July 25, 2005
Stephanie Black Shows How the IMF Makes Developing Countries Dependent on the G-8 Nations, in Her Film, "Life and Debt"
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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Frankly, like most BuzzFlash readers, even the editors at BuzzFlash aren't as well versed on globalization issues as we should be. We've had enough on our hands just covering the dirty work of the Franco/Stalinesque Republican coup over the last 5 years.
But "Life and Debt" is a riveting mini-course on the destructive impact of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank on a developing nation, in this case Jamaica. What's more, it uses portions of Jamaica Kincaid's book, A Small Place, to lyrically weave the documentary together. The film contrasts the relaxing, tropical vacations taken by tourists at Montego Bay resorts with the devastating impact of IMF "restrictions" on World Bank loans to Jamaica that turn the island's indigenous economy to ruins.
You're left understanding that, at least in the case of Jamaica, the IMF is mainly interested in accomplishing two goals: 1) making developing nations marketplaces for subsidized goods from the U.S. and other Western countries; and 2) exploiting cheap labor markets. The former goal ravishes the natural sustainable food industries of Jamaica (including dairy, poultry and meat production). The latter goal is a short-term gambit that leaves Jamaica paying for "duty free assembly zones" that have long since moved on to even cheaper suppliers of labor in other countries.
BuzzFlash recently interviewed Stephanie Black, the documentary director of "Life and Debt," which is available as a BuzzFlash premium.
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BuzzFlash: Your film, "Life and Debt," has woven into it a narrative from Jamaica Kincaid's A Small Place. Her narrative was written about her native Antigua. You filmed "Life and Debt" in Jamaica. Why did you decide to do it in Jamaica?
Stephanie Black: I actually went to Jamaica in the 80s to make a documentary about a temporary worker's program for cheap labor in the U.S. Ten thousand Caribbean men were brought to Florida every year to cut sugar cane. I went to Jamaica to film the workers, and the film spoke of the substandard living and working conditions. I went to Jamaica to film an interview with Michael Manley and also to show where the men come from, and where the force is that kind of drives them to have to keep working under such extreme circumstances in Florida. And I fell in love with the country, as many people do with regards to Jamaica. I fell in love and I made a tacit promise to myself that as soon as I was done with the first documentary, I would try really to go back. And I was able to do that.
I decided to live in Jamaica for awhile. I worked for a local production company there, and I came to understand just by living in the country what it is to be living under an IMF "structural adjustment program." Before that, I had no idea what the IMF policies were that had such a negative kind of day-to-day impact on the running of a country. Before then, I thought the IMF was somewhat akin to the Red Cross. They lent money. They gave money. That was it. So it was just from everyday living in a country under "structural adjustment" mandates that actually made me make "Life and Debt."
There’s no transparency in the IMF. That was the catalyst that also drove the film. As you could see in the film, people’s lives are affected by these policies.
Back to the Jamaica Kincaid connection. When I was completing the film, tourists represented for me the exact naïvete or lack of information that I had prior to making my first documentary in Jamaica. The tourists coming to Jamaica are seeing behind the doors of a hotel, and not really knowing what goes on beyond the doors of the hotel. This was kind of a metaphor for me for a similar situation in foreign policy – that there is a lack of accurate information – in our media, in our country - of what the polices are of the United States abroad. As an American, if my country has the strongest voting power in the IMF, then what impact is it having? What is my responsibility to explore this?
I identified with the tourists. While I was doing my research, I read Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place. The voice that she had about the tourists was both very poetic and very militant. And as an Antiguan who had grown up in the Caribbean, her book is a post-Colonial text. What interested me mostly about the text was how it translates so easily to a neo-Colonial context. That was one of the threads in the film that I was interested in developing – that we all have kind of agreed that colonialism is wrong. Countries have been granted their independence or fought for their independence, and yet the policies of structural adjustment and the policies of liberalization in some ways very much mirror and reinforce the colonial relationship that we’re trying, theoretically, to dismantle.
BuzzFlash: Can you explain the term "structural adjustment" as it relates to the IMF?
Stephanie Black: Structural adjustment and the foreign programs are when the IMF lends a country money, they come up with a contractual agreement where the IMF specifies certain policies that the borrowing nation has to enforce. The country itself has to present the policies to the IMF to get the loan. But in actuality, the IMF dictates what these policies will be. Typically, any country that borrows from the IMF will have to devalue their currency, because the IMF feels that the flow helps to discourage importing. But it doesn’t necessarily, and it hasn’t in any of the countries where they’ve imposed this. They encourage privatization, which they consider "reducing the burden of the state."
So a country which finds itself in need, a country like Jamaica that actually gained its independence, needs foreign capital to borrow so that it can begin to build its infrastructure to serve its people, build its roads, build its school systems, encourage irrigation in farming lands and such, to build the nation for its people. The country finds itself in a situation where there’s no alternative, there’s nowhere else to go except to the IMF, because commercial banks, like Citibank, Barclay’s or such – won’t lend money to a country unless they have the seal of approval from the IMF. So the country is forced to go to the IMF. Once they’re forced to go to the IMF, the capital that they’re getting has these policies which are called structural adjustments, which are generally quite restrictive.
BuzzFlash: What is the difference between the International Monetary Fund – the IMF – and the World Bank? What is the World Bank in relation to the IMF?
Stephanie Black: The World Bank's relationship to the IMF is that they assist it. And they do more long-term projects. Whereas the IMF would lend capital, more in the short term, the World Bank lends money to do more long-term projects, like free zones.
BuzzFlash: As a viewer, I would say I came away from your film with an understanding of two key negative impacts of the IMF on Jamaica. One, the tradeoff for getting loans was that Jamaica became a nation that imported lower-priced goods, primarily from the U.S. -- a policy that ended up ruinous to indigenous subsistence industries and agriculture. Jamaicans who were in these businesses ended up worse off as a result of the loans. There was a very respected Jamaican chicken processor that was basically decimated because U.S. imports of inferior chicken products flooded in, chicken products that had been sitting for several years and frozen and so forth. Basically the IMF forced Jamaica to import cheaper U.S. products that put Jamaicans out of work. They were able to buy things cheaper in theory, but they had no jobs as a result. And you brought up the destruction of the dairy industry in Jamaica because, as a result of an IMF agreement, Jamaica started importing powdered milk from the United States. Jamaica ended up with what one might call a post-colonial economic dependency on a colonial power.
The second thing was the creation of these free zones, particularly in the Kingston port, where 10,000 people were employed, where items are brought in, and assembled, and then shipped out again without any tax on them, with workers paid at poverty wages and prohibited from unionizing. The Jamaicans always end up, it seems, on the short end of the stick here.
I think the film is a very fair film, and it doesn’t engage in any jingoism or harsh rhetoric. It’s not by any means propaganda. It’s a very professional documentary that gives two points of view. But clearly, the impression I’m left with from seeing these two points of view – the IMF spokesperson versus the impact on Jamaica as witnessed by actual dairy farmers, chicken raisers and people who work in the free trade zone – is basically the IMF comes off as a loan shark.
Stephanie Black: Right. There’s no accountability. They assess their own achievements. There’s no public scrutiny. That’s part of the problem of these institutions. People in the First World - where the power lies, where the voting power is – don’t have an accurate understanding of what’s happening. This is critical and something that really has to be re-examined. That’s what I really hope that the film will do. I made this film because I was quite angry that somehow in my "good education" in the U.S., all this information had somehow not been included in my education. And yet you go into a borrowing nation – you go to the Third World – and you can ask any single person – ask anyone in Haiti, ask anyone in Ghana, ask anyone in Argentina, ask anyone in Brazil – what the IMF and the World Bank is, and they’ll explain to you the exact same thing.
BuzzFlash: I watch this film, and I think about the American Revolution and how Americans decided to cut themselves off from Britain because they felt they were being abused. They were forced to buy British products at unreasonable prices, and their economy was being shortchanged, because everything was supposed to be dependent upon goods from the motherland, to a great degree. Then I look at what the IMF's structural adjustments have done to the Jamaican economy. They have decimated the agricultural business, the dairy business, the chicken business. You even bring up that U.S. banana growers are trying to stop Britain from buying subsidized bananas from Jamaica, because this violates NAFTA and they should be able to buy bananas cheaper from American companies who cultivate them in Central America. It seems to me that - despite the noble declarations of the IMF spokesperson who periodically states the case for IMF in your film - the IMF is building a new neo-colonial dependency. Jamaica, for instance, becomes dependent because it has lost its indigenous milk industry and must rely on imports of dried milk from the United States. If the price goes up, Jamaica has no choice but to pay it because it doesn’t have an internal industry.
Stephanie Black: Exactly. That’s the key part, because you know every country that is developed needs protected markets.
BuzzFlash: You begin the film with a quotation from Jamaica Kincaid’s book, A Small Place, and you begin it with shots of tourists enjoying themselves at resorts in Montego Bay. You note that they land at Montego Bay, and virtually no tourists visit Kingston where there is so much poverty. They enjoy themselves at a resort in Montego Bay, and then they fly back from Montego Bay. They don’t know that the food they’re being served probably came from Miami. That sets up the irony of the entire documentary. You’re a tourist, and you go to a tropical setting, but, because of the IMF agreements, Jamaica’s been forced to import much more of its food than it used to.
Stephanie Black: Right.
BuzzFlash: After listening to the IMF spokesperson, I really can’t figure out quite honestly what IMF thinks this is going to do positively for Jamaica. Is it that cynical? Or is there really an argument that the IMF can make for this?
Stephanie Black: They say that they are there to reduce poverty and to finance investments that contribute to economic growth. But usually, throughout the globe, their policies help the economic growth of the northern countries rather than the borrowing nations. I think they believe that they’re incorporating countries into the global economy. There was a press conference in Jamaica with the IMF and the World Bank, not so long ago. They asked what achievements they saw in this country, and they quoted that the lifespan had increased in Jamaica, that there was a reduction of infant mortality, and that people were living longer.
That’s a trend throughout the world that is a result of medical improvements, et cetera. I don't think the IMF and the World Bank should claim that as their success story. Right now, in Jamaica, the violence has increased. Lack of education has increased. Unemployment has increased. The situation is really grave and serious, and most of the IMF – look at Argentina, look at Brazil - they’re not better off than before they borrowed from the IMF. You’re asking me, do they believe their policies work? The IMF is a money-making institution.
BuzzFlash: Who gets the money?
Stephanie Black: The IMF itself. They have a built-up reserve of gold that has accumulated and increased in value from the beginning of the institution. If they were to sell the gold, they could actually forgive all the nations’ debt and still exist. In the past three years, there’s been a lot of criticism, a lot of protests and such, of the IMF and the World Bank. They’ve done a really good job at changing the PR, changing the way they present themselves. They actually use the vocabulary of their criticizers now to explain what they’re actually doing.
BuzzFlash: You made this film in 2001. What has happened in Jamaica since then?
Stephanie Black: I was just there about two months ago, and I wish that I had some good news to report to you. Unfortunately, more dairy industries have closed. More farmers have given up farming and are importing vegetables themselves because they’re used to selling vegetables. They know how to do that. So since they can’t grow them in competition with the cheap incoming fruits and vegetables, they started to import themselves, which is really, really tragic. The free zones in Kingston are completely shut down. The big areas that you see, on the port, that were used for the free zone factories in Kingston, are now being used to house incoming goods because there’s so much increase in imports and people are trading more than producing. That’s what has become of the free zones. The free zone companies have gone to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where they can pay lower wages. They compete. They have the countries competing against each other, resulting in the lowest wages. The violence in Jamaica is really up, in critical proportions. You have all the money leaving the country, there’s no money circulating, and poverty and violence have always been tied together.
BuzzFlash: Again, taking the cynical perspective, you look at these free trade zones that are now shuttered that at one time employed 10,000 people, according to your documentary – mostly women. The spokesperson for the IMF speaks very nobly of their goals. But again, as a viewer, it seems what the IMF is doing is not reducing poverty but it’s providing a vehicle for the industries in the G8 countries to find shifting cheap pools of labor. Jamaica was used up for cheap labor, and then they went to other countries that could offer even cheaper labor, but it didn’t reduce poverty for those 10,000 people. Now they don’t even have jobs.
Stephanie Black: Exactly. Also, the skills that they acquired, let’s say, sewing one line on a sleeve 100,000 times – it's not really a transferable skill. Jamaica is still paying money back on what it borrowed to create the free zones, and yet there are no more free zones there.
BuzzFlash: The industries got their cheap labor using the IMF to lend money to Jamaica to finance free trade zones for the cheap labor, and then abandoned the cheap labor because they found cheaper labor somewhere else.
Stephanie Black: Exactly. Originally, the free zone companies didn’t want to use non-English-speaking workers, so Jamaica was very popular because it was colonized by Britain. But now they’ve decided that what language the workers speak isn't important, so they’ll go to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republic has a incredible number of free zones there, and Haiti is getting an increasing number.
BuzzFlash: Basically the IMF, in terms of voting power, is tilted almost totally to the developed G8 nations.
Stephanie Black: Absolutely. That’s why nothing can change. Not so long ago, there was a vote in the IMF on whether to increase the interest rates for the nations that were paying back loans. The borrowing nations pleaded for the interest rates not to be raised. Of course, a vote was taken that the interest rates would be raised, because it’s impossible for the developing nations to get a majority of votes in the allotment within the IMF. The excuse for this decision was that this would discourage future borrowing from the IMF and the World Bank. That's completely ridiculous because, in many cases, there’s no other place for the countries to turn to.
BuzzFlash: One of your recurring themes concerns tourism. We see American tourists at a hotel drinking, engaged in sort of a contest, having fun, relaxing, enjoying themselves, as one does at a resort on a vacation. As you point out, they never leave that environment. The people they come in contact with from Jamaica are wonderful. They’re amiable. They’re professionals. They know how to treat tourists. And so the tourists leave thinking, oh, everything’s fine. These people are well dressed. They look well fed. They seem well educated. They’re very friendly. From the very beginning of the film, you point out that tourists come and leave with a false reality of what the whole country is like because the tourism industry is Disney-esque, in a way. How do you think Americans can start to have that perception changed?
Stephanie Black: First, I think Jamaica’s an amazing place to visit. It’s one of the most beautiful, beautiful places I’ve ever been in my entire life, and I’ve had the privilege to be able to travel far and wide. I would encourage anyone to go and visit Jamaica. I think the tourist section of the film definitely was a metaphor. It’s filmed in a very stylized way. It’s slow-mo. There’s a voice-over narrative from a text we used over it. There are no talking head interviews. It’s put there to kind of make the viewer think. What is our responsibility in this? What is our culpability? What does our lack of information on this subject matter mean, in terms of allowing these policies to be implemented without any transparency? Those were the kinds of thoughts I was hoping that the tourist section would bring. Generally speaking, how can we all help to put the brakes on globalization a little bit, and support local producers?
The farmers that I interviewed in the rural areas of Jamaica identified very strongly with the small farmers in the United States who are also are being put out of business by agribusiness. There was a hope in their participation in the film, and in their interviews. They had given up on government institutions, but if there was a voice, people to people, then, maybe there would be a chance for policy reform. That would be the hope.
I think here if in the U.S. we can support our own small local farmers, if we can support our own small bookstores, if we can support our own small producers - I think right now, our buying power is perhaps even stronger than our voting power in this country. WE should not financially support the companies and industries whose polices we don’t support - not support the Chiquitas and the Doles, that are paying wages that are substandard livings abroad. Maybe we don’t need to get bananas at nineteen cents a pound, because there's a high cost to getting bananas at nineteen cents a pound. So that's what I would encourage Americans to do.
We have a web site – http://www.lifeanddebt.org. It's a good web site for people who want to get involved with these issues. I think the first part is educating and informing ourselves on these institutions and what they’re actually doing.
BuzzFlash: Stephanie, thank you so much. It is an absolutely eye-opening, extremely well done, and moving film. You’ve presented Jamaica as a case study of the destructive impact of IMF policies, and it is really as compelling as a documentary can get.
Stephanie Black: Thank you.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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Stephanie Black also produced and directed the award-winning feature-length documentary "H-2 Worker," which won both Best Documentary and Best Cinematography at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival. The film was selected to be the U.S. representative in the prestigious Semaine de la Critique (Critics' Week) section at Cannes, in addition to winning the John Grierson Award at the American Film and Video Festival in 1991, Special Gold Jury Award at the Houston Film Festival 1991, and others. The film documents the plight of the 10,000+ Caribbean men who are brought to Florida each year under a temporary guestworker ("H-2") visa to harvest sugar cane for American sugar corporations. The film was broadcast on national PBS, on national television in twenty countries abroad, and was screened in the Library of Congress and the Florida State Senate.
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