the king has a famous line: ‘‘pho gin pho yu’’ (literally ‘‘enough to eat, enough to live on’’).

‘‘It is not important to be an economic tiger,” said the king a year after the Thai economy crashed in 1997. “What matters is that we have enough to eat and to live. A self-sufficient economy will provide us just that. It helps us to stand on our own and produce enough for our consumption.” He constantly reminds Thais that while pursuing material security, they should not forget to strive for inner peace of mind through spiritual purification.

Not surprisingly, this ideal of self-sufficiency backed by the royalty and grounded in Buddhist ethics is heady stuff in Thailand. ‘‘It has been a powerful counterweight, at least ideologically, to the big growth, big exports, big corporation and big corruption, CEO-style of Thaksin,’’ observed the social anthropologist. Full article

The 400-lb gorilla vs the skinny global justice movement

The real war in our world today is not “the war on terror” but a larger, more critical struggle for the soul of our world.

A monumental battle is taking place between those who want to ram through neo-liberal economic policies that favour the large multinationals and those trying to formulate more enlightened pro-people economic policies that promote social justice and harmony with Nature and the spiritual realm.

It is a struggle that is manifested in most countries around the world in different ways. Think about it.

The following is an excerpt from a piece I wrote for the Malaysian Herald last August:

In one corner of the ring, sits a 400-pound gorilla, the United States surrounded by its elite network power brokers, promoting a neo-liberal globalisation that largely benefits transnational corporations, widens income disparities and harms the environment.

In the other corner of the ring, you have the skinny global justice movement, surrounded by activists and boosted by the support of people like Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia who want to provide a real alternative to the neo-liberal order.

These countries have been investing heavily in health care and education and using oil revenues to empower the rural poor. Such pro-people policies have put neo-liberal pro-corporate policies in a very bad light.

No wonder George Bush hates Hugo Chavez’s guts – and Chavez calls Bush a ‘devil’. But it goes well beyond name-calling. Behind it lies a struggle for the very soul of the world. In essence, it is a struggle between the corporate-led model of globalisation (favouring the elites and transnational corporations) and pro-people economic policies that favour the vast majority of people who are poor.

Beware the ‘reformers’ in sheep’s clothing

When I attended the Annual Meetings of the Boards of Governors of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Singapore, one thing I quickly realised was how even language – the common everyday words we are familiar with – could be hijacked by Big Business to mask ulterior motives. Sugar-coated, benevolent words are used to disguise the mercenary goals of major transnational corporations.

Beware especially when they start talking about “reforms”. Always ask, “reforms” in whose favour: Big Business or the ordinary people? There’s a world of difference between the two.

This is an excerpt from a piece I wrote for the Herald in Malaysia last September:

The eeriness of it all reminded me of Orwell’s “1984” and Big Brother. What struck me most was the ‘doublespeak’ used throughout the annual meetings to hijack ordinary words to serve the hidden agenda of neo-liberal policies.

Thus, there was much talk about ‘poverty eradication’, ‘good governance’ and ‘sustainable development’. This was part of a public relations offensive to mask the fact that the IMF and the World Bank have been pushing neo-liberal policies that hurt the poor and harm the environment. Such policies have benefited large transnational corporations and the private sector instead. For all the talk of poverty eradication, the actual voices of the poor were nowhere to be heard inside the convention centre, save for the activists who articulated their concerns.

Even the word “reforms” has been hijacked. Thus, you are a “reformer” if you are introducing business-friendly policies such as promoting privatisation, weakening regulations on labour and environmental standards, and removing subsidies for essential services such as health care and education. You are not deemed a “reformer” if your economic policies protect workers and the environment over corporate interests.

There was much talk of “good governance’, which according to the Bank’s president Paul Wolfowitz, was broader than anti-corruption. This was the same Wolfowitz who has been widely seen as an architect of aggressive US policies in Iraq and the Middle East.

In a sense, this is no coincidence. Corporate-led globalisation promotes a grab to control and secure scare natural resources and this is essentially what is going on around the world especially in the rush to secure strategic control of oil in the Middle East. It also leads to imperialistic wars (think the “war on terror”); the increase in arms spending by the superpowers, which benefits large US and Europeans arms manufacturing firms; and the push for privatisation – which in turn to leads to an attack on labour, wages and the collective bargaining process.

For all the talk of ‘good governance’, the IMF and World Bank have done business in the past with dictators and corrupt regimes, putting entire nations into debt. This sort of debt is known as ‘odious debt’ because the ordinary people in those borrower nations were not consulted about the loans: the deals are essentially between the international financial institutions and the local elites. And yet, it is the ordinary people who have to bear the brunt of repayment of loans.

Misguided Christian Zionists

I sometimes come across Christians with a distorted view of the Middle East. Blindly supporting Israel, they fail to see that oppressive and expansionist Zionist policies have led to much misery and suffering among Palestinians, who live in dehumanising conditions whether in Gaza or the West Bank or as refugees in neighbouring countries.

This is an excerpt from a piece I wrote last August for the Herald in Malaysia:

To be anti-Semitic (anti-Jew) is to be bigoted and racist. To be anti-Zionist, on the other hand, is to legitimately oppose a political and ideological movement that reflects a sense of Western European ethnic supremacy and domination in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, some people – including Christians who misguidedly support the Zionist movement – sometimes accuse critics of Zionist ideology of being anti-Semitic.

These Christians invariably subscribe to ‘Christian Zionism’, a modern theological and political movement that embraces the most extreme ideological positions of Zionism. Such extreme positions place further obstacles to the possibility of achieving a just peace between Israel and Palestine.

The Christian Zionist worldview sees the Gospel through the lens of empire and colonialism instead of through the prism of the love, compassion and justice of Christ. Christian Zionists therefore place heavy emphasis on apocalyptic events, military might and the end times, which they believe will lead to an almighty showdown at Armageddon. For them, the state of Israel can do no wrong, no matter how patently brutal, colonialist or racist their policies may be.

The bishops of the various denominations in Jerusalem have roundly criticised these misguided Christians and their beliefs. “We categorically reject Christian Zionist doctrines as false teaching that corrupts the biblical message of love, justice and reconciliation,” said the Patriarch and Local Heads of Churches in Jerusalem in a joint statement on 22 August 2006.

The “Jerusalem Declaration on Christian Zionism” was signed by Michel Sabbah, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem; Swerios Malki Mourad, the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem; Bishop Riah Abu El-Assal of the Episcopal Church of Jerusalem and the Middle East; and Bishop Munib Younan of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land.

“We further reject the contemporary alliance of Christian Zionist leaders and organisations with elements in the governments of Israel and the United States that are presently imposing their unilateral pre-emptive borders and domination over Palestine,” the Patriach and bishops added. This, they said, inevitably leads to unending cycles of violence that undermine the security of all peoples of the Middle East and the rest of the world.

World Bank profits from poor nations

When people think of the World Bank, the image they often see in their minds is one of a global financial institution that provides loans to developing nations to raise their standard of living. That is basically the picture that the Bank’s PR people would like you to see.

The reality is quite different. The World Bank actually profits from poorer countries in terms of net cashflow going into the Bank.

When Inter Press Service asked me to cover the proceedings of the meetings of the Boards of Governors of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Singapore late last year, I jumped at the chance. It was a rare opportunity to enter the “lions’ den”, so to speak, and see first-hand how the movers and shakers of the global financial architecture operate.

What struck me most was the air of Big Brother all around the impressive Suntec convention centre in Singapore. Battened down under a heavy security cordon, the convention centre had plasma TV sets beaming news from BBC, CNN etc – all flashing the same corporate-friendly messages in benevolent sweet-sounding language. The titans of Big Business – the transnational corporations – are indeed the new rulers of the universe.

At the convention centre, men and women in immaculate suits, led by Paul Wolfowitz, the Bank’s president (the same guy who pushed for more aggression against Iraq), spoke soothing words of “poverty eradication” and “good governance”. But there was one thing missing – the poor people, those people the Bank purports to help, were nowhere to be seen, their views unsolicited.

This was the article I came up with:

SINGAPORE, Sep 19 (IPS) – The World Bank receives more from developing countries than what it disburses to them says a new report released Tuesday as finance ministers endorsed a controversial new Bank plan to tackle corruption in developing countries.

The Social Watch Report 2006, released here at the annual meetings of the Bank group and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), stressed the need to reform the current international financial structure. Net transfers (disbursements minus repayments minus interest payments) to developing countries from the Bank and the International Bank for Reconstruction (IBRD), have been negative every year since 1991, the report pointed out.

The IBRD is now not making any contribution to development finance other than providing funds to service its outstanding claims. The International Development Association (IDA), which provides interest-free credits and grants to the poorest developing countries to boost their economic growth, is the only source of net financing from the Bank. Full article