So I was queued up at the university train-ticket shop. A middle-aged man was sitting on a sofa while his wife was buying tickets to some destination. Bound by my old habit of starting conversations with total strangers, true to form and tradition, I started a conversation with him. After the initial hi-hello, he asked me, “So what you are you doing here?” “I am a computer science researcher”, I said happily. “And what do you do?” “I am the Chief Economist of the World Bank.” Haha. Just like that! I was taken aback for a moment at the way he said it (quite diffidently). He was Kaushik Basu, the chief economist and vice president of the World Bank, from the buzzing land of Bengal, India. After overcoming my momentary surprise, I ventured to needle him a bit (again true to form and tradition :P), asking a shamelessly rhetorical question: “So has the world bank changed its policies during the last few years, having realized that they have been disastrous for the poor of our world?”
But surprising me, nodding his head, he replied: “Yes, indeed, lots of mistakes have been made. And yes, they are trying to change. For example, previously, they would never have appointed an Indian man as the chief economist of the world bank”. And then we talked about the similarities between Karachi and Mumbai, and Lahore and Delhi; how Mumbai and Karachi were twin cities and so too were Lahore and Delhi. His wife got the tickets, our chat ended and we shook hands.
So what are these “mistakes” that Mr Basu refered to? Putting it simply, the world bank encourages loans to third world elites and inspires them to borrow ever greater sums of money (often the borrowers are corrupt dictators). Subsequently, the Bank together with the IMF, forces the countries to follow the infamous Structural Adjustment Programs to repay the loans. And this causes the poor people of the country, who didn’t borrow the money in the first place, to suffer in repaying these debts. These policies do create a tiny sector of rich elites in third world countries, while leaving the masses in the lurch. Consider:
In 1998, following the Structural Adjustment Programs, India opened up its seed market to global agri-giants. The results have been disastrous. Quoting Indian activist Vandana Shiva, “Farm saved seeds were replaced by corporate seeds, which need fertilizers and pesticides and cannot be saved. Corporations prevent seed savings through patents and by engineering seeds with non-renewable traits. As a result, poor peasants have to buy new seeds for every planting season and what was traditionally a free resource, available by putting aside a small portion of the crop, becomes a commodity. This new expense increases poverty and leads to indebtedness.”
Arguably the greatest Indian movie ever, Mother India, tackled the problem of loan-sharks and the way poor farmers in India had to suffer all their lives in repaying huge interests on small loans. In this day and age, World Bank and IMF serve as loan-sharks, while Indian farmers commit suicide every 30 minutes due to indebtedness, caused by programs initiated by these august bodies. Many farmers commit suicide by consuming the very pesticides that they were forced to buy…
And this is just one story, in one country. One hopes Mr Basu is right, and the World Bank ends up doing some good as opposed to the wretched horror it has wrought upon the poor of the world for so many years. Of course, in order to do that, the dominant model, the dominant ideology of the economists who fanatically believe in the neo-liberal agenda, the free-market ‘religion’; has to change.