“We are screwing them”

It is ironic that while our society as a whole is globalizing, we as individuals are so disconnected from each other. In the West, we find products from the developing world in our supermarkets, and in the South they listen to American pop songs. On the surface, it does indeed seem that we are approaching a unified global community. How is it, then, that we as consumers can be so removed from those who produce our goods? How is it possible, that in a world where information crosses the globe in a few seconds, we in the developed world remain so unaware of the conditions of our fellow global citizens?

perhaps are we too far removed to realize that we are in fact part of the perpetuation of an exploitative and unjust system.

The role of international organizations and MNCs
In the movie, “The Great African Scandal” (2007), we are introduced to the working conditions of farmers and miners in Ghana.

Market in Northern Ghana
Market in Northern Ghana

As I watch the rundown wooden huts, the barren farmland, and the extreme poverty, I ask myself: “Is this my fault? Am I responsible?” The program host, Robert Beckford, is quite direct in his accusation, saying, “we are screwing them.” (Beckford, 2007). But who are ‘we’? It is easy for us as individual consumers to point the finger at multinational corporations (MNCs) and the ‘evils’ of neo-colonialism, but it is not helping the situation to take on the role of powerless pawns when in fact we have the power to influence the current system. The genius of the capitalist system is that the ultimate power rests with the consumer, yet we seem to be too comfortable in our blissful ignorance to bother making an effort. Or perhaps are we too far removed to realize that we are in fact part of the perpetuation of an exploitative and unjust system.

What we see in Ghana today is a result of what Beckford refers to as ‘economic imperialism’. Ghana might have gained its political independence, but in economical terms, the country is still highly dependent on the West. The lives of many Ghanaian farmers are being dictated by international corporations and financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. The sad fact is that the very institutions that should be helping Ghana are in fact increasing the gap between the industrialized West and the impoverished South. According to Beckford this is all a part of a calculated political process. The current inequalities we see in so many developing nations today, are a direct result of the capitalist agendas of Western MNCs and international financial institutions.

Paradoxically, it’s not only financially driven agendas that are ‘screwing’ the developing world; it is aid organizations as well. In the documentary, we learn that the American rice given as aid actually undermined the local rice farmers. Today, this continued import has nearly driven the Ghanaian rice farming to the ground.

From the empirical evidence in Ghana, we see that international organizations often can do more harm than good. In my opinion, this ties back to the point I made earlier, about us as consumers being so removed from the producers. Had the officials in the aid organizations had an in-depth knowledge of the reality ‘on the ground’, would they still have imported rice into Ghana? Often, I feel like Western companies and aid organizations simply throw money at poor nations in an attempt to redeem themselves from the mistakes made during colonialism. Instead of tackling the problem head-on, and humbly investigating the true causes of modern-day poverty, they design development programs and policies from their offices in the developed world. When visiting local villages, and witnessing how farmers live, it is evident that the development programs are not always working. There is still child labor on the cocoa plantations, there are still violations of human rights in the gold mines, and only 3% of fair trade produce is being bought from major export companies (Beckford, 2007). What are ‘we’ doing wrong?

Impeding and facilitating factors
In my opinion, the main impeding factors to development and education are (1) the lack of liability for non-national corporations, (2) the lack of economic protectionism, and (3) the dependence on foreign aid.

When the distance between worker and consumer stretches across continents, it is important that there are clear laws in place to make sure that the physical detachment does not also lead to a moral detachment

Firstly, there are not strict enough laws in place to ensure that MNCs take responsibility for their plantations, factories, and workers. An inherent problem with multinational corporations is, of course, that they feel no direct accountability towards the country in which their workers live. When the distance between worker and consumer stretches across continents, it is important that there are clear laws in place to make sure that the physical detachment does not also lead to a moral detachment.

Secondly, there needs to be more economic protectionism, at least in the growing phases of development. While an open market economy works well for a developed country, it endangers a developing country based mostly on primary production. If they allow cheaper international products on the market, it will damage the local industry, and increasing poverty.

Thirdly, I feel the classic mantra ‘trade, not aid’ still holds true. Small aid packages will not lead to sustainable development. Only through establishing a strong foundation within industries and education, can developing countries truly become independent.

In a country like Ghana, the abundant natural resources should be a facilitating factor. I believe that if a proper set of laws were put into action, the wealth from gold would benefit the country instead of enriching MNCs. As we know from countries like Botswana, a certain amount of government control can ensure that the revenue from natural resources goes back into developing the country by creating and improving public services, and strengthening national business.

The consumer responsibility
A corporation is a dangerous entity, as it dilutes responsibility among several different board members, shareholders, and even consumers. In the end, who is responsible for 10-year-old Baba having to work for his uncle and not being able to go to school? Who is responsible for pouring toxic waste into the drinking water of miners? On one side, we find the head of corporations claiming the consumers’ demand for lower prices force them to cut down on production cost. On the other hand, we have consumers requesting fair trade. The message of the documentary “The Great African Scandal” is clear: individual consumers have the power. We can refuse to buy products that are not certified fair trade. We can educate ourselves and others on the living conditions of the people making our chocolate, clothes, and electronic appliances. We can demand more transparency in MNCs’ financial spending and earnings, as well as request a debate around the efficiency of aid. When we realize that it is our money fueling this unequal situation, we might also realize that we are controlling the situation. When our money stops being spent on unfairly traded products, the corporations will be forced to adapt.

Beckford, R. (Host, Producer), Kirby, K. (Director). (2007). The Great African Scandal [Video file]. Retrieved from http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/the-great-african-scandal/