After decades of neoliberalism and a devastating pandemic, conditions of acute global crisis are emerging and poor countries will be hit hardest, writes John Clarke
More than two years into the pandemic, with the invasion of Ukraine greatly compounding the situation, conditions of acute global crisis are emerging. The ‘supply shocks’ that have resulted from severe economic dislocation have unleashed a stubborn round of inflation, a cost of living crisis and the threat of full-blown recession. Even in wealthy countries, working-class populations are facing considerable hardship, but the effects on the poorest countries are already disastrous and an unimaginable catastrophe is being prepared.
Under the system of imperialism, and after decades of neoliberalism, oppressed countries were already facing appalling conditions before the pandemic emerged. The World Inequality Report 2022 tells us that:
‘Income and wealth inequalities have been on the rise nearly everywhere since the 1980s, following a series of deregulation and liberalization programs which took different forms in different countries.’
The report also suggests that: ‘Global inequalities seem to be about as great today as they were at the peak of Western imperialism in the early 20th century.’ It goes even further than this, when it arrives at the staggering conclusion that ‘the share of income presently captured by the poorest half of the world’s people is about half what it was in 1820.’ This is the ‘world order’ that has formed the backdrop for the present conditions of crisis.
With these fault lines of global inequality already in place, the shock waves that have impacted the poorest countries could only produce devastating results. With the possibility of new mutant strains and more major outbreaks of the pandemic in the next period, the appalling injustice of ‘vaccine imperialism’ continues to put largely unvaccinated populations in poor countries at great risk of needless death and terrible suffering.
The economic dislocation caused by the pandemic has also impacted oppressed countries to a massively disproportionate degree. Two years ago, the United Nations reported that the spread of Covid-19 had unleashed ‘the worst humanitarian crisis since World War Two’ and pointed to the risk of ‘famines of biblical proportions.’ Yet, pious words and vague assurances aside, nothing serious has been done to counter this appalling situation, and the even more unstable conditions of the present moment unfold with hundreds of millions of people just as vulnerable as ever.
In March of last year, the IMF considered the prospects for recovery in the wake of a pandemic induced economic downturn. It pointed out that: ‘The extent of the recovery will depend on the persistence of the economic damage, or “scarring”, in the medium-term’ and it warned that ‘… emerging market and developing economies are expected to have deeper scars than advanced economies, with losses expected to be largest among low-income countries.’
The note of cautious optimism that the IMF was sounding in 2021 has proven to have been unfounded. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the bleak prospects for a timely end to the conflict have wrecked the already questionable prospects for a return to economic buoyancy. Last month, Michael Fakhri, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, issued a warning that:
‘For the last three years, global rates of hunger and famine have been on the rise. With the Russian invasion, we are now facing the risk of imminent famine and starvation in more places around the world.’
The Global Crisis Response Group, a UN body, recently issued a policy brief that suggested the ‘Ukraine crisis risks tipping up to 1.7 billion people — over one-fifth of humanity — into poverty, destitution and hunger.’ In presenting the brief, the UN Secretary-General issued a futile but highly revealing call for international action to ‘pull developing countries back from the financial brink.’
If the invasion of Ukraine has had this kind of impact, we have to understand that this conflict takes place in the context of a continuing and escalating process of global rivalry, in which the US-led powers are at odds with Russia and China. The pursuit of this competition on the world stage poses the great threat of further and even more devastating conflicts that will have even worse impacts on poor countries.
It has been well established by now that those parts of the world that are the poorest have played the smallest role in generating the conditions of climate disaster. Yet, they face the impacts of this to an enormously disproportionate degree. It has been estimated, in fact, ‘that developing countries will suffer 99% of the casualties attributable to climate change, despite the fact that the 50 least developed nations have contributed to only 1% of greenhouse gas emissions.’
In addition to the human suffering within countries impacted in this way, vast numbers of people will also be forced to relocate, within their own countries or across international borders. The World Bank has estimated that Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia ‘will generate 143 million more climate migrants by 2050.’ It calculates that, in 2017 alone, as many as 24 million people across the world were forcibly displaced by ‘flooding, forest fires after droughts, and intensified storms.’ Boris Johnson and Priti Patel’s ‘racist Rwanda refugee plan’ gives a fairly clear indication of how governments in the imperialist countries will respond to those who are displaced by the deepening climate crisis if they are left to their own devices.
Recently, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organisation, made some pointed comments on how the undeniably terrible suffering caused by the invasion of Ukraine is looked upon, in comparison to how other massive tragedies have been viewed and responded to when they unfolded in Ethiopia, Yemen, Afghanistan and Syria. ‘I need to be blunt and honest that the world is not treating the human race the same way,’ he said. ‘Some are more equal than others.’ His assessment is entirely accurate and fully justified.
This hierarchy in the value of human life is both a legacy of colonialism and the expression of present day imperialism. As the several-sided crisis of global capitalism deepens, the effects will be so much greater in countries that lack the infrastructure and resources to provide effective measures of protection. The very survival of hundreds of millions of people will be threatened to a greater degree than ever. Whether it is economic slump, war or the effects of capitalism’s assault on the natural world, the populations of the poorest countries of the earth are going to face unspeakable hardship that will produce titanic struggles that we must fully support.
Those of us who live in the imperialist centres will be under an obligation to infuse our movements with the strongest sense of solidarity with people in the oppressed countries. This must go over to active measures of practical support. Whether we take up fights against racist immigration practices, challenge life destroying vaccine patents, confront predatory companies that plunder the poor nations of the earth, or demand debt relief for countries being bled dry by Western banks, it is vital that our working-class movements develop and act upon a powerful sense of international solidarity and global justice.
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John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.
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