Poverty and Neoliberalism

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Ray Bush, Pluto Press, £19.99

"The rich world is falling behind on its pledges to the poor," reads the introduction to the 2005 report by the Commission for Africa, in a flagrant understatement. Despite more than half a century of such pledges, the gap between the global rich and poor yawns, and it is no surprise to learn that the "countries with the highest per capita incomes in the early 1800s are still today's richest countries", according to the United Nations.

Focusing on Africa, the continent which has suffered most from the historical development of capitalism, Ray Bush attempts a clinical deconstruction of the mechanisms by which wealth and poverty are created and sustained.

The result is a deeply and overtly political book without a trace of liberal handwringing. Bush, a professor of African Studies and Development Politics at Leeds University, is, of course, very familiar with mainstream development analyses which identify bad governance and corruption as the root causes of the failure of most African states to achieve equitable or sustained economic development.

Bush takes on such assumptions, but goes further than many development studies scholars, dovetailing elements of more conventional critique with his own more radical emphasis on the role of power, imperialism, hegemony and resistance in shaping access to resources. And he does this without romanticising poor communities or rendering them wholly powerless before the march of international capital.

The book's opening chapter on poverty introduces one of the key themes that run through the book - the enduring inadequacy of mainstream responses to poverty. In these the free market remains a central solution, and the role of power and privilege is ignored except when economistically repackaged as human and social "capital".

Other themes are echoed and expanded in subsequent chapters, from a critique of Tony Blair's Commission for Africa proposals to historical and political examinations of the role of labour and migration, land and land reforms, mining and the "curse of resources", food and famine, and resistance, in the spread of global capitalism.

Using country case studies, Bush's objective eye cuts through presumption and prejudice.

There are some problems with this book. At times Bush's painstaking concern for detail comes at the expense of an overarching narrative that could assist the reader in navigating these complex issues. And the book could have been better edited: some passages need to be read and reread before the meaning is clear.

But it is a sensitive, textured and thoughtful volume, and one which will aid anyone keen to arm themselves against the myths and assumptions hawked by the mainstream development industry.