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From Barefoot Doctors to Barefaced Bankers

The Oakland Institute researches and publishes about access to some of the most basic of human needs that continue to be denied to the majority of people in developing countries. These issues include land, food security and sovereignty, trade and aid. An exceptionally powerful barrier to access to these and other human needs is the World Bank and its associated institutions.

A recent report details how the WB’s ‘private sector arm’ (or is the WB merely a public sector tool of the private sector?), the International Finance Corporation, is deeply involved in extensive land grabbing projects, particularly in some of the most impoverished countries in Africa. There’s a brief article about the report, and other WB related reports, on Oakland’s site.

These landgrabs are carried out purely for profit, although descriptions of them are often padded out with talk of ‘sustainable development’ and other honeyed words. Far from benefiting anyone in poor countries, these programs squeeze massive profits from the poor through exploitation of the land for palm oil and other damaging commodities.

The few ecologies that have survived decades of colonialism and neocolonialism continue to be destroyed by institutions that claim to be ‘helping’ the poor. Populations in the countries affected become more dependent, less food secure and less healthy, communities and government, local and national, become less stable.

The current president of the World Bank, Dr Jim Yong Kim, used to be a ‘global health leader’, co-founder of Partners in Health, holding senior positions in some of the biggest names in US educational institutions (albeit some of the most neoliberal and elitist ones).

He held a senior position in the World Health Organization, contradictory as that sounds for someone who used to champion the work of Barefoot Doctors, ‘accompaniment’ and other types of community health volunteer. Indeed, it was his associations with work with the very poor that were used as arguments for his appointment to the WHO and, eventually, the World Bank.

It’s decades since the World Bank has even pretended to have anything to do with the world’s poor. It has long prioritized the ambitions of rich countries to grab land, control food production, kill off any grassroots movements, destabilize governments that their rich country management don’t like and generally promote the status quo: more for those who are already rich and powerful, never mind the exploited.

But organizations like Partners in Health have been elevated to almost cult status by the press, in papers and books and in the popular imagination. Their talk of ‘liberation theology’ (to those who have will be given more?) and frequent mentions of touchy-feely philosophers such as Michel Foucault and Paulo Freire attracts those who like a veneer of ‘ideology’ with their neoimperialism. Another founder of Partners in Health, Paul Farmer, has even been referred to as ‘a saint’ by Kim.

Perhaps this association with (currently fashionable) cultist tendencies and cult figures have been factors in Kim’s rise to president of one of the most destructive institutions in the history of rich countries’ savage profiteering in poor countries? It is very hard to find criticizm of people like Kim and Farmer, which is part of the reason for suggesting an element of cultism, of cult status.

However, there is some criticizm of Kim, given his prominence in fields beyond medicine and development. One critic even argues that Kim twisted the philosophies of several philosophers to put forward what is just a barefaced, market driven, neoliberal agenda, that he manages to sell to his adoring followers. The World Bank seem to have recognized Kim as a fellow traveler a long time ago.

There is also a powerful critique of Farmer, which adds to the impression that these guys have done very well under the status quo (thank you very much), have done everything in their power to ‘fight’ for the status quo and have become leading figures in promoting a kind of chocolate box version of activism, that you can buy and distribute among your friends on your way to the latest popular protest.

Apparently Kim was fond of urging students to study for MBAs rather than the medicine (and anthropology, don’t forget, that’s where the ideology gets a toe in the door) that he and Farmer studied. One critical account of Farmer suggests that “Farmer and Kim are…embodiments of the dark side of the spirit of 1968”. Others question the wisdom of Kim urging for action without theory, especially those who have studied Marx and Freire.

Using polite terminology such as ‘structural violence’, rather than condemning anti-poor policies wielded by the World Bank, neither will question the actions of international development institutions, or the rich country governments who profit from poverty and inequality. So neither of them are likely to have the stomach to criticize an institution that played such a shameful role in destroying any opportunity African countries had to develop themselves in the decades following independence.

Depending on how you view him, Kim appears to have come a long way from his early work in bringing healthcare to the poor. But he also showed great foresight and diplomacy in his treatment of what has become one of the principal causes of poverty, the World Bank. So who knows, perhaps he always had a penchant for banking? He and Farmer like to warn against what they term ‘immodest claims of causality’. But Freire reminds us that impeding those who would question the likes of the World Bank are themselves committing structural violence.

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