Scary stuff

28Jan11

To a talk at Cass Business School this week. Which sounds very impressive and draws a veil over the grumpy gracelessness with which I arrived, having only been reminded of the irksome appointment two hours earlier.

Really, really, really glad I went. It was fascinating and gloom-making talk by Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo, tied in with the publication of her book How the West Was Lost: 50 Years of Economic Folly. You can read more of her views here, but the gist was that people in the West never reaped the promised profits of globalisation because they were diverted into buying property, thus creating a massive bubble that rewarded the banks and saddled us with debt. (ie, ‘Capital’ rather than ‘Labour’ got rewarded, in Marxist terms).

Her other chief point was that the only thing the West produces that the rest of the world wants to buy (indeed needs desperately because of a vastly increasing global population), is R&D, innovation and invention. All the stuff that requires very, very high academic standards and a highly educated and motivated workforce currently moving up through schools. In fact, far from ensuring our continued supremacy in the field, we have toppling standards, massively falling literacy/numeracy, and very few children going into maths and sciences. As for remedies, Moyo namechecked Singapore for its hothousing of children and, frankly, engineering of society to get results.

She advocated deep structural change in the West, observing that in our current system politicians are rewarded for short-termism because they are forced to run for election every four years). She also recommended incentivising better behaviour (social, scholastic, health/wellbeing) through cash payments, and making a concentrated effort to look at where we want to be in the world in 40 years’ time, and working out how to get there.

Her attitude to government was ah, nuanced, shall we say (ie inconsistent and hard to follow). Should it clear out of the way to allow for free markets (Moyo works for Goldman Sachs and Barclays) or should it intervene massively in the lives of the populace? This was unclear, but between scarifying resource shortages, race-to-the-bottom environmental policies and dog-eat-dog global competition, her rueful suggestion that dictatorship maybe isn’t such a bad thing sounded almost palatable.

A coda: in her previous book Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa, Moyo says pretty much what’s encapsulated on the cover. Later that evening, when I got home and watched the news, there was a report that the World Food Programme was trying ‘an experiment’ where they stop handing out aid to any but the most desperate in Uganda. The aim is to try and stimulate old patterns of self-sufficiency that have been lost thanks to Western interventions and handouts, which have led to dependency. Aid organisations and have been talking about it for years – breaking the corrosive habits of dependency – but it’s chilling to put it into practice. In the long term that’s probably the right way to go, but God help the people at the cutting edge: the mothers with sick children, the drought-stricken smallholders, and the aid workers who are forbidden to hand out the food they have in storage.

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