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Bad Samaritans Review Essay

Sadly, persistent poverty alongside high economic growth is what explains the current situation in Africa. This is reflected in increasing inequality among citizens of the same nations. Inequality, however, is not an African issue. It is becoming a ‘conventional’ condition in neoliberal world that we are now living.

To understand neoliberalism and its sustenance ‘methods’ even with chains of failure evidence, one has to read Chang’s book. The book provides a provoking explanation of neo liberal policies and their proponents, whom Chang calls ‘Bad Samaritans’.   The Bad Samaritans through the ‘Unholy Trinity’ of IMF, World Bank, and WTO promotes neo liberal policies, which are meant to benefit them at the cost of depriving developing countries.

Using a kind of “theory” he calls ‘Kicking away the ladder”, Chang uses historical evidence to explain how the Bad Samaritan are fighting against policies that they themselves deployed to get where they are. With vivid examples he explained how countries such as Britain and USA used protectionism to build up their infant industries but they are now, through WTO, restraining developing countries from deploying such policies. In the same way, the Bad Samaritan are still subsidising their industries often in subtle means such as through ‘Research  & Development’ while acting as if the world is operating in a free and fair trade.

Chang has covered different areas including patents and copyrights, corruption, democracy and free market, and cultural and development. His analysis is rich and of critical perspective, in which he would explain the rationale used by neoliberals (the Bad Samaritan) to justify their policies then he would counter them with historical and contemporary real life examples. He showed how ‘anti-neo-liberal policies’ such as protectionism and subsidies explain the economic development of East Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea.

Having been raised in South Korea and witnessed the economic transformation over a few decades and now a professor at Cambridge University, Chang mixes his personal experience, insight of developing world, and academic rigour to bring forth arguments and counter arguments that help us to understand neoliberalism.

The book covers areas that ‘economics’ books will not touch. These include discussion on culture and development. I particularly loved the provoking title of the chapter, “ Lazy Japanese and Thieving Germans”….can you imagine at one point, the Japanese were known as lazy?? …to cut the story short, we Africans should not get baptised into stereotyped description of us and our continents. We need to work hard and prove those stereotypes wrong.

 At some point in the book, in particular when Chang was discussing ‘corruption’ and ‘patents/copy rights’, I got really scared and almost not agreeing with him. Actually, readers who are not careful might get it all wrong. However, at the end of each of those chapters, an objective reader will understand the arguments. In all those chapters, I learnt to be critical even when things that we hate are used as justification for certain policies.

This book is crucial for African policy makers who blindly embrace neo-liberal policies. Reading the chapter on Foreign Direct Investment  (Titled ‘The Finn and the Elephant”), I could never stop thinking about my country-Tanzania. I don’t know the details of our FDI contracts and so I can’t comment much, but from the hindsight, I think we need to revisit the contracts and be more careful to protect our very own manufactures (or we only have producers?) against   foreign companies.

(May be that’s why Chang only cites the example of Tanzania (the donor darling) once in reference to HIV/AIDS drugs…)

 Well, on a different note, while reading the book, I could not stop thinking of Acemoglu and Robinson book ‘Why Nations Fail’… I now think the two authors put a blind eye to the ‘kicked ladder’ when they tried to explain their theory.

 All in all, as readers we need to read more widely before getting baptised into one idea. Reading widely helps us to have a balanced view of situations informed by critical analysis of information from different sources.

Finally, I would advice political economists students (undergraduate) and even upper levels to read this book. It will give them a critical step towards understanding the polarised world of increasing inequality amidst economic growth. Most importantly, it will urge them to fight the unfair policies and ‘save’ humanity!

Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism

Ha-Joon Chang, Author . Bloomsbury $26.95 (288p) ISBN 978-1-59691-399-8

In the 1950s, South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world, suffering the aftereffects of decades of brutal Japanese colonialism and war with its northern counterpart. During his childhood, Chang (Kicking Away the Ladder ), a respected economist at the University of Cambridge, witnessed the beginnings of Korea’s postwar economic miracle as Gen. Park Chung-Hee’s dictatorship (despite its corrupt machinations) set the economic groundwork that would lift Korea out of poverty. Though Korea’s strategies are “heretical” to first world, free-market economists, Chang argues that the world’s wealthiest nations historically relied on the same heavy-handed protectionist approaches in their quests for economic hegemony. These wealthy, first world economies, which “preach free market and free trade to the poor countries in order to capture larger shares of the latter’s markets and to pre-empt the emergence of possible competitors” are Chang’s “bad Samaritans.” Chang builds his outsider stance through a history of capitalism and globalization and stories of other struggling countries’ economic transformations. The resulting polemic about the shortcomings of neoliberal economic theory’s belief in unlimited free-market competition and its effect on the developing world is provocative and may hold the key to similar miracles for some of the world’s most troubled economies. (Jan.)

Reviewed on: 11/12/2007
Release date: 12/01/2007

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