Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Democracy kills, by Humphrey Hawksley

This is a relatively new book, published in 2009. It encapsulates the travels and thoughts of the BBC’s international reporter, Humphrey Hawksley, who happens to be a personal friend. Frankly, I had not been fully aware of the many exotic and dangerous places he had been to, until I read this highly interesting book. I now appreciate his essential modesty and bravery.

Hawksley covers an impressively wide range of topics and situations, retelling many of his assignments over the past 20 years. In this book he describes places and people in Ivory Coast, Iraq, Kuwait, Dubai, India, Argentina, Bolivia, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, China, Philippines, Bosnia, Kosovo, Estonia, Russia, Cuba, Hong Kong and Taiwan, to name but some of the most memorable. He includes much dialogue – presumably transcribed from re-running the tapes of his many TV interviews – because this book is an extended conversation about the state of the modern world. Some of the questions Hawksley puts in his own mouth sound stilted, as if he had somewhat edited the dialogue for the purposes of the book – but no matter. The quotations from his interviewees are accurate – I presume and hope.

I would say this is an important book, and would recommend it to others. He covers issues of vital importance to the troubled world we live in and its future. It makes you think (which is always a good thing), and the way the book is written carries you along with urgency and variety. Hawksley is a campaigning journalist, and he wants the world to change, because he has confronted so many terrible things, reflecting the inhumanity of man to man. But the admirable thing is that he does not start from an ivory-tower theory or set of convictions, as the terrible political leaders such as Lenin or Mao did, or as the Bush cabinet did or as the IMF idiots did. He works in a vivid empirical fashion, showing us the front line of poverty, slavery, orphans, insurgents, street-people, shanty dwellers and so forth.

Furthermore he circles around the issues, probing them, asking many questions, listening, watching, searching, confronting the complacent ivory-tower people in power and even trying to help the pathetic individual cases he comes across. He tries to find a school for a boy in Morocco; he tries to get hospital help for a poor family in Bolivia; etc. He sympathises with the underdog and can appreciate why people turn to terrorism, without approving it.

There is so much to say about this rich book, so let us select the issues of slavery – yes slavery – on cocoa farms in West Africa and the economic collapse of Argentina.

The effective economic slavery of Children (and Adults) on remote cocoa plantations in the Ivory Coast described in the first chapter is a powerful, moving account. Personally, I found it penetrated my brain (and heart) better than the TV documentary on the same subject he made a couple of years ago; or, possibly, the reinforcement of the written word to the previously seen images had a cumulative effect. It was depressing for me, and engendered bitter reflections on the appalling inequalities and injustices underlying the apparently smooth, civilized surface of our life. It also sparked feelings of anger, and consequently a wish to effect change. One of the things that need changing is the ‘Washington Consensus’.

The ‘Washington Consensus’ refers to the nexus of free-market ideas centred in Washington at places like the World Bank, the IMF and the US government. They are appalling theorisers, working from fundamentalist ideas. In my corner of the financial markets, where I worked (on and off) from 1982 to 1994, I was always suspicious and somewhat contemptuous of these ‘bureaucrat bankers’ with plush jobs, flying around the world first class. That attitude has been nuanced but also reinforced by contact with some of these ‘Supranational’ institutions since – for instance, I went to the capital of the Ivory Coast myself in 1997, and worked at the African Development Bank for two weeks. I think many of their ideas are wrong, and destructive in the wrong context.

Those fundamentalist free-market ideas are muddled, contradictory and even hypocritical, as exemplified by the Argentine economic debacle, described in the fourth chapter. Actually, the ideas are probably hostage to previous events, the aims of their sponsors (Western Governments) and organisational inertia. How can they insist that a poor African country throws open its markets, while subsidies and tariffs protect farmers and industries in the EU, USA, Japan etc..? How can they have the sheer stupidity to apply the free market philosophy of a New York dealing room to an impoverished cocoa farmer, with only one buyer, who arrives from time to time down the pot-holed roads of the Ivory Coast jungle? How can they advocate free markets in one context, yet insist that Argentina fix its currency to the US Dollar? Not only is it bad thinking, but it is bad ethics.

Someone (or rather, a large group of people) need to agitate for change, and I congratulate Hawksley on throwing a little light on this specific situation. As a hasty first ‘wish list’ for West Africa I would suggest:
- Certification of cocoa origin on consumer products;
- Pressure on food companies to devote time, money etc to bettering the lives of farmers at the root of their supply chain, involving medical facilities, schools and water services in villages in West Africa;
- Direct investment in improving the supply chain, such as metalled roads and intermediate storage facilities;
- Abolition of import duties on processed cocoa products into developed countries, so that the producers can move along the value chain.

With regards Argentina, Hawksley’s heart is in the right place, but he admits himself that his grasp of economics is somewhat shaky. He gets confused, as exemplified by this sentence (page 188): “Argentine goods had become too expensive for foreign buyers and imports, such as insulin, had become unaffordable.” It is impossible for a foreign exchange rate to simultaneously cause exports AND imports to be expensive at the same time. The context of this sentence does not redeem his faulty logic either.

What happened was that the Dollar parity policy suggested by the IMF caused exports to be priced out of world markets (they could not even export beef!), and so imports were cheap at the time. The balance of payments gap caused the parity exchange rate to snap, and in the newly free market in 2001 the Peso fell precipitously. That caused imports to become 3x or 4x more expensive, but rescued the exporters, who went on to have an export boom due to the cheap goods they could then offer the outside world. It is errors like this that slightly hold back the effect of the main message, and I would be happy to give the author any advice on these matters.

Now we come to the issue of the title. This was, apparently, imposed by the marketing people at the publishers, or at least, a misleading shortening of a longer, more nuanced title. ‘Democracy kills’ is the sort of startling title that would cause you to pick up the book in a bookshop, but it does a grave disservice to the balanced views of the author. Hawksley clearly thinks democracy itself is a good thing, as he makes clear in the text. However he is very against the fundamentalist approach of imposing democracy in a hurried and insensitive way. He understands how institutions need to be built up over time, even decades to provide a fruitful soil for democracy.

For me personally, the book has rubbed away some of my shallow thinking about democracy being generally a ‘good thing’ in all circumstances. I now appreciate how it is not even the most important thing. Health care provision, good schools, freedom to trade, the rule of law, the restraint of ethnic hatreds and so forth are all part of a complex web, and arguably more important than the largely symbolic opportunity to put a mark on a ballot paper. I can’t say I have a better template, but maybe single templates are just a reflection of a simplistic way of thinking. Hawksley is complex and wise and properly provisional about his conclusions.

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