Monday, June 07, 2004

When did it fall apart? Sometime in the 80’s. When the good and the great gave way to the greedy and the mean.

If everything continues to go to plan as far as VSO is concerned I will be putting my house on the market within the next few weeks.

It's a nice spot. I over look a small marina on the banks of the Tyne. I have lived here for five years and the appreciation in house prices has meant it has turned out to be a good investment. An investment that will set me in good stead whatever I decide for my future.

It was only a couple of weeks after I first moved in that I must admit I almost considered leaving. On the way back from the pub on the development, my mate spotted a plaque partially covered by a bush. When we pushed the branches back we were horrified at what we could read.


This stone was laid by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Yuk.

In recent weeks, following my VSO training, I am only just coming to terms with what Margaret Thatcher did to the world. Before learning more fully about the third world I had presumed that the damage she caused was limited to Britain. She set the tone that Reagan would follow. Together, their neo-liberal agenda not only changed the UK and the USA forever, it also changed the world.

Banks started regulating third world lending on the basis that countries would have to adopt these polices. The US and UK may have voted for Ronnie and Maggie but other countries had privatisation, cuts in services and the decimation of the welfare state imposed on them

"Trickle down" was the buzz phrase. The idea that if you make the rich, richer then the money will slowly but surely flow downwards. Experiences has shown that the money doesn't trickle down at all.

Thatcher stated that there was "no such thing as society", she believed in looking after number one. If we became a little more selfish, a little more aggressive, and a little more greedy then we could all get ahead. Or so the rhetoric went.

Now, as I contemplate my posting in Vietnam, I am realising that this Neo Liberalism, spread as far as South East Asia. This country that has suffered at the hands of both the French and the Americans is now suffering as a result of "Doi Moi" - their version of Thatcherism.

To really understand why the still communist Vietnamese government opened the doors to Neo Liberalism you have to follow the story since the end of the American War.

A cornerstone of the ceasefire agreement was a promise by president Nixon that $3.25bn in reparations would be paid to Vietnam. While most of the money would go to American firms, it would help restore industrial plants, railways lines, dams, roads and harbours. But the money was never paid.

Worse, on the last day of the war the US Treasury Department froze Vietnamese assets of $70m. Further American bullying scared off the World Bank who suspended a grant for an irrigation scheme that would have increased food capacity.

To add to this, from 1981 American voluntary agencies were denied export licenses for humanitarian aid. Soon Washington's allies joined in.

In 1979 Thatcher persuaded the European Community to halt its regular shipments of milk to Vietnamese children. When, as a consequence, the price of a kilo of milk powder rose to ten times the cost of a kilo of meat, the World Health Organisation stated that a third of all infants would be stunted, and a disproportionate number of the very youngest were going blind.

At the same time $12m worth of food was being passed on to the murderous Khmer Rouge who had killed one million of their own countrymen. This was carried out simply because the KR were being used as a chess piece against the Vietnamese army.

As a result of all of this, the country continued to suffer and in 1986 the old guard in the government resigned en masse. The new leaders, short on options and desperate for acceptance from the west, agreed to Doi Moi.

Soon the World Bank opened an office in Hanoi, alongside the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development bank. In 1994, while it was Clinton that finally lifted the trade embargo, it was the policies of Thatcher and Reagan that had to be agreed to if Vietnam was to be allowed to prosper.

To this end the World Bank told the Vietnamese that a total of £1.8bn in grants and loans would be forthcoming if they opened up to the free market. The state economy would have to downsize, public enterprise would be scrapped and tens of thousands of public employees had to be sacked. Public services, including health and education were stopped.

Before any of this could happen Hanoi was also told that it would have to honour the bad debts of the now defunct Saigon regime.

Meanwhile, foreign investors were to be offered five-year tax holidays for their sweatshops. To give you an idea of the pay in these places. Young women, working a 12-hour day, get $12 a month. Compare this to what VSO will pay me for working in Hanoi. My wage is supposed to reflect what is liveable on, with little left for socialising or entertainment. I will received around $150 a month.

Land laws were reformed and this affected two thirds of the population. Subsistence farmers had kept famine at bay but these were replaced by cash cropping for export.

Seven years on, by the World Bank's own estimates Doi Moi has seen poverty increase. Now up to 70% of the population is now in "absolute poverty", half the children are severely malnourished.

The World Bank now also admits that since the reforms got underway there is now a higher proportion of underweight and stunted children than in any country in south and south east Asia, with the exception of Bangladesh.

Should I be succesful in my application to work in Hanoi, then I will be employed by KOTO, a truly superb operation that trains street kids how to cook, wait on tables, and everything else they need to know to work in a resaurant. As part of my job I will also be teaching a local person how to take over fundraising and PR tasks when I leave.

On Unicef's website they draw a parallel between the increase in the number of street children and Doi Moi. It states that there is at least 19,000 street children in Vietnam, but there could be more than double this number.

In short, this is Neo Liberalism writ large. Popularised by Thatcher, made global by Reagan and gleefully taken up by the World Bank, International Monetary Funds and the various conglomerates. If, as you read this, you are wearing an item of clothing made by Nike, then the chances are it was made in Vietnamese sweatshop. The person who made your trainers or t-shirt got $12 a month, how much did you pay?

So, forgive me for not sheding a tear over Ronald Reagan, a man who said of the war in Vietnam: "You ask what we were doing over there all those years: what was it all about it? I'll tell you pure and simple, it was a noble case."

The real tragedy is that what the hundreds of thousands of troops, and the millions of tons of bombs couldn't achieve, is now being achieved, thanks to neo liberalism.

* Information taken from John Pilger's Hidden Agendas.


Love, light and peace,

BykerSink

I saw two shooting stars last night I wished on them but they were only satellites. It's wrong to wish on space hardware. I wish, I wish, I wish you'd care.