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THE ELECTRONIC LIVEIBIZA

Weekly Edition 029: Saturday 15th September 2001

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An Anthropological View
by Kirk W Huffman

 
Aïgu y Agua and Water:
Water and Water and Water - Part Five
 

Masters of Illusion. The so-called 'Western world' is used to hearing general news about the benefits brought to 'the Developing world' by the caring and selfless financial assistance provided by the World Bank, the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and, more recently, by NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and the WTO (World Trade Organization). Europeans tend to assume that the EU in Brussels is pursuing the same types of almost charity-like activities within Europe (and further afield) with an aim of bettering life for the less fortunate. One should be cautious with such assumptions, try and look behind and beyond what is easily available in the media, and bear in mind that such organizations are run by humans, with all their faults, and not by saints. A case in point is the resignation in early 1999 of the President and the higher-ranking officials/Commissioners of the EU, an event of major importance that had its brief time in the media limelight and was then quickly forgotten, in the assumption that all would now be fine. The fact that, it is said, the equivalent of circa US $5 billion (about 7% of the annual EU budget) seemed to be almost annually rather difficult to actually account for eventually became a little bit too tricky to dismiss even by officials trained in avoiding rocking the boat. However, it took the bravery of the Dutch EU auditor - whom the EU fired as soon as he had presented them with his official report - to bring this to light by having the full text rapidly published in a Dutch newspaper. It is hard to disagree with Anthony O'Hear (Professor of Philosophy at the University of Bradford in the UK and Director of the UKs Royal Institute of Philosophy) where, in his 1999 publication "After Progress: Finding the Old Way Forward", he deals briefly with the EU: "...a European bureaucracy, now shown beyond doubt and for all its protestations and charters, to be hopelessly and probably irredeemably inefficient, wasteful and corrupt (ibid. p 88)".

It is a long way from looking at traditional pagès Eivissenc (Ibicencan peasant) attitudes to aïgu (water) - as in my previous articles - to trying to analyze the machinations of international financial organizations, but looking at things from an anthropological perspective leads to such attempts at analysis. One begins with small-scale local phenomena and tries to see how these fit in a larger context. Well perforations here on Eivissa proceed apace as the October 1st deadline for the Plan Hydrologico Nacional  (National Water Plan) - the same as the Plan Ecologico Internacional mentioned in my article of 8th September in Weekly Edition 028. Possible peasant suspicions about potential water control, water taxes and water 'misappropriation' may not necessarily be misplaced, as a delegation of peasants from the Spanish mainland left earlier this week to demonstrate outside the EU headquarters in Brussels regarding this. Peasants tend to often rather accurately determine where the real pressures are coming from, or 'who the real culprits are', and as their lives are more intimately concerned with water than any modern economists, are therefore willing to pitch their battlefield on the steps of the organization they feel is responsible for a potential threat. Of course it is within the scope of the EU to be planning the co-ordination of its member states water resources, but experience of earlier projects and a bit of knowledge of certain connections between the EU and other such international organizations tends to make one 'approach with caution' such well-meaning plans that might eventually possibly be modified. The fact that, as with all such large institutions and their projects, there are high profile spokesmen easily available to extort the benefits of such and such a programme actually means very little. Look at the then British Minister for Agriculture who in 1995 was filmed lauding the safety of British beef whilst handing a hamburger to his daughter. As one veteran US financier with extensive banking and political links told me when I was young, "Never expect to hear the full story from a banker, a lawyer or a politician: the telling of the truth is actually incompatible with these respected pursuits". Such idealism is not restricted to these high callings. The EU may well be following up international concern or 'interest' in water resources, and rightly so, but it may leave Europe open to eventual international manipulation of its own water reserves. Near the top of all these major organizations, though, everyone knows everyone else and it needs no world-wide 'conspiracy' to gradually push through something that might look like one - it just needs a few informal deals between delegates at the water cooler/bar/ restaurant/corridor of any relevant international meeting. Unfortunately that seems to be the way that many things are done in our modern world - anyone who has attended such meetings knows this - it actually has very little to do with democracy or respecting the wishes of ones constituency/voters/nation, etc. In fact most such international or multinational organizations would hate to have real democratic or public involvement in their decisions, they rely on the fact that they are usually well insulated from the public and therefore do not necessarily need to be accountable to them.

The World Bank is possibly a prime example of such an institution, one that has such a high international profile that it has for decades been able to pursue its work with relatively little regard for public opinion. It is also a fact that the public in general does not usually hear the 'down' side of any World Bank projects. A close friend and distinguished academic with an extensive knowledge of Papua New Guinea over the last 30 years has recently come back from another 6 weeks there. Some readers might now reach for their world maps - it is the eastern half of the worlds largest island, just north of Australia, and its inhabitants boast nearly 900 different indigenous languages and cultures. Not really part of the modern world do I hear someone say? Wrong, it is part of the real world, but facing a rather hard time at the moment. My colleague writes (16th August 2001): “The country staggers onwards and downwards - the economy and political situations seem never to get better. The overwhelming impression of Port Moresby (the capital) is a city where road building (all on aid money) rules, whilst the average person struggles to maintain a viable lifestyle. This may sound overly dramatic, but behind those flash new roads and some very good attempts to make the city look attractive, there lurks the smell of decay. During my (stay) in Moresby, the Koiari people, on whose land part of the hydroelectric power scheme for the city is based, interrupted power supply by taking over two generating stations. (There was) weeks of power cuts, and in some suburbs, water shortages. The issue was finally resolved ... when the Koiari leaders handed back the keys to the generating stations. Moresby was under curfew between 6am and 10pm because of protests in late June that left four people dead. The protests were against the government's alleged support for economic reforms that the World Bank wants to impose on PNG (Papua New Guinea) (the World Bank is withholding loan funds until some changes are made). One of the reforms includes what someone stupidly has officially described as 'making the land more profitable' ('mobilising the land') by privatising ownership so it can be sold (and presumably then concentrated into the hands of the rich and powerful)". I should here point out that in Melanesia (New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Kanaky-indigenous New Caledonia) the concept of individual ownership of land is almost unknown. Almost unknown also is the concept of selling land. Traditional land custodianship systems are clan or lineage-based and have been since time immemorial. This is just one very recent example of the kind of strategy that the world Bank has been trying to impose on societies and cultures and nations around the world, a strategy ignoring cultural differences and assuming that the American (or Euro-American) system is the only correct one. Rather than improving the lot of many societies around the world, many World Bank projects have brought social and environmental disruption, misery and increasing poverty to numerous previously almost self-sufficient societies in the 'Developing World" - precisely the kinds of peoples that supposedly such institutions were set up to help.

Some readers may say that the instability and, in some instances, supposed venality of certain governments in the 'Developing World' ensure that 'development' projects will not succeed, that funds will be wasted, that loans will never be repaid, and so on. Even some United States public figures have hinted as such. Both the World Bank and the IMF have their headquarters in Washington and, although supposedly international in nature, are thought by many - and not without some reason - to really be arms of the US government and the US business and banking sectors. But both institutions were originally established with high ideals, to help stabilise and develop the world in the aftermath of World War II. After preliminary meetings in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire (USA) in 1944, the IBRD (International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, or World Bank for short) and the IMF were signed into existence in a ceremony at the State Department in Washington on 27th December 1947. The high ideals of the time reflected not just, of course, the desire to help the world and combat the spread of Communism, but also possibly lurking in the backs of the minds of some of the more elderly Americans present was the realisation that without the generous lending and investments of European companies and nations in the United States economy itself, the nation would possibly never have been able to get where it was today (then). Most people - sad to say, many Americans amongst them - forget that previous to World War I the US had been basically a borrowing nation and not a very reliable one at that. For well over 60 years mainly British, German, French and Dutch investors lent billions to US state governments and businesses. These loans helped to develop the nation's canals, railroads, mining, steel, oil and electricity industries. There were, of course, problems of paying back the loans (as Developing countries are finding today) and at one point the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Pennsylvania and Maryland defaulted on their loan repayments. Anthony Sampson, in his classic study of banks and bankers, "The Money Lenders" (1981), cuts through the usual banking language by saying that at this point the London bankers viewed the US "as a very unreliable developing country, with a black record of embezzlement, fraudulent prospectuses, and default". There really is nothing new under the sun, it seems.

So the US had a bit of ethical catching up to do. Hopefully the two institutions that came out of the Bretton Woods Agreements would help to rebalance the situation, help the post-war world, and spread peace and prosperity. But in many instances things have seemed to go increasingly wrong, loan following loan to such an extent that loans are going out just to enable developing nations to pay the interest on their previous loans. But what does this have to do with water? We shall see.

 
Kirk W Huffman
kirkwhuffman@liveibiza.com
 

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