Races Against Time – Chapter 5

Nearly 40 years ago, when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and I was preparing to stand as a Liberal parliamentary candidate in a ‘safe’ conservative seat, I published 6 essays in a booklet entitled ‘Races Against Time’. The sad truth is that much of what I was warning about at that time, when ‘climate change’ wasn’t even a term, is still crying out for action.  I still stand by the words written in my thirties but am desperately disappointed that so little has changed in spite of the millions of good people, including my grand children, who have expressed the urgency to act.  

Let’s act now – or it really will be too late.

  1. The Power of Plutonium: Written 3 years before the Chernobyl disaster.
  2. Burning It Up: Addressing scandalous energy inequality and waste.
  3. Transport of Delight: Domination of the car and loss of our rail network.
  4. Economy & Equity: Conservation, population, food, and the Third World.
  5. Raping the Benefits: Global control of the commodity markets. 
  6. Breach of the Peace: Russia and the existential threat of nuclear war.


“If you are in a minority of one, the truth is the truth.” (Gandhi).

Liberals know what it is like to be in a minority, but we persist in the belief that one day, whether it be at the coming election or the next, we will succeed in breaking through those barriers that stand in our way. My overwhelming conviction is that governments have pulled and lured the population in the wrong direction for so long that their massive deceit has become institutionalised. The politicians have made the course and we are all supposed to run around it. We have a choice of pursuing the blinkered race or stopping to think where we are racing to and what for.

In this series of six essays, for they are no more than that, I try to give emphasis to some of the matters that concern me most. They are not the standard economic and social issues that dominate our politics, but they have a fundamental effect on our lives, on our welfare and work, and on our continued existence. I give priority to those areas that I see as a threat to our existence and hope to alert as many people as possible. I ask that these chapters are read with an open mind and that it is seen as a document of hope and not despair – hope that if we all do a little we can win these races against time.

“No one made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.” Those were Bristol M.P. Edmund Burke’s words 200 years ago and this pamphlet is my small contribution to that sentiment.

George Ferguson

Bristol 1st May 1983

Raping the Benefits

Far from moving towards equity, we are moving away from it. The northern hemisphere consumes 90% of oil production, 80% of fertilizers and 75% of fish. “The US uses more fertiliser on its golf courses, back gardens and cemeteries than is used for the total agricultural programme of India.” (McGraw Population Today). Exxon, the producer of much of that fertiliser, has a similar gross national product to that of Sweden. Many of these trans-national corporations have become more powerful than governments; they influence every aspect of our lives, but in the Third World they dominate them. They operate a code of maximum profit and minimum ethics. They take from those that can least afford it and sell to those that can.

These ‘private governments’ control the commodity markets on which so many of the Third World countries rely. They sell 85% of the tea and coffee and 60% of the sugar. Land, the one common resource the Third World has, is increasingly being used for cash crops for export, while the native population is left with less food. The big corporations have reduced their interests in land ownership and prefer to buy off the local farmers, and market the products. They take the profits and leave the farmers with the risks and losses due to disease or a poor harvest. These multi-nationals can control the markets and state their own terns. For those that carry out the back breaking work on the land there is often only the choice of surrender or starvation.

There are 600 million landless and tenant farmers in the Third World. In Latin America 80% of the land is owned by 8% of the population who are increasingly producing cash crops at the expense of subsistence food crops. “The depressed rural worker, who with his sweat waters his affliction, cannot wait any longer for full and effective recognition of his dignity. He has the right to be respected and not deprived with manoeuvres which are sometimes tantamount to real spoilation of the little he has. He has the right to be rid of the barriers of exploitation, often made up of intolerable selfishness against which his best efforts of advancement are shattered.” (Pope John Paul II).

The 1983 Brandt Commission Report ‘Common Crisis’ is an attempt to break the deadlock and avert an economic collapse. It gives little attention to the question of loosening the grip of the multi-nationals, but does conclude the chapter on trade with the words, “there is scope for developing countries to establish transnational marketing and purchasing enterprises to reduce dependence on northern corporations and facilitate trade expansion. There is an urgent need for our government to join other western governments in supporting international commodity agreements to give just reward to the ‘victim’ countries for their exports of raw materials. We need to free the trade restrictions that act against the textile producing countries which are in some of the poorest regions of the world. It is the Liberal aim to loosen the steel grip of the corporations without allowing it to be replaced by the iron grip of Eastern block communism.

This is not to dictate to the countries how they rule themselves, but to find the means of ensuring that they do rule themselves in a way that benefits them best, and in a way that makes them true equals in the United Nations.

It is too easy to deride the United Nations. It is the most difficult challenge of all to make it work, but when we realise the extent of the interdependence of nations we must see that there is no other way.

We can talk about it, but can we help? Willy Brandt condemns the failure to act since his first report. The second report, three years later, is written in almost desperate tones. It is not the easiest subject on which to raise public enthusiasm, but until there is a push of public opinion to motivate the politicians to work towards a global plan we will be condemned to yet more reruns of the soft soaping 1981 North-South Summit at Cancun, Mexico.

On a global scale the United Nations should provide the catalyst to strengthen the Third World control over its own trade and to give it the educational, research and banking facilities to help it transfer the bias from dependence to independence.

What we can do as individuals is to put that necessary pressure on our government to support these international initiatives, to restore our aid programme to its real purpose and to raise the level of official aid at least to the modest level of 0.7% of our gross national product within one year, with the aim of reaching a norm of 1% for developed countries. Our colonial past has left us with a greater number of bilateral (country to country) aid recipients than any other western country. It does not mean we are giving more, but that we are spreading it more thinly to 130 or so countries. Sweden with its relatively more generous resources concentrates its efforts on under 30 countries. Much more of our aid is going to the better off developing countries and is increasingly tied to the Aid Trade Provision which is basically a subsidy to British exporters to help them win orders. In the building industry we would call it cheating.

Two thirds of British aid is tied to the purchase of British goods, by far the highest proportion of any OECD country. This can severely limit the extent of useful aid and provide some shocking examples of inappropriate use and waste of the aid budget, including the now notorious case of the decision to allocate nearly £5 million to finance the infrastructure and airport for a Club Mediteranee hotel development in the Turks and Caicos Island, with a population of under 1,000. This is hardly answering the basic needs of survival in the most appropriate manner.

We should use the criteria set out in the document “Real Aid – the Strategy for Britain” by the Independent Group on British Aid. Here they argue for a ‘first category aid’ with a more thorough system of identifying those projects that can have an immediate effect on the incomes of the very poor and that “more aid should be given in the form of contribution towards local cost rather than tied to imports of British goods”. They suggest that if we are to indulge in the subsidy of British exports, that it is done through a separate budget of the Department of Trade. They argue for a greater degree of public scrutiny and an annual report on the aid programme to explain and justify policy. They note the consistent decline in our aid programme as a percentage of total public expenditure since 1979 and argue strongly for the restoration of the programme of development education, at least to the level, in real terms, of three years ago. This is a practical document that does not make huge demands on government, but simply illustrates how badly we have got it wrong. In many cases we might as well have been giving a crate of whiskey to an alcoholic.

To reach the poorest peoples we have to adopt a policy of search and find, and sometimes to work with the independent agencies such as Oxfam and Christian Aid to ensure that we are not simply aiding governments at the expense of the people and that we are improving the situation of the whole community. We should stop seeing aid as a form of national bribery and subsidy to large corporations, and to co-operate with all other donors to devise a fairer plan to provide bi-lateral and multi-lateral aid that is a more honest representation of its description. It is not asking much and it will cost a lot more if we postpone it.

When we spend on aid even one tenth of what we spend on preparing for war, we will have begun to move in the direction of realising where our true defence lies. “Only an end to the arms race, which in the developing countries has also reached a terrifying pace, will give us the chance to overcome our common crisis – the grim political and economic confusion engulfing our societies everywhere”. (Brandt 1983).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s