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War, famine, pestilence and neo-liberalism

By John Tomlinson - posted Monday, 8 August 2005

Live 8 has come and gone, its floodlights extinguished in the final communiqué of the G8 leaders. The TV images of anti-poverty protesters at Edinburgh were erased by pictures of blasts in the London Underground. World leaders have recommitted themselves to a few more crumbs of aid; a little bit of “debt forgiveness” for 18 African countries; a modicum of posturing about encouraging trade with the third world; a renewed effort to suppress insurgents; and to carry on business as usual. All the recipient countries will be expected to liberalise trade with the first world, privatise their utilities and meet the demands of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

It will be poverty as usual, business as usual and the usual poverty business - to salve the consciences of those “who are doing quite nicely thankyou”. As Arthur Daly would say, “It’s a nice little earner”.

The 17 to 20 million refugees and displaced people in camps around the world are poor and are there predominantly because of war or civil unrest, although ecological disasters are increasingly contributing to famine and the subsequent displacement of people. Struggles over scarce resources are a direct result of looming environmental crises.


In much of the third world, poverty can be directly linked to the expropriation of resources during colonial periods or the granting of loans to corrupt leaders in the early post-colonial period. Current poverty-inducing mechanisms manifest themselves in several forms:

  • Dumping surplus farm produce from the developed world which undercuts local producers;
  • paying too little for agricultural or mineral products from developing countries;
  • bio-piracy of indigenous people’s animal and vegetable products;
  • failing to invest ethically in third world companies;
  • granting easy credit for the purchase of military equipment;
  • insisting the third world lowers import tariffs while imposing quotas and tariffs on imports from developing nations; and
  • using sweatshops to produce goods for multinational firms.

Of course, if a third world country has resources, particularly oil, which the world’s superpower wants and that country is not prepared to play ball with the neo-liberal agenda then, as Iraq found to its cost, war becomes a very attractive option. As the cartoon says, “We’re liberating Iraq - one barrel at a time”.

The first world has denuded tropical rainforests and continues to use a disproportionate amount of carbon energy thereby contributing to global warming and other ecological crises. The failure of governments and leading pharmacological companies to take seriously the health needs of those living in developing countries devastates their productive capacity. The AIDs crisis in Africa is an obvious example, but it is important to acknowledge that AIDs is only one of many diseases limiting the capacity of third world countries to lift themselves out of poverty.

First world countries

Poverty is widespread in countries like the United States, Britain, New Zealand and Australia. In Australia, many of the features found in the third world come into play, albeit in a different form. Money which is spent on waging war in Iraq and Afghanistan could be spent improving the health, social security and education of our poorest citizens. The savings which the Federal Government is hoping to make by converting Disability Support Pensioners into Newstart beneficiaries (On Line Opinion article) could, instead of going to the military, be put towards improved rehabilitation and other services for people with disabilities. Asylum seekers, slowly being driven mad by being incarcerated in Baxter and other immigration detention centres, could be freed to be productive residents.

There are many low paid workers in Australia. Supporters of the recent Howard Government’s industrial relations changes seem oblivious to the life experiences of low paid workers revealed in the Australian Liquor Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union’s (LHMU) submission (pdf file 171KB to the Senate Inquiry into Poverty (2003). There is very little recognition of the demoralisation that follows in the wake of working full-time yet still being in poverty, or only being able to gain casual, poorly renumerated, precarious employment. Australia has very high levels of casual workers compared to other OECD countries. The Howard Government’s cutbacks in industrial protection will impinge most acutely on the poorest and least skilled workers.


Indigenous Australians experience poverty (pdf file 2.58MB) more frequently than any other group of citizens. They have much poorer health, die on average 17 years earlier, are more likely to be imprisoned, less likely to own their own home, to be employed, or to be in school or university than other Australians. The reason for their condition is not hard to fathom. Their country was invaded, their land taken, their way of life largely destroyed, many were institutionalised on missions and settlements or in other ways marginalised from the system of European production. Australian governments have never negotiated a treaty with them, let alone a just treaty.

Governments and industry fail to create sufficient employment for all the available labour yet refuse to provide adequate alternative forms of income support. Many social security applicants are refused benefits either because they don’t meet the totality of eligibility requirements or because they fail to comply with increasingly onerous obligations imposed on social security recipients.

Basic Income

There are alternatives to debilitating poverty in both the developed and developing world. One such alternative is the provision of a Basic Income. The Basic Income Guarantee Australia website describes how this could be done. Brazil has started to phase in a Basic Income (pdf file 229KB) for its poorest citizens. Proposals for a Basic Income have been promoted in South Africa (pdf file 466KB) in order to eliminate poverty.

Philippe Van Parijs (pdf file 30.6KB), the doyen of the Basic Income Earth Network, has set out a convincing argument for the introduction of a Basic Income scheme to cover every person in the world. Frankman (pdf file 62KB) concurs pointing out that if:

We assume that the financing of a planet-wide citizen’s income were to fall exclusively on the top 25 per cent of the world distribution who account for 77.7 per cent of world income ($23.6 trillion of a world income of $30.4 trillion), then the cost of a universal global program set at 20 per cent of the per capita income of the world would require an additional tax burden of 26 per cent on the income of the world's wealthiest. If one considers that the wealthy would also receive the income guarantee, the net additional burden on them falls to 19 per cent.

If such a Basic Income scheme were introduced then we could claim to have succeeded in making absolute poverty history.

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About the Author

Dr John Tomlison is a visiting scholar at QUT.

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