Sunday, May 20, 2007

Anti-globalization across the Globe

The recent controversy over Paul Wolfowitz's alleged favoritism towards his companion and bank employee Shaha Riza, has prompted the Board of Directors to ‘broaden and lengthen its investigation’ into Mr Wolfowitz's conduct to cover other issues, such as his alleged attempt to curb the Bank's support of contraception in Africa.

Many believe that the World Bank's problems and the problems of the IMF
run deeper. While the lapse in internal governance that has been brought to light in this affair is worrying, the undemocratic process by which these administrative position s are allocated in even more worrying.

Perhaps the greatest cause for concern is that the two institutions are just not representative of the world. The two documentaries suggested by Professor
Ngaire Woods show that the policies adopted by the World Bank and the IMF towards developing countries, which have translated into the conditions imposed on them in return for development assistance, have done very little good to the economies of these countries. The focus has been more on securing access to their markets for western products, and access to valuable natural resources, than on helping them towards development.

Bamako, by Mauritanian-Malian director Abderrahmane Sissako, is described as "a film about the devastating effects of World Bank and IMF policies imposed on African countries." One strand of the film follows the story of a couple, the wife a bar singer, the husband out of work, whose marriage is heading for the rocks; the other strand involves a mock trial in the shared courtyard where African civil society has put the World Bank and the IMF in the dock for having reduced African countries to extreme penury. A short analysis of various other issues addressed by the film can be found

Bamako, which won critical acclaim in the Cannes Film Festival in May 2006, and has received fairly extensive
coverage at the London Film Festival, is a film with a specific purpose viz. to make these two institutions and the western governments take notice of the plight African countries have been reduced to in their scramble to fulfil the conditions attached to development assistance and to repay the loans owed to these institutions. The film's website hosts the Bamako petition, which directs specific pleas to the UK government officials.

Life and Debt, directed by Stephanie Black, is also about the impact of World Bank and IMF policies, but in another geographical location - Jamaica. Based on the award winning text,

A Small Place, by Jamaica Kincaid, the film, its website indicates, "is a woven tapestry of sequences focusing on the stories of individual Jamaicans whose strategies for survival and parameters of day-to-day existence are determined by the USand other foreign economic agendas. (A full synoposis is available here)

Through these snapshots it builds up a picture of the irony of Jamaica’s turn to the IMF – former Prime Minister Michael Manley, who for want of an alternative, signed Jamaica’s first loan agreement with the IMF in 1977 one year after he was elected on a non IMF platform; and the impact of this upon its economy. The
film's website reports:

“At present Jamaica owes over $4.5 billion to the IMF, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) among other international lending agencies yet the meaningful development that these loans have "promised" has yet to manifest. In actuality the amount of foreign exchange that must be generated to meet interest payments and the structural adjustment policies which have been imposed with the loans have had a negative impact on the lives of the vast majority. The country is paying out increasingly more than it receives in total financial resources, and if benchmark conditionalities are not met, the structural adjustment program is made more stringent with each re-negotiation. To improve balance of payments, devaluation (which raises the cost of foreign exchange), high interest rates (which raise the cost of credit), and wage guidelines (which effectively reduce the price of local labor) are prescribed. The IMF assumes that the combination of increased interest rates and cutbacks in government spending will shift resources from domestic consumption to private investment. It is further assumed that keeping the price of labor down will be an incentive for increasing employment and production. Increased unemployment, sweeping corruption, higher illiteracy, increased violence, prohibitive food costs, dilapidated hospitals, increased disparity between rich and poor characterize only part of the present day economic crisis.”

Jamaica appears to be only different in its details from that of the other countries of the developing world.

It is only fair to mention many of its viewers (
1, 2) feel Life and Debt is more appropriately characterized at an excellent polemic rather than a documentary. This is not a criticism of the film, Life and Debt is unapologetically, a tale told from a particular point of view. Its strength in is the evidence it provides to back up its claims, and in its capacity to disturb its intended audience – the First World.

Another documentary, Dolls and Dust, examines the impact of industrial restructuring, globalisation and "mal(e)-development" on women workers in three Asian countries – Sri Lanka, Thailand and Korea. The documentary is a record of testimonies taken from working women over a two-year period, in which they speak about the effect that World Bank and the IMF policies have had on their lives, their communities and the environment.

In a review of films dealing with feminism, women workers and globalization
’, Professor Jean Grossholtz states:

“Dolls and Dust is a detailed description of the effects of globalization on women in Sri Lanka,Thailand and Korea. The different experiences of women in these cultures and countries are made clear while we are shown in intimate detail the painful similarities of their plight under the neoliberal trade system….The film shows women workers and union organizers… struggling against the effects of neoliberal economics, debt, and structural adjustment. … driven off the land and out of their villages by World Bank and corporate economic development projects … Mobilized into a new work force employed by companies that make export goods for transnational corporations, … the world's cheapest labor force. …
This film presents a firsthand look at the period of the "Asian miracle" and how it went bust from the point of view of the neglected community -- women. It is a remarkable document, accessible and useful both to those who have knowledge of the World Bank and to those ignorant of its work. … Anyone who does not understand the fuss in Seattle, Prague, Quebec, Genoa, and Qatar could do well to look at this film.”

The 60 minute documentary was produced by regional NGO,
Committee for Asian Women, and researched and directed by alternative communication group, Wayang. It was selected as an award-winning entry from Asia during the 4th International VideOlympiade held in Cape Town, South Africa (September 18-21, 1998).

for the third global institution, the World trade Organization, an excellent insight into its lop-sided operation is provided by Dr Woods herself, in a radio documentary composed for BBC Chanel 4. Titled ‘War by Other Means’ the documentary was broadcast in two parts. In the first, ‘ A tour into the secretive world of trade negotiations’, current and former negotiators provide a window into what really goes on behind the closed doors at WTO meetings – complete with frank details about the arm twisting and pressure tactics levied on the smaller players by the big powers. To quote from the BBC excerpt:

“They're bullies, (one former Brazilian official says of trade negotiators from the big economies). They say you might as well sign here. Or this is good for you and you don't know anything. Sign here and keep your mouth shut.”

Part 2, the ‘
Inside story of the uprising at Cancun 2003’, explores the change in manner in which negotiations were conducted. Effectively for the first time, the developing countries were collectively holding out for a fair deal, and were willing to walk out without striking any deal at all, if they they could not get a fair one. This despite open threats such as that from US Senator Grassley who said he would use his position to “carefully scrutinize” how countries behaved in Cancún. The US evaluates potential partners for free trade agreements on an ongoing basis,” he said. “I'll take note of those nations that played a constructive role in Cancún, and those nations that didn't.”

Thus in a sense the failure of the Cancun round was due to an apparent shift in the bargaining positions between the developed and developing countries, unaccompanied by a corresponding shift in the willingness of the developed quad (US, EU, Canada, Japan) to compromise. However, the documentary also cautions that the clear divide between the developed west and the developing rest is a myth. Countries like Brazil and India, have a foot in either camp, and China, the ‘sleeping giant’ is poised to become the largest economy in the world. Third world countries acknowledge that the interests of these players are not perfectly aligned with their own – at present it is pragmatism that keeps these countries bound together, but different incentives could well lead to different alliances.

The documentary explores these issues and more in its total run time of 45 minutes. It expressly asks, and leaves you wondering, whether the failure at Cancun is just evidence of the increasing moribundity of the WTO, which like its other sisters, the World Bank and the IMF, is based on power equations that appear outdated.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Armin, Shame

Humanitarian actors and the media reporting from zones of crises, conflict and post-conflict rebuilding, have to walk the narrow line between creating awareness of the conflict (and evoking the will to respond among distant communities) and ensuring that affected populations are not portrayed as helpless, pitiable, without dignity. The Sphere Project Handbook notes:

"...disaster-affected populations must not be seen as helpless victims, and this includes members of vulnerable groups. They possess, and acquire, skills and capacities and have structures to cope with and respond to a disaster situation that need to be recognized and supported. Individuals, families and communities can be remarkably resourceful and resilient in the face of disaster, and initial assessments should take account of the capacities and skills as much as of the needs and deficiencies of the affected population. Irrespective of whether a disaster is of sudden onset or develops gradually, individuals and communities will be actively coping and recovering from its effects, according to their own priorities."

This difficulty is further exacerbated by the fact that interest is more likely to be generated when the audience can 'connect' with the victims than when they are fed facts and figures detailing the enormity of a crises. Stories are thus built on the 'power of one': they center around particular individuals, in the hope that their suffering will strike a chord with members of the audience, for the emotions that these stories narrate - hope, despair, success and failure are universal. There is always a risk that in showcasing these individual victims, humanitarian actors and the media - no matter how good their intentions - will focus more on the awful ordeals the victims have undergone and the period of greatest suffering, than on any other aspect, whether it be their ability to cope with the crises and move on with their lives, or their pursuit of other ambitions. Indeed, the rather cynical and regressive belief that if a episode does not move you to pity, it will also not lead you to loosen your purse strings, has a surprisingly strong hold.

At the recently concluded Tribeca film festival, two movies dealt with this issue very sensitively. The first, Armin [Note: the following paragraphs contain several Spoilers] by Croatian director Ognjen Sviličić, takes as its subject the story of a father and son, Ibro and Armin, who are traveling from their small town in Bosnia, to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. The purpose of the trip is to secure a role for Armin in a movie being shot by a famous German filmmaker in Zagreb. Armin is a talented actor and plays the accordion; both father and son are confident that this will be enough for him to get a role, in the film, which predictably, turns out to be, as both father and son say, "yet another film on the days of the conflict".

As it turns out, Armin is not selected after his audition. At a later point however, the filmmakers, whose interest has been somewhat piqued by Armin's odd silences, see him collapsing in the middle of a song that he is playing on his accordion and immediately assume, that he is suffering from some sort of post-conflict trauma. Ibro and Armin are then called in and offered - a starring role for Armin, in a film which explores his 'condition' as a result of the Bosnia-Serbia violence. The father and son are shocked. The son runs out of the room and the father, who had been most keen on a break for his son, rejects the offer. In one of the most poignant scenes of the film, the father embraces his son, who is weeping in the bathroom, presumably out of a sense of insult at all the gratuitous pity, and tells him the filmmakers 'don't know any thing'. The remark is telling for the film makers, without a doubt very sensitive, sympathetic people and extremely kind, have totally missed the fact that Armin , who has been through the conflict, but whose fainting fit was not the result of any post-conflict disorder, wanted the role on the basis of a belief in his talent, not on a platform of victim hood.

The film has received
several favourable reviews that characterize it as a story of a father-son relationship; this is accurate and the evolution of this relationship over this period is beautifully portrayed. However, the movie goes beyond this relationship and makes a strong point about being a part of certain chain of events and being an interested outsider; about recognizing patterns and actually understanding why they play out as they do. The film makers are as bewildered by Armin's behavior, as the father and son are by what drives the filmmakers’ interest - why Armin's 'condition' is a matter of greater interest than Armin's talent. Above all, as mentioned before, it provides a beautifully understated critique of the slippery-slope of victim representation in popular media. The director sums it up:

"This film is my way of telling a story about the war; what that situation brings and how one can deal with it. Father and son are fighting for respect. Their only problem is that they are from Bosnia, and we all know what that means. They want to escape their poverty and the only thing they have to lose is their pride. That‘s all they have. For the rest of the world, they are simply two poor people from a devasted country. This is why they have to fight."

The second film Shame, was unarguably one of the highlights of the festival. The documentary is the story of Mukhtaran Mai who was gang-raped on the order of the village council as punishment for a crime committed by her younger brother. Her village council, in Meerwala, Pakistan, like many others in the country and in other parts of the world, was blissfully following their time-honored practice of 'honor for honor' - Mukhtaran's 12 year old brother was accused of having compromised the honor of a young Mastoi girl, so the girl's brothers were given the right to extract revenge from Mukhtaran. The resultant shame that would result from this, would be the family's absolution. After the incident, Mukhtaran and her parents were expected to shut up and go on with their life, of course, with lowered heads. Mukhtaran was shunned and was even expected to commit suicide, as her natural course of action. She did not, and shocked the village by not only filing a case against tremendous odds (the nearest police-station was more than 50 kilometers away, and initally refused to register the complain) and bringing them to justice, but in also creating a media storm which brought attention - not to her sufferings, but to the state of affairs in the country that had allowed such practices to continue unquestioned, since time immemorial.

Under the stunned and then gradually admiring eyes of her village, the unlettered Mukhtaran used the compensation money awarded to her by the government to start a girl's school, remarking that it was the ignorance of the villagers which had led them to preserve such heinous customs. It was a blow to her, when the High Court overturned the death sentence that the lower courts had awarded to the culprits; for she could not believe that this time it was an educated, urban set of people who had failed her cause. Mukhtaran's case is now awaiting final judgment by the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

Despite setbacks, like the High Court verdict and the ebb in international interest - which lead to a decline in aid, Mukhtaran continued to build up her school and various other community institutions. Her village, which previously had no roads and no electricity, now has both, as well as its own police outpost. Plans are afoot to build a community centre, and Mukhtaran now heads a full fledged development organization.

The movie also showcases the very constructive role that the media played in this case - it was through the media that Mukhtaran was able to make the inital appeal for justice; it was the media again which went back to her a year after the whole incident to discover that she had taken to selling her family's livestock in order to keep the school running, publicity of this lead to fresh aid for the development of the village; finally it was the media which took the first step in reversing the attribution of shame - Mukhtaran was not portrayed as a shrinking victim but a strong woman fighting for justice and fighting also for the emancipation of her village; it was the turn of Mukhtaran's community and members of the Pakistan government to be ashamed. The documentary includes the episode during which the Government of Pakistan put Mukhtaran under restraint to prevent her from traveling to America to speak about her case and her problems in bringing the perpetrators to justice, as well as her development efforts, in which, as she candidly put it, she seems to have taken on the duties of her state.

Above all, the film is a very sensitive exploration of Mukhtaran's journey from immediate aftermath of the crime, to the present in which she has earned the respect of international society, as also the previously unwilling admiration of her own community. it has conveys a sense of the horror she went through without dwelling on it and has gone on to present a composite picture of the manner in which the different interests and goals of the various people involved have played out. The director, Mohammed Naqvi, tracks the change in perspectives of the government, the villagers, NGOs and the international community, Mukhtaran's family and Mukhtaran herself, over the five years since the incident.

He also provides several interviews conducted with the family of the culprits, who have remained in a pall of gloom since the death sentences were awarded by the court of first instance (at present of course, their fate hangs in balance). The mother is very bitter, she cannot understand what her sons have done that has has landed them in this situation. While these days they do not admit to the crime at all, one could probably understand that her bewilderment would arise even if she knew her sons to be guilty - for in her mind, they only did what the council told them to do, in fulfillment of tradition. Her own daughter (the girl allegedly compromised by Mukhtaran's brother) who claimed that she too had been gang-raped previously, by Mukhtaran's twelve year old brother amongst others, but this family chose to let the tribal council decide for them.

It is important that the film does not swing the other way either and represent Mukhtaran's life as one without any set-backs altogether, after the one launching incident.[1] Mukhtaran's school faces many challenges, not only financial ones - as many of her pupils are taken away by their parents as soon as they hit their teens, in order to marry them off; there are members of the community, her elder brother among them, who feel she has brought more shame upon them by her actions; some others believe that the incident may now have come the basis for a money making operation; and three years after her efforts to educate her people and her numerous efforts at promoting consciousness of human rights and dignity across the country, a nine year old gets raped in her own village.

The documentary's portrayal of the affair had brought the audience to its feet every time it was shown at the festival, hopefully it also set the donations boxes overflowing at the Sakhi benefit dinner, and for once not as a matter of charity but of a genuine desire to assist in her development efforts.
Finally, a note on the use of the word Shame. Apart from this film, Shame was used as a title by Salman Rushdie in 1983, for his book set in a country ‘not quite Pakistan’ and revolves around the lives of two men, modeled on former Prime Minister Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto and General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq. It is also the English title for Taslima Nasreen’s book on the anti-Hindu riots which erupted in Bangladesh, after the demolition of Babri Masjid in India, by Indian Hindu fundamentalists in December 1992. Following its publication, a death fatwa was issued against Nasreen; Rushdie is also under a death fatwa, for another book, Satanic Verses.


[1] Although, during the Q&A session after film, there was an audience member who, probably not in the best of taste, wanted to know if, after all that happened, Mukhtaran would change the fact of the rape if she could? The director, who was playing interpreter, understandably refused to put the question to Mukhtaran.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


The tagline of Syriana is “everything is connected” and this is exactly what the movie portrays. Principally a tale about the oil industry, the tale the movie tells is spun across USA, Switzerland, the middle east, south asia and the far east. A missile disappears in Iran, a Geneva-based consultant group covets the role of economic advisor to the heir of an Emirate,; the heir to the Emirate, Prince Nasir, awards an oil contract to China, the immigrant Pakistani workers of the US firm which previously held this contract lose their jobs, and are inducted into a fundamentalist group, the US firm merges with a smaller company which has landed an oil contract in Kazakhistan, the Department of Justice is worried about this merger, the companies hire a law firm to ensure the merger is pushed through, the CIA meanwhile plots to kill the heir Emir and set up his weaker pro-America brother on the throne to secure American oil interests. A CIA agent, a young economist, a laid-off worker and some lawyers are pulled into these complex webs like so many flies.

The exact plot line of the movie is difficult to describe, for it is non-linear [1] and the plot only comes together – if at all – towards the end of the film. Indeed in his review, Roger Ebert makes a valid point when he states “The more you describe it, the more you miss the point. It is not a linear progression from problem to solution. It is all problem.”

At one level the root of this problem revolves around the lengths to which the American government would go to maintain its supplies from the wells of the Middle-East. Indeed, ex-CIA Agent Robert Baer, whose book See No Evil was the inspiration for Syriana, told Washington Post that “[i]t’s a fictional place, a term used inside the Beltway, to describe redrawing the borders in the Middle East to suit our interests. It’s a made-up name. For example, Iraq is very much an artificial country and that is one reason we’re having so many problems there because the Iraqis are not a people with a common identity.” The film's website also states that ‘Syriana’ is a very real term used by Washington think-tanks to describe a hypothetical reshaping of the Middle East [to suit Western interests]. As the story indicates, the reshaping need not only be geographical – the term can also refer to political interference – such as the CIA plan to kill Prince Nasir.

At another level however the movie rises above being merely a powerful indiction of American quest for oil. Syriana spins an intricate tale of corruption and vested interests at every level as each state, each group within the states and each individual within the group tries to realize their/his desired ends. What emerges most clearly is that there is hardly anybody who is capable of grasping, let alone controlling the whole process – the American oil interests are but one variable, as are the ambitions of the heir to the Emirate and his brother, the dreams of the retrenched immigrants, the goals of the law firm, the ambition of its individual lawyers, the motives of the oil companies, etc. It offers a window into the complications which are often very simplistically subsumed within labels such as “US foreign policy”; “Islamic terrorism”; and “spreading democracy”.

The film is remarkable for the fact that throughout the course of its complicated narrative, it endeavors to bring the different shades in the characters of each of its major actors, whether by exploring their backgrounds, or through clever dialogue. In addition it makes a bunch of small points which go into bolstering its overall attempt to give the viewer a sense of the complexity of such affairs. To mention a few of these:

  • The laid-off Pakistani workers feel a sense of alienation in the Emirates, for even though it is a muslim country, it is very unlike their own. Furthermore this is not because of sectarian Shia/Sunni differences, but because of ethnic and linguistic dissimilarities. This may appear to be an obvious point but is usually missed by films that lump together the entire ‘Muslim world’.

  • In one instance Prince Nasir claims his plans for rebuilding the Emirate are constantly obstructed by the American government forcing him to buy their products – like outdated aircraft – at exhorbitant prices, in order to combat the growing unemployment in the manufacturing sector.

  • There is an interesting dialogue on the nature of the Caspian sea – is it really a sea, or is it a lake and what the implications of this are, in terms of rights over its waters and its deep sea oil fields. The dialogue also explores how the countries surrounding it prefer to characterize it and why.
Lauded and criticized for its complex story; reviled by some as an anti-American film - Charles Krauthammer in an Op-Ed published in the Washington Post states “Osama bin Laden could not have scripted this film with more conviction”; praised by others because it does not descend to this level of simplification; a winner of several major awards, Syriana is a visible, moving film, well worth a watch – or as some suggest, two back to back viewings, to truly appreciate its intricacies.

[1] A good synopsis is available on the film’s official website