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Povertycrats live on!

Published by Newsweek on 1997-12-01

In a small, ill-lit and poorly ventilated shack in the southern Indian town of Kanchipuram, 40-year-old Kasturi and her 18-year-old daughter Devi work on a wooden loom 16 hours a day, seven days a week. They belong to a community of weavers who spin India's famed Kanjeevaram sarees, silk garments that sell for the equivalent of hundreds, even thousands, of dollars apiece in tony urban boutiques. Of course, Kasturi and Devi don't benefit much from the marketplace; they consider themselves fortunate if their efforts fetch barely a dollar a day. Who really profits from their labor? Middlemen who capriciously determine the value of these women's work and whose decisions are non-negotiable.

So when a foreign aid worker turned up the other day to lecture the weavers about "sustainable development," he was at first draped with rose-and-marigold garlands in the tradition of Kanchipuram hospitality, offered milky tea thickened with sugar, and then told in no uncertain terms that the local community would rather hear about how to go about getting small-scale loans to improve living and working conditions. "But sustainable development is about your lives, sustainable development is all about economic growth and environmental protection," the expert protested. "No," Kasturi said, in translated Tamil, "whatever that term means applies to people like you and the nice jobs you hold."

Kasturi had no way of knowing that her visitor's tax-free salary from his international aid agency was $125,000 or that his daily expense allowance for India was $400 -- $100 more than Kasturi's entire annual income. But what she said echoed a widespread perception among the world's underprivileged that many of the fashionable concepts such as "sustainable development" concocted in the boardrooms of the aid industry have become largely irrelevant to the concerns of everyday people in the developing world. A few days after the foreigner developmentalist's visit, Jaya Arunachalam, founder of the Madras-based Working Women's Forum--which offers microcredit for the poor--met with the weavers in Kanchipuram and immediately established a new $1,000 line of credit to enable Kasturi and others to buy better looms. Mrs. Arunachalam also brought in local health workers to upgrade medical facilities in Kasturi's neighborhood. "All poverty is local," Mrs. Arunachalam said, "and you don't need fancy global concepts to address local needs. What you do need is informed recognition of local needs, which can be quite modest--no international conferences necessary to provide the Kanchipuram weavers with better looms."

She might have added that, nearly six years after the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro when world leaders pledged more financial and technical assistance to alleviate global poverty, a strong case could be made for dismantling the international aid industry that has created a new class of povertycrats and developmentalists. The 1992 Earth Summit injected "sustainable development" into the global vocabulary, and huge bureaucracies have sprouted with megabudgets that, more than anything else, seem designed to sustain ongoing debate on the dialectics of sustainability. But this new class of international officials seems increasingly out of touch with the needs of people like the weavers of Kanchipuram. How else to explain the troubling fact that more than a third of the world's population of 5.9 billion lives under the poverty line (which means less than $300 in annual income) and that the global cohort of poverty is rising rapidly? When 70 cents of every development dollar goes into sustaining international bureaucracies, can there be any prospect of meaningful "sustainable development"?

The central idea endorsed in Rio was that industrialized and developing nations should work together to promote economic growth and environmental security--and that the rich countries would offer increased technical and financial assistance to alleviate global poverty. Instead, the net flow of aid to poor countries has shrunk to barely $50 billion annually from a high of $70 billion a decade ago; and only four countries--Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden--have lived up to the Rio promise of allocating 0.7 percent of their gross domestic products (GDP) to foreign aid. (The United States's foreign-aid budget is only 0.1 percent of GDP.) In Rio, the rich countries recognized that "sustainable development" would carry a steep price because eco-efficient industrialization would involve additional costs for developing countries. But little was offered beyond recognition wrapped in lofty rhetoric about interdependence and globalization.

The Kyoto Conference on Climate Change last week may have sounded the death-knell of the much-touted concept of "sustainable development." Kyoto highlighted the fact that developing countries were unprepared to accept limits on their industrial emissions--on the grounds that such limits would inhibit their economic development. One subtext of Kyoto was that developing countries want to follow their own domestic agendas concerning economic growth, agendas that local leaders, not international officials, are going to have to shape in order to better meet rising expectations from domestic constituencies in the face of growing populations and increased urbanization. Another subtext was that developing countries finally realized that the rich nations are not about to help poor states defray the high costs of sustainable development through increased aid.

So six years after Rio and a week after Kyoto, the plain fact is that is for rich and poor countries, it's back to business-as-usual. All this goes to show that nations will always ultimately act in their own self-interest, even if it means reneging on flashy promises made at global talkfests such as the Earth Summit. There was hope once that "sustainable development" was a matter of getting governments to keep their promises--of increased aid for noteworthy grassroots projects that would have a meaningful impact on people such as the weavers of Kanchipuram. But no one ever devised a mechanism to genuinely implement those commitments; the bureaucracies that were created after Rio had other fish to fry.

"Sustainable development" may be dead. But don't underestimate the povertycrats. They have more avatars than Vishnu, the Hindu god revered in Kanchipuram. There'll be a new mantra on poverty soon. And, of course, there'll be a global conference, too. Somehow, it's unlikely that Kasturi and Devi will be invited, or Jaya Arunachalam, for that matter.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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