(Editor’s note: This review comes from Ben Terrall, a writer based in San Francisco, California, whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Bay View, In These Times, CounterPunch, and Noir City. Terrall last wrote for January Magazine about Colin Asher’s Never a Lovely So Read: The Life and Work of Nelson Algren.)
Seth Donnelly’s The Lie of Global Prosperity: How Neoliberals Distort Data to Mask Poverty and Exploitation (Monthly Review Press), released in paperback late last year, is a methodical examination of how the World Bank spins its number crunching to cover up the extent of global poverty. Donnelly bolsters his analysis with on-the-ground reporting from numerous fact-finding trips to Haiti; the descriptions of what he found there effectively show how World Bank support for unjust governments plays out on the ground in underdeveloped nations.
Donnelly, a high school social studies teacher and activist in California, first traveled to Haiti in 2004 as part of a human rights delegation investigating the aftermath of a U.S.-backed coup which ousted the democratically elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide and brought on a reign of terror. One of Donnelly’s key information sources was a young grassroots journalist who helped facilitate interviews with survivors of right-wing violence. Full disclosure: I traveled to the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince as a participant in a later delegation with Donnelly and also met that journalist.
Our Haitian journalist friend was never in the best of health, having little access to health care and not enough income to maintain a wholesome diet. In 2013, when Donnelly visited Port-au-Prince with a group of his students, he got word that the journalist was very sick, and soon afterward Donnelly and a few students found him lying ravaged on the dirt floor of a shack in the sprawling Cité Soleil district. They pooled their resources to pay for medical treatment in a private hospital, but our friend, not yet 30 years old, died several days later from an immunological breakdown.
Donnelly emphasizes this young media activist’s life and death at the beginning of The Lie of Global Prosperity to show the completely unrealistic nature of the World Bank’s definition of poverty. Because he was probably able to cobble together small amounts of pay totaling slightly more than $1.25 per day in what the World Bank calls “Purchasing Power Parity” currency, the hard-working reporter’s income would be above the Bank’s 2014 International Poverty Line and, in Donnelly’s words, “he could figure in a statistic as part of the alleged decline in global poverty.” Thus, with deceptive claims of purchasing power, Donnelly writes, “The World Bank erases the crime of his poverty.” That erasure, and the fact of so many millions of people being forced to live without access to adequate food, water, sanitation and other necessities, compelled Donnelly to write this compact, important book.
Donnelly systematically takes on the considerable problems with the World Bank’s methodology for calculating poverty, from Purchasing Power Parity factors to the ignoring of food costs to the assumption that economic growth always reduces poverty. Ultimately, as Donnelly notes, “For the World Bank, the poverty threshold falls between one or two dollars daily, regardless of whether people can actually meet their fundamental needs with that sum.” The Bank’s calculation overlooks budgeting for food, health care, housing and other necessities. In addition, while a rural Haitian’s daily income might increase slightly after moving to an urban area, in the countryside that man or woman would have a more tolerable existence, with sources of food via agriculture, shelter and kinship networks providing various types of support. Picking through garbage with little or no sanitation or potable water may yield a slightly higher, though still paltry, income, but it doesn’t make for a better life. However, this deceptive definition of income does allow the World Bank to brag of millions at the bottom rungs of the global order rising out of poverty. Using such examples, corporate capitalists argue that a rising tide raises all boats, regardless of persuasive evidence to the contrary, which Donnelly effectively lays out.
After thoroughly taking apart the ways in which the World Bank misleads and obfuscates through creative accounting, Donnelly investigates broader trends in neoliberalism (basically, capitalism with the gloves off, with an emphasis on, among other pro-corporate policies, deregulation, privatization and attacks on the public sector). In this second section of the book, Donnelly lays out a Marxist analysis of what he calls “the neoliberal phase of imperialism,” encompassing recent world-wide economic trends in the expansion of the global capitalist order. He then succinctly outlines how “Beginning in the 1970s, U.S.-led global capitalism restructured itself in response to three challenges: 1) the decline of the dollar; 2) the falling rate of corporate profit in the core countries and a trend toward economic stagnation; and 3) the Third World ‘debt crisis.’” That restructuring has left us with a system that effectively enriches a lucky few while keeping the world’s poor majority stuck in lives of desperation.
Donnelly closes his book with examples of anti-capitalist movements that are challenging this status quo. Given the climate chaos we are already seeing thanks to blind belief in fossil fuel profiteering and never-ending growth, it’s hard to argue with his emphasis on the importance of “building solidarity near and far in the struggle to replace capitalism with a cooperative, ecological way of living.” This book is a valuable tool to keep at hand for such work. ◊