This is NOT the official weblog of Mark Thomas; this is a place to post his articles and news to bring them to a wider audience. This blog is in no way endorsed by the activist/comedian Mark Thomas. Most of the posts appeared on - hopefully they won't object to them being republished here.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Sealing my jam jars with attitude

I recently discovered that my Make Poverty History wristband is an ideal size for keeping the greaseproof paper on jars of home-made jam. Guests to our house can now choose from an array of politically conscious preserves. We have jams opposed to bullying, anti-racist jams, choose-life jams and a quirky anarchist conserve to Make Property History. All I need now is the Qaeda jihadist wristband Make Yourself History and new Labour's Make Politics History, and I will have the set.

So put aside the wristbands, put aside the "at least Live 8 is raising consciousness" arguments, as it has been scientifically proven that Coldplay leads to unconsciousness. The issue should be: are the institutions that created the African debt crisis able and willing to reform? One of the main offenders has a history that says it is not: step forward the International Monetary Fund. The IMF, considered by dyslexics to be a byword for cheap and durable carpets, is in fact a rather nasty little cult, though dyslexics may find that word offensive.

Like the World Bank, the IMF was set up at the end of the Second World War and was an attempt to eradicate the economic conditions that had led to fascism in Europe. To this end, it was to provide funds for countries in economic crisis to spend their way out of trouble. It is now the polar opposite. The IMF is institutionally incapable of aiding Africa because its very ideology runs counter to the continent's needs.

Worshipping at the shrine of Milton Friedman and Margaret Thatcher, the IMF barely keeps its cultist employees from running round the street banging cymbals and chanting "market forces" to the tune of "Hare Krishna". Its monetarist logic runs thus: governments cut their public spending, which reduces inflation, and the free market takes over to work its wonders. However, it is public spending that Africa so desperately needs: more money on nurses, doctors and teachers. How else is it going to get children into education and combat HIV/Aids?

For more than 20 years, IMF loans have come with a Structural Adjustment Programme to cut inflation. Any state that does not comply simply does not get the money. The effects of the SAP dogma of privatisation are devastating. In the 1990s, Zimbabwe cut public spending and introduced school fees for children. The result was that children as young as 12 began turning to prostitution in Harare to pay for their education. To my knowledge, not one Zimbabwean ever thought, "My daughter has turned to prostitution, contracted HIV . . . but the retail price index is in marvellous shape." Surely a little inflation is a small price to stop children turning tricks to learn their ABC.

Gordon Brown, in this New Statesman, speaks about the end of the "Washington consensus", of monetarism being given the heave-ho, but shows little evidence for this. Brown mentions the huge increase in the numbers of children attending school in Uganda and Kenya, knowing that this was achieved by abolishing school fees. They now face an even harder job of finding the money and political space to pay for teachers. Look at Zambia, which also abolished school fees and now has a ratio of one teacher per hundred children. That is essentially stadium education: teachers must start lessons by placing one foot on an amp and screaming, "How you doing, Lusaka!" Is this because of lack of money? Not exactly. Zambia's ministry of finance not only banned an increase in teachers' wages; it also banned the hiring of new teachers, just so Zambia could keep public sector wages down, in line with IMF demands.

So great is the IMF's doctrinal reach that when, two years ago, Uganda was offered $52m in aid to fight TB, Aids and malaria, the country turned the money down. Uganda's finance ministry, following the monetarist mantra and fearful of upsetting the IMF, refused to use the money as it would cause an increase in public spending.

Countries have good cause to be fearful of the IMF. Honduras received money under Education For All, the World Bank's Fast Track Initiative, and rather naively spent it on teachers' wages, forcing public sector pay through the 9.1 per cent ceiling imposed by the IMF. For this crime, Honduras was suspended from Heavily Indebted Poor Countries status, which cost it $194m in interim debt relief.

Rick Rowden, policy officer at ActionAid USA, is one of the authors of a report on IMF policies called Blocking Progress. "The IMF," says Rowden, "has very little empirical research to base its policies on." And he is right - IMF economic predictions have turned out to be little more than horoscopes with statistics. The organisation's staff are dogmatists.

Twenty years of monetarism in Africa have been a disaster. Africa must be left to spend its way out of trouble, otherwise this G8 summit will be just another episode in the history of poverty.


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