Dagna Rams argues that ‘The Divide’ by Jason Hickel offers a journey through fascinating arguments, facts, and figures, which exist in a schizophrenic state – on the one hand, some of them are still far from mainstream discussions about global development, especially in the West and, on the other hand, they are often invoked by the likes of Noam Chomsky or Naomi Klein.
Jason Hickel’s The Divide takes an aim at the developed world’s confidence that it is developing the rest of the world. Rather, international development is a mere myth instilled in the post-War ideological vacuum – a humanitarian twist on the centuries’ old tale that paints the global North as a repository of answers to world’s problems. The myth makes its citizens “feel good about themselves” (p. 9) by explaining international inequalities to be the result of superior knowledge and practice, not pillage and exploitation. Hickel kicks the myth to the ground by arguing that it is rather the South developing the North, and the North un-developing the South.
Hickel offers the reader a detailed balance sheet: on the one hand, we have development aid that flows from the North to the South and, on the other hand, we see the huge debt repayments, capital flight due to such practices as trade mis-invoicing, and transaction fees on remittances. In other words, “if we broaden our view and look at it in context, we see that [aid] is vastly outstripped by the financial resources that flow in the opposite direction” (p. 25). How did we come to this situation? And what do we need to do to get out of it? – are the two principal questions that the book asks.
First, he targets the indicators and the institutions that prop up the development myth. Hickel shows how indicators are manipulated to show development as less of a failure – eg the World Bank’s already unambitious poverty line of a dollar a day has not been sufficiently adjusted for changes in purchasing power, hunger indicators too were changed by the FAO in 2012 after the Organisation “relaxed assumptions about people’s access to calories” (p. 44), other indicators can be subject to similar interrogation. As for the institutions, especially the IMF, the World Bank and the Security Council, which are Hickel’s main targets, the author’s list of contentions runs long. For example, in the chapter on Debt, the World Bank, the IMF and the Security Council are shown to be structured in terms of leadership and power sharing as “a form of a global apartheid” (p. 165) and their aggressive neoliberal policies “saved Western capitalism to overcome: market saturation limit, ecological depletion limit, class conflict limit…” (p.169) by opening new markets in the global South to the Western capital and resource needs. The chapter on Free Trade shows extensive numbers of trade misinvoicing, tax haven, and tax evasion to show just how much companies are ripping off developing countries.
Secondly, the book offers a longue duree analysis of the under-development through colonialism, processes of enclosure of land that divided masses from the means of production, imperial politics of undermining the economies of such imperial servants as India and China. For example, where India commanded around 23 per cent of the world economy prior to the arrival of the British, it thereafter commanded only 3 percent. The British imposed one-way tariffs to sink India’s textiles industry. The US interventions in Latin America in the 20th century are famous for following a similarly self-centered logic.
Nevertheless, Hickel does not show the developing world to be agency-less or at best badly governed, something that is otherwise common in other books in the genre. His chapter From Colonialism to the Coup reviews the global South’s attempts to re-define its future in its own terms. Hickel looks at the Non-Aligned Movement, G77, the General Assembly’s plans for New International Economic Order (NIEO) that never receive the global North’s support, and the examples of positive leaders such as debt-defiant Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso, Lumumba in Congo, or Arbenz in Guatemala, who all died in coups sponsored by Western powers (especially the infamous Dulles brothers during the Eisenhower administration).
Hickel’s book offers a journey through fascinating arguments, facts, and figures, which exist in a schizophrenic state – on the one hand, some of them are still far from mainstream discussions about global development, especially in the West and, on the other hand, they are often invoked by the likes of Noam Chomsky or Naomi Klein. But irrespective of whether someone has been on that journey before, Hickel’s treatment of the subject is daring and lucid. His concluding chapters also ask the urgent question of what next. Is economic growth still a relevant indicator in the context of climate change? Or what should replace consumption-driven development models? Read to find out.
The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and Its Solutions. Jason Hickel. William Heinemann. 2017
Dagna Rams (@dagnna) is a doctoral student at the University of Lausanne. Her research is on politics and informal economies of electronic waste in Ghana.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.