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Globalization, Pilger, Life and Debt

July 22nd, 2003 by · No Comments

One of the pleasures of the Internet is getting access to companies and voices which one might otherwise have difficulty finding–in the electronic world, all websites are created equal. For those seeking documentary options (particularly films which address social, political, or environmental issues), Bullfrog Films offers an extensive catalogue at the click of a button. Never heard of them? Checkout their website and browse their hefty collection. Although many of their titles are sold or rented at institutional prices, they offer special discounts to nonprofit and activist groups.

Bullfrog was a major supplier of the titles I saw at the West Hollywood Amnesty International Film Festival in June. Recently, I was able to catch up with one of the films I missed: The New Rulers of the World (2001), written and presented by John Pilger, the award-winning British journalist known for critical exposÈs like the acclaimed Paying the Price: Killing the Children of Iraq (2000) as well as numerous books and articles.

In New Rulers, Pilger focuses on the effects of globalization on Indonesia, the fifth most populous country in the world and a nation rich in natural resources–but one that has suffered much from a corrupt military regime, the Asian financial crisis, and an economy which is increasingly dominated by multinational, foreign investors. (According to UNICEF, 34% of Indonesian children under the age of five suffer from malnutrition.)

A brief history. In 1965, a CIA-backed coup by General Soharto massacred thousands of Indonesians and established an open connection with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and Western investors. Political Science professor Jeffrey Winters at Northwestern University states, “I’ve never heard of a situation like this, where global capital essentially holds a meeting with the representatives of the state and hammers out the legal conditions for entry into the country.” Billions of IMF dollars were loaned to Suharto’s regime (even as it attempted genocide of the East Timorese and personally confiscated many of the funds) and although Suharto was forced to resign in 1998, the people of Indonesia still owe $262 billion–and counting. Given that the minimum wage in the country is $1 a day, a large percentage of the population has little hope of living decently, much less ever repaying its national debt. Unfortunately, this suits Western companies like Nike and The Gap just fine, who continue to employ the people of Indonesia for pennies to produce expensive brand goods for Western consumers.

Pilger travels to Indonesia and visits dilapidated tenements, interviews workers, infiltrates sweatshop factories, and records conversations with economic experts and IMF spokesmen like Stanley Fischer, the organization’s deputy director. What emerges is a scathing portrait of the way Western commerce has taken over the economy of Indonesia and continues to maintain its grip in a way which prevents the country from ever rising above its poverty.

Stephanie Black‘s 2001 documentary, Life and Debt, was recently released on DVD and it offers another case study: Jamaica. Her film is substantially more creatively-assembled than Pilger’s quasi-60 Minutes approach. Black merges picturesque images of ocean waves and sandy beaches with enchanting reggae music (the typical tourist associations) as counterpoint to the harsh realities within the country due to its foreign-dominated economy. Incorporating second-person narration, Black shows the viewer what he or she might experience at a weekend resort while pointing out that everything–from the hotel amenities to the four-course meals served in restaurants–is imported from Miami or other sources.

Dr. Michael Witter, Professor of Economics at the University of West Indies, a Jamaican himself, is interviewed at length throughout the film. He explains:

“And since our society is so heavily dependent on imported food, imported fuel, and imported medicine, when we devalue, the cost of those things we import go up for the citizen. As a result, the economy today is much more under the control of foreigners, not through any direct ownership, but through the mechanism of debt. In the 1970s we owed $800 million, by the end of the 1980s we owed $4 billion, nowadays we owe $7 billion. So all the time, the debt is rising and our ability to produce is getting less.”

Black interviews Jamaican farmers who are fighting a losing battle to compete against foreign produce shipped into Jamaica daily. Lettuce grown in America sells for less in the markets than the lettuce harvested by machetes in Jamaican fields (grown with imported seeds and fertilizer, no less). The film also interviews ex-Prime Minister Michael Manley, who details the relationship of his country with the IMF and the World Bank after its independence from British colonialism in 1962, and, like New Rulers, converses with the IMF’s Stanley Fischer. It’s a challenging and informative look at the increasingly commonplace role of Western capital and third world economies. As Manley puts it, “They call it a free market, but it’s not free–it goes in one direction only.”

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