AS been much discussion recently of the documentary film Life and Debt. Set in Jamaica and based loosely on Jamaica Kincaid's A Small Place, this excellent film is a critique of globalisation. Given the upsurge in the anti-globalisation movement since the Asian Crisis, there is a rapidly growing demand for literature which delves into the 'other side' of globalisation. Thus, Life and Debt's appearance is timely.
Some reviewers have criticised the film as poor documentary, since it shows just one side of the story and makes a caricature of what is a complex issue. The criticisms are apt. Still, I also think they do not detract from the movie's merits. As I said at the Jamaican launch of Life and Debt, I think the film is best viewed not as documentary but as polemic. It sets forth a counter-position to the currently orthodox one on globalisation.
Admittedly, it does so with little subtlety. But I think that sin can be forgiven, if only because the position it critiques shows scarcely more subtlety. Tony Blair has labelled those who question neoliberal globalisation the variety of globalisation that currently dominates anti-poor, pure and simple. Bill Clinton has said it is a force of nature. Given that one is not supposed to make a habit of resisting forces of nature, which include such other not insignificant phenomena as gravity, the rising and setting of the sun, and the inevitability of death, such claims intend essentially to place the topic beyond debate.
Faced with such arrogance, those who seek to tell the 'other story' have to blow the discussion open with an equally hard stance. Life and Debt does that well. Once the debate is going again, then we can question not only the claims made for neoliberal globalisation by its proponents, but also those made against it by its opponents. Certainly, Life and Debt will then come in for its fair share of evaluation.
For starters, its portrayal of the Inter-national Monetary Fund as the wolf in a children's fable is crude. The IMF has many detractors, not just on the left. Its handling of the Asian Crisis has been roundly criticised, and it scores a perpetual fail in its public relations. Nevertheless, many will defend its actions by saying it is merely doing its job. Its mandate may need altering, but it takes action when governments ask it to do so. Indeed, because the IMF devotes so little time to public relations, it is an easy scapegoat. Third World governments who, for their own reasons, seek to implement austerity measures find they can defuse public discontent by blaming the IMF. But studies have shown that the IMF is a good deal less powerful than portrayed when it comes to securing concessions from governments. Indeed, many of the conditions it imposes on aid are circumvented by recipient governments, and much of its advice is refused.
Equally, many governments have resisted dependence on the IMF because their own policies have avoided the sorts of fiscal imbalances the IMF targets. Hence, there was an unintended irony in Life and Debt's extensive use of interviews with Michael Manley to build a case against globalisation. After all, many argue that it was the policies of Michael Manley's governments in the 1970s which first led Jamaica into the hands of the IMF. Thus, several commentators have contended that Life and Debt places all blame for Jamaica's, and by extension the Third World's, woes on the First World and its international financial agencies. In so doing, it absolves Jamaicans of responsibility.
Again, this is a fair criticism, targeting as it does a dated conceptualisation of Third World countries as passive actors in the global political economy. However, I would hasten to add that Life and Debt is made primarily for First World audiences. Given that those audiences have had their opinions shaped by people like Bill Clinton, whose speeches have assured them they are doing all they can for poor countries when in fact their government's policies are frequently hammering them, the possibility that the rich may share some guilt for the woes of the poor is beyond them. This point needs to be put back on the agenda of international discussions. In exposing half-truths and outright lies, therefore, Life and Debt does us all a service.
John Rapley is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Government, UWI, Mona.