Survival of the Fattest and the Global Superfluous Poor in the Negotiations in Copenhagen

One of the minor brouhahas at Copenhagen has been over one of the many pieces of public art put up for the conference, Survival of the Fattest, sculpted by artist Jens Galschiot (2004), sponsored by sevenmeters.net.

(I am putting up an image from a blog I frequently read, the “I am a middle-aged gay libertarian Conservative, living in dignified isolation in rural Eastern Ontario, Canada” Diogenes Borealis blog.  It has a longer post on various pieces of art at the Copenhagen conference, titled “Hideous Public Art, Copenhagen Edition.” Eric has a good commentary on the problems of political art, activist art, looking not just at this piece but several others at Copenhagen as well.  Read the whole thing, as Glenn R. might say.  Reactions to art, and political art, differ, so if you want a different take than Eric’s, check out this post with lots of photos on the sculpture, as well as how it was vandalized by someone pushing it over into the water, and then set back up again with a crane.)

Rich world sits atop starving African man, sculpture at Copenhagen

Rich world sits atop starving African man, sculpture at Copenhagen

The sculpture is accompanied by text, reading in part:

I’m sitting on the back of a man.
He is sinking under the burden.
I would do anything to help him.
Except stepping down from his back.

The website goes on to explain (in part):

The sculpture ’Survival of the Fattest’ is a symbol of the rich worlds (i.e. the fat woman, ‘Justitia’) self-complacent ‘righteousness’. With a pair of scales in her hand she sits on the back of starved African man (i.e. the third world), while pretending to do what is best for him.

The sculpture dates back to 2004, when it was exhibited in London.  On that occasion, it apparently was to symbolize the evils of globalization and free trade; it has morphed into a new message about climate change with apparently little need to change anything except the captions.  One wonders in what cause it will be re-deployed, with a quick change of the captions and text in a few years, in some other European city.  The rest of the statement accompanying the photo says that the rich world is responsible for what climate change will do, it says, to Africa.  (The sculpture itself?  In my view, while puerile as agit-prop, if completely stripped of the fashionable, and fashionably shifting, political references, it is an interesting piece as sculpture of the body.  If it were simply placed in a sculpture garden somewhere, without the pretentiousness of the politics, I would rather like it, particularly as a late derivative work in a declining tradition.)

My take on the Copenhagen conference is that, at this point in time, it is less about climate change as such – because there is tacit recognition by the leading parties that either they will not reach an agreement with teeth or that it will not be adhered to over the coming years as countries jostle for economic benefit – and far more a negotiation over global wealth transfer to poor countries under climate change as a device.  It is possible that countries will walk away with obligations that will cause at least some of them, including the US, voluntarily to adopt economy-impairing measures, for the reason that they lead to increased tax regime possibilities for states seeking both revenues and greater political control over larger areas of economic activity.

But watching the conference unfold currently, my take is that the real arguments about real things are about welfare transfers from the rich world to the poor world.  That is the fundamental connection between the 2004 and 2009 deployments of this statue, and the apparent seamlessness of shifting from anti-free-trade to climate change.  In that case, however, whether one talks of global wealth transfers to fund the UN’s Millennium Development Goals or any of the other grand development strategies that failed so consistently over the entire post-war period, or now wealth transfers in the name of climate change amelioration, one has to talk about where development money has gone in the past and what it has accomplished.

Which is to say, not much if anything.  It is important to ask what is going to be different in this particular proposal for a massive wealth transfer.  The question is pertinent particularly as the way in which the poor countries are framing the moral appeal at Copenhagen seems aimed at sending the money to their governments, as official aid from the poor country climate change fund to these governments.  Does that seem like such a good idea, given the long and sad history of such aid efforts?  Because at the end of the day, whatever the justification, it is still a development program, and is likely over time to become just another funding base for development.

This is so in part because the effects of climate change over the long term are uncertain and so wind up merging into general development goals – thus, for example, it turns out that the best way of addressing climate change in Africa is to help Africans try and get out of poverty.  If one is going to fund a new development initiative, with lots of money, this seems to me a vastly better idea than trying to fund projects based on speculative views about what will address the effects of climate change projected into the future.  I can think of few grosser immoralities in the matter of international development than diverting aid for speculative green projects at the expense of HIV-AIDS or malaria eradication and management efforts; I am an unapologetic Lomborgian in these matters.  But in that case, this is just … international development under a new rubric.  And while we do not know very much about how to do successful development on a large scale basis, we do know quite a lot, from bitter experience of failure, about what does not work.  The problem is, looked at simply as a development initiative, it appears to fall directly into the grand tradition of failed development plans that started from grand moral premises.

(Update, pulled up from my response to Yankee below.  I might not have been clear enough in this post that in considering alternatives — as in cost benefit analysis, particularly; it’s something we’ve discussed in various VC posts, and I discuss in this paper — it is essential that one consider actual alternatives. Not alternatives that are merely logical possibilities or possible worlds or mere proposals, shift this to that. The comparison of comparables has to be about actual comparables, not hypothetical ones. That is one of the big problems with John Mueller’s writing on terrorism, for example — comparisons with lightning strikes and so on. Here, I am making an argument, implicitly and perhaps not plainly enough, that these are comparables. The reason is that if you accept — you might not — that this is fundamentally a development fund under a climate change rubric, then you are in the baseline of comparables for African development work. In that case it seems to me quite a “live” question as to what one funds, including choices between disease, water, elementary education, anti-corruption efforts, etc. That’s one of the reasons I think it important to understand that, particularly as the African representatives who have been speaking at Copenhagen see it, this is really a development fund, the latest in a long series of moral efforts globally, under a particular banner this time around, but subject to the same issues, choices, constraints, and long burden of failure that these efforts have always had.)

But then return to the politics of the sculpture.  What is the moral condition represented here?  It seems to be something like the rich world sitting atop of the poor world, or anyway sub-Saharan Africa, in exploitation of it, and refusing to get off of it.  It’s ambiguous where not muddled, so one can extract many alternative readings.  But I’d suggest that the real problem, at least from a global welfare standpoint, about the poorest of the poor in Africa in relation to the rich world, is really quite different.  It’s not exploitation.  I put it this way in a manuscript on US-UN relations, and discussed  it a bit in an article a few years ago on microfinance; this section probably won’t survive the edit (and a good thing, too – ed.), but:

We are good people and, just to be clear, we do not wish anyone dead.  Poverty and suffering move us, because we are the good global bourgeoisie.  We want our governments to contribute to relieve global poverty, we want UN agencies to do their part, we want to pool our rich world contributions to Christian Children’s Aid or Oxfam and know that they help girls in Africa get schooling or staff AIDS clinics or provide bed nets against malaria, and we want to contribute to Bono and Sir Bob’s causes to make sure the attention of the rich world remains upon the world’s poorest poor, and in the meantime, forgive us our debts as we forgive those corrupt, kleptocratic, authoritarian sovereign debtors.

We are good people, true, but it is nonetheless hard to resist a little twinge, imagine, go ahead, indulge your imagination, imagine a world in which the world’s poorest poor had never existed, had never been brought into being.  Africa, where so many of the poorest of the poor reside; impoverished, malnourished, diseased, preyed upon by mosquitoes, living lives that are, come to that, not just poor but squalid, miserable, brutish, and in competition with the lions and mountain gorillas and cheetah and very destructive of the natural environment, too, that gorgeous natural environment, because, in the end, there are just too many of them, the humans, and not enough cheetah.  Not that we wish anyone ill, of course, but still, it can’t hurt to imagine what an Africa would be like without poor Africans in its forests and plains, an Africa magically and mysteriously converted, without any damage (of course) to the human beings who once lived there but mysteriously disappeared one day, into a vast game park, where the animals roam free in their natural habitat un-pressed by human beings, or anyway only a manageable number of them in their natural cultural tribal habitat, including colorful native dress, the humans.  The rest of us, the good global bourgeoisie, can debit our Amex Carbon Cards and fly in for a visit.

The fantasy is wicked in its way.  Nonetheless, it points to a central, unavoidable truth at the core of international development, aid, and economic growth.  Whether we call them the poorest of the global poor, the ‘bottom billion’, bottom fifth, or anything else, they have a specific relationship to the global economy and globalization.  Viz., they have no relationship to it to speak of.  They are superfluous to it.  These are the “superfluous poor” – people who lack the skills to take part in the global economy even at the bottom.  They are too poor, too unskilled even to exploit.  It is hard to take part in a market in which you have nothing to exchange – but you have many needs.

The “superfluous poor” contrast with what we might call the “global reserve army of labor,” or perhaps the world’s “working poor.”  The billions across China and the rest of Asia, and elsewhere, who toil in manufacturing for the rest of the world.  They labor for low wages, in textiles or fish farming or maquilladoras assembling electronics or mining.  It is their rise into the ranks of the global money economy that accounts for the remarkable fall in overall global poverty.  Programs of international development cannot be credited with that transformation.  It is owed largely (in total numbers) to a single country and society, China.  But also to an economic shift over the last few decades particularly in the Asian economies, and particularly the so-called ‘Asian tigers’:  they utilized export growth and foreign direct investment structurally to transform their economies.  And third, more recently, to economic growth in India.  Connection and interdependence with the global economy have raised standards of living for billions as well as their expectations.  Interdependence has also made them subject to the ups and downs of the global economy as well.