In the early 1980s Willy Brandt created an Independent Commission to study world poverty. Brandt was concerned that the prevailing economic system was the cause of immense poverty, suffering and degradation. He proposed introducing emergency measures to alleviate this, realising full well that these measures would always only touch the surface of the problem and that until the deep underlying cause (an unjust economic system which favours the first world to the detriment of the third world) was addressed, the problem would never be solved.
In a series of recommendations the Brandt Report called for sweeping changes to be made to the global economy, rendering it more democratic, fair and equitable. Brandt was critical of the structure of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which were, he said, unrepresentative of many of the countries that they served. The policies of the World Bank and the IMF are determined by the finance ministers, central bank governors and treasury secretaries of the G7. This is openly undemocratic, since third world countries have no say in policy making.
Brandt had a vision for the future in which all the issues facing the world would be discussed by the leaders and representatives of every nation, rather than by a small group of rich nations (the G7) as is the case today. Poor countries would have a chance to say what their needs were, rather than having solutions, which in many cases further compounded their problems, foisted upon them. Poor countries would have a say in global economic policy making. Their participation in institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF would be real, rather than an illusory presence and they would be listened to.
Brandt recognised the importance of organisations such as the World Bank, IMF, World Health Organisation (WHO), World Trade Organisation (WTO), UNESCO etc. He did not propose doing away with these organisations, but rather making them more accountable to the people they purport to serve. He wanted to see more co-operation between international organisations and between world nations in order to solve the many problems facing the world today.
The Brandt Report was well publicized, read and discussed, but twenty years later none of Brandt’s recommendations have been put into practice. Indeed the third world has been plunged deeper and deeper into poverty, hunger and degradation, while environmental destruction and pollution have continued to increase.
Budget and trade deficits plague most countries but in the third world debt actually interferes with many countries’ capacity to look after their citizens. Brandt recommended that third world debt should be reduced through partial or unconditional debt forgiveness. However, despite the fact that third world countries have long since repaid the value of their debts through their interest repayments, in most cases their debts have never been forgiven and indeed have continued to rise.
There are several reasons for the increase in third world debt. One is that when the money was originally lent to third world countries, export revenue for raw materials and crops in most third world countries was more than adequate for the repayment of interest on loans and their currencies were tied to the gold standard. However in 1971 the International Financial Institutions demolished the gold standard and floated the world’s currencies. Brandt warned that the abolition of the gold standard was a rash and foolish move. When the gold standard was in existence every country knew what its currency was worth. It could devalue it at its peril, but that was the choice of an individual country. Ever since the gold standard was dropped, no country has been able to predict what its currency would be worth from one day to the next. Currencies are bought and sold on the international stock market. Small countries, having far less currency, are more vulnerable to the buying and selling of investors, who can reduce the value of their currencies by anything up to 90% overnight, just by selling it. Countries such as the US and Britain with strong currencies are not as susceptible to these massive fluctuations. The abolition of the gold standard resulted in massive devaluation of many third world countries’ currencies.
Another reason for the increase in third world debt is that the price of third world commodities has fallen constantly over the years, making it harder and harder for these countries to repay their loans.
As many third world countries struggled to repay mounting interest out of diminishing export revenue, in many cases they have been obliged to take on further loans. These further loans were tied to the strict conditions of Structural Adjustment Programmes: programmes imposed on the receiving countries, obliging them to cut back on health care, education, sanitation and housing programmes, thus further worsening the plight of their citizens.
Brandt recommended convening a summit of world leaders to plan and mobilize a major international relief program, targeting hunger and poverty. He proposed that world leaders should organise the provision of basic necessities such as food, clean water, health and medical care. He also proposed that these world leaders should organise preventable disease control programmes in poor regions of the world. Recently the World Health Organisation has reiterated the need for disease control programmes, but (a) the WHO has no power to enforce its proposals and (b) the countries worst affected by infectious diseases lack the money to implement disease control programmes.
In the world today twelve million people die of preventable disease every year. The largest number dies from dysentery and diarrhoea. These diseases are caused by water born disease organisms. Far from improving the provision of clean water in the third world, International Financial Institutions have worsened the situation by imposing structural adjustment programmes which include the privatisation of water supplies. In many parts of the world people cannot afford to pay for water, so where their water supply has been privatised they have been forced to fall back on the remaining, often unsafe, meagre water supplies which have not been privatised. As water privatisation increases so will the incidence of water born disease.
1,600 million people worldwide are at risk of infection from malaria. 300 million people are infected (of which 275 million in Africa) and somewhere between 1.4 and 2.8 million people die of this disease each year. It is caused by the Plasmodium parasite, which lives in mosquitoes. Over the years the parasite has become resistant to all the drugs used to treat the disease. Combinations of drugs now have to be used to treat and prevent it and millions of people in the third world cannot afford these drugs, all of which have serious side effects. There is no vaccine against malaria.
The mosquito which carries the plasmodium parasite is not restricted to the third world. This same mosquito lives and breeds in Europe. But Europe does not suffer from malaria. Why is this? A century ago malarial plagues used to strike many parts of Europe in the summer, especially the poorer Mediterranean countries. However as these countries drained their swamps and treated the malarial victims in hospital, the disease was eradicated. The malarial mosquito continues to live in many European countries but because the people of these countries are not infected, the mosquitoes that bite these people do not become infected. One of the reasons why the majority of malarial sufferers are to be found in Africa is because Africa is poor.
The majority of the population in Africa live too far from the city to obtain any sort of medicine. Road and rail infrastructure is often rudimentary and people are too poor to pay for public transport even where it does exist. Hospitals, doctors and nurses are insufficient to treat the vast number of infected people. To compound this already desperate situation, much needed doctors and nurses are leaving many African countries, where their governments can no longer afford to pay them a living wage, to provide medical care in the west. Another reason why malaria is endemic in Africa is because there is no concerted pan-African mosquito control programme. And for as long as wars continue to rage in many African countries no such programme can ever be implemented.
The deadly African sleeping sickness occurs in 36 African countries, including Cameroon, Chad, Congo, Republic of Central Africa, Zaire and Sudan. It is caused by the African trypanosome, a parasite that lives in the tsetse fly. 50 million people are at risk of catching it, despite the fact that the disease was almost brought under control in the early 1950s. Sleeping sickness can be controlled simply by trapping the tsetse flies which cause the disease. Cheap effective traps can be made from sticks and cloth impregnated with cow urine. In the 1950s a disease control programme was implemented in all the African countries affected by the disease.
However wars over mineral deposits and oil have interfered with tsetse control programmes, and cutbacks in health spending ordered by the IMF have put an end to diagnosis and treatment of infected carriers of the disease. As long as economic conditions continue to worsen in Africa, sleeping sickness epidemics remain a continuous threat. There is no vaccine against sleeping sickness and the few drugs which can be used to treat it are highly toxic. The people at risk live in some of the poorest counties of the world, so there is no incentive for the big western pharmaceutical companies to put money into research and development of drugs and/or vaccines to treat the disease.
200 million people in Africa, the Americas, Asia and Europe are at risk of infection with Leishmania, a hideous, disfiguring and potentially lethal disease which can affect the skin, the viscera or the nasal passages. It is caused by the Leishmania parasite which lives in the phlebotamine sand-fly. Half a million people will die from Leishmaniasis each year, if not treated. All the anti-leishmanial drugs are highly toxic, the first choice drugs being based on antimony. The parasites are becoming increasingly resistant to the current drugs and there is an urgent need for new, effective, safe drugs.
In parts of Afica 90% of the population suffer from Schistosomiasis (Bilharzia) a debilitating disease caused by the schistosome parasite, which lives in a water snail. This parasite leaves the snail at certain times of the day, swims through the water and burrows into the skin of anyone who puts their feet into the water. This disease can be cured by a single dose of the drug praziquantel. It can be prevented by a number of health measures: educating the public not to swim in infected water, not to urinate into the rivers and streams, snail control measures and protection of rice field workers with Wellington boots. Ducks can be used to control snails in rice fields. In China, where a concerted effort was made, schistosomiasis was brought under control and in all but a few remote areas, was eradicated.
Chagas disease is caused by a parasite which lives in the reduvid bug, an insect which doesn’t even fly. Originally these bugs lived in a small area in Central America. However they found ideal conditions in the cracks and crevices in the houses of the poor, and so the bugs spread, taking the disease with them. Over the past century Chagas disease, a highly debilitating incurable disease which affects the heart muscle, has spread all over central and southern America even reaching some of the southern states of the US. This disease is completely preventable, simply by providing adequate housing, where the reduvid bug cannot survive.
AIDS is yet another example of how a disease can have a far worse impact on the third world than it does in the West. The AIDS virus has spread not just through sexual transmission, but also through the re-use of hypodermic needles and contaminated blood and serum. Many third world countries lacked the equipment for screening blood products and re-used needles before the danger of this became apparent, because they could not afford to use new sterile needles.
Why is Queensland, Australia, which enjoys a tropical climate, apparently free of the tropical diseases which affect the third world? This is because it is not a poor country. White Australians do not suffer from malaria, leishmaniasis or dysentery because they have adequate medical provision, housing and clean water. However, just as the poor in the US suffer from some terrible parasites (eg hookworm) which do not affect the rest of the population, Australia too has its forgotten poor community – the Aborigines, the only members of the Australian community to be affected by tropical diseases.
Brandt stressed the necessity for International co-operative disease control programmes. A co-operative approach to world health could rid the world of much of the ill health which holds back the populations of the poorest countries. The WHO has written reports outlining problems such as dysentery, bilharzia, malaria, etc. recommending control measures, but the countries affected do not have the money to implement these measures. The countries worst affected by tropical diseases are all in the third world, struggling to repay interest on their debts and forced into cutbacks on health care due to structural adjustment programmes.
The current world economic system is failing the majority of the world’s population. Much disease is preventable through insect control programmes, clean water provision, adequate housing, diet and education.
Brandt recommended that rather than allowing corporations to invest and produce mainly where wages, taxes, trade and financial regulations and environmental safeguards are the lowest, there should be a commitment to raise the income and quality of life of people in developing nations. However the International Financial Institutions allow big corporations to treat the world like a giant chess board on which they can move their industries about like pawns, taking advantage of low wages and lax environmental controls in poor countries, to produce goods at minimum cost and maximum profit. Thus corporations are allowed to profit from cheap labour in the third world, but are not obliged to ensure the health and wellbeing of these same workers. These are the double standards which were employed by the Victorian Industrialists in Britain at the turn of the last century. In the twenty first century, such double standards are shameful.
Brandt proposed reducing arms exports. He wanted to see a huge reduction in the sales of arms and proposed high tax on arms exports to be used for international development. He wanted more transparency for arms exports. It is iniquitous that huge sums should be spent on the development, production and sale of armaments, when so large a part of the world lives in abject poverty. Sale of armaments and backing of unjust despotic regimes has led to destabilisation and war in many parts of the world, especially Africa. 95% of arms are manufactured in the first world and 98% of wars are fought in the third world.
It should not be forgotten that countries who rely on the export of arms to provide a large proportion of their national income need to promote the sale of these arms. It is not in the interest of an arms producing country to promote peace. Without international controls such as those proposed by the Brandt Reports, the arms trade will continue to grow and conflict will continue to be fuelled. The importance of transparency cannot be overstated. If the entire population of Britain were aware of the magnitude of the arms trade originating in Britain and of the impact of this arms trade on the third world, there would be an outcry. Huge numbers of people would demand the closure of factories producing weapons.
Brandt stressed the importance of preserving the environment. The first world does far more damage to the environment but the third world suffers more as a result of that damage. A healthy environment is essential for the well-being of all who inhabit the earth and the earth can only be preserved by co-operative effort. A world governed by financial institutions is not and cannot be a stable, sane or healthy world.
We should, of course, be concerned for the plight of third world populations purely for humanitarian reasons. But there is a further reason why we should be concerned. It has been well proven that poverty leads to a high birth rate. In numerous cases, where the standard of living has improved in a country, the birth rate has dropped as a result. Even in Catholic countries like Italy, this has been the case. The poorest countries in the world suffer from hunger, lack of housing, sanitation, clean water supplies and health care. And yet their populations continue to grow. Even in countries racked by war, populations continue to grow. People in poor countries have many children because they know that many of them will die. They have children to help them grow food and to look after them when they are old. They even have children so that they can grow up to be soldiers or freedom fighters.
If we do nothing to remedy the current world economic situation, poverty will continue to increase and the world population will continue to expand. Famines, epidemics, massive population migrations, environmental degradation and wars will be the result. If on the other hand, we are prepared to envisage a world where essential changes have been made to the global economy, where every citizen of the world has enough for his/her need, then poverty can be eradicated, the world population can be stabilised and wars can become a thing of the past. We need a global economic system in which third world countries have a say. Third world countries should receive a fair price for their raw materials. They should not have to pay out their entire export earnings revenue in interest on loans. Housing, health and education should be considered the right of every citizen of the world.
Image credit: Wegmann Ludwig, Wikipedia