The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South by Vijay Prashad

June 13, 2013

By whom, and for what reasons, has development throughout the “poorer nations” of the global South been thwarted in the post-colonial era? Vijay Prashad’s book offers an unambiguous answer to this important question, with the (Western) villains in the drama of persistent underdevelopment clearly identified. It also asks what the options are for an alternative to neoliberalism today. The clarity of the message is, however, also the main weakness of this provocative account of the post-war global economy.

Prashad begins by explaining how dreams of an emancipatory “Third World project” ended up a neoliberal nightmare, emphasising how key officials and international commission reports shaped official debates and decisions on development, and how the vision of a New International Economic Order was discarded in favour of structural adjustment programmes during the “lost decade” of the 1980s. While empirically rich and well referenced, Prashad’s message is undermined by a tendency to reduce international relations to a reified bipolar system, comprising a wholly rapacious North and an entirely victimised South. The polemic tone engenders a Manichean analysis in which the intentions and actions of international organisations, multinational corporations and individual decision-makers in the West are treated as wholly cynical, but those of their Southern counterparts are seldom probed in similar fashion. The evils of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are chronicled in detail, whereas calamities such as China’s Great Leap Forward and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan are by comparison treated as asides, triggered ultimately by the machinations of Western forces.

The polemic tone engenders a Manichean analysis in which the intentions and actions of the West are treated as wholly cynical

At times, as when seemingly without criticism Julius Nyerere’s affirmative views on North Korea and Cuba are invoked, Prashad echoes Walter Rodney’s 1973 work How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, in which communist Albania and North Korea are identified as models of “socialist progress” against the soullessness of Western capitalism. Indeed, an all-pervasive suspicion of market forces, severe to a degree unwarranted even in the wake of the presently unfolding global economic crisis, underpins and hampers Prashad’s economic analysis. Thus his characterisation of underdevelopment lacks nuance and downplays the complex political and social constraints within which all actors operate and, with imperfect information, make their decisions. International relations obviously contain significant power asymmetries, but focusing on the primacy of Western agency and reactions thereto by social movements comes at the expense of properly recognising state agency in the South, the representatives of which are relegated to being ineffectual at best or fifth columnists at worst - a comprador elite dangling from the puppetmaster’s strings.

The Poorer Nations is nevertheless engaging and will pique a desire to pursue further studies among those who care about the global economy, underdevelopment and injustice. Its “possible history” comes alive in the final, speculative chapter in particular, where social movements and their potential for breaking the West’s (G7’s) supposed stranglehold on the developmental aspirations of people across the global South are evaluated. But the potential impact and overall impression is hampered unnecessarily by inadequate editing. For instance, the Gleneagles Summit is located in 2005 as well as 2006; it’s both “Olaf” and Olof Palme; Busan morphs in the very same paragraph into “Pusan”; the Congress of South African Trade Unions is referred to as the “Coalition”; and, more significantly, at least two major quotations are repeated nearly word for word in different sections of the book.

The history of the “poorer nations” is a terribly important one. The trials and tribulations of the many people across the world suffering marginalisation, poverty and related indignities hold lasting lessons, and their fate could in the end become the fate of us all. The history of development, and its hitherto disappointing post-colonial trajectory, deserves a more balanced treatment.

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