Inching Toward a Level Playing Field in World Finance

Jamaicans know that “donkey say the world no level.” Throughout history, the island has been a microcosm of global injustice, with the scales heavily weighted in favor of oppressors. The meek indigenous fish eaters that we call Arawak Indians (although they were really Taino; Arawak is the name of their language) were ravaged – probably even eaten – by invading Carib Indians, and when Christopher Columbus opened the door for Spanish colonists, enslaved. Under the lash of slavery, they died out, and captives from African tribal wars were shipped in to replace them on the sugar plantations.arawak

Then the English took Jamaica as a consolation prize after failing to capture Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic). The Spanish fled and their freed slaves took to the rocky mountainsides where they became known as Maroons. The English never were able to subjugate them and finally made a deal that gave them a measure of autonomy, which they maintained until Jamaica achieved Independence. In time, the slave trade would be abolished and, at last, slavery itself. But while the slave owners received some small compensation for freeing them, the slaves received nothing but the free mountain breeze and the right to work for pennies a day or starve.

From then on, Jamaicans continued to depend on sugar and other crops that could be produced more economically in much larger countries with similar climates – in West Africa and South America, for example. And when beet sugar was discovered, an even more bountiful supply of the product became available. It was definitely a buyer’s market.

The English graciously agreed to buy a small amount of Jamaican produce, establishing quotas and fixing prices. In Jamaica, the mass of the people still labored for pennies, while the people who made the goods that Jamaicans imported took home British pounds for the same amount of work.

My interpretation of history may be simplistic, and my accuracy may be questionable – I have lived only through the past three-quarters of a century, and Columbus “discovered” Jamaica more than five centuries ago. But I think the point I am trying to make is valid: In a world where “developed countries” set the rules, countries like Jamaica get shafted.

So when Jamaicans hear that the global super powers are inching toward financial reform, we may be forgiven for dismissing the “progress” as “a kiss and a promise.” But something real happened recently. At the G20 summit in Pittsburgh, the world’s economic arbiters decided to replace the G8 with the G20 as the primary forum for international economic diplomacy. The G8 comprises Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain, Russia and the United States. The G20 adds Argentina, Australia, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey and the European Union.

The decision was generally ignored by international media, which were more interested in the G20 nations’ plans to recover from the global economic crisis. But it was an important decision, if only because it shows a willingness on the part of the traditional super economies to share power with other countries.  In the Age of Obama, America and its allies are shaping up as inclusive rather than exploitative, and that is of enormous interest to the rest of the world.

But there’s a long way to go before the world economy is played on a level field. In an article by Eli Clifton, distributed by Inter Press Service today, Oxfam senior policy adviser Max Lawson is quoted as saying:

The G20 is more representative than the G8 but there is still no seat at the table for the poorest countries. South Africa is the only African country included in this club. That means when the G20 talks about growth and stability, they are leaving the poorest countries in the cold.

Yes, countries like Jamaica have been left out in the cold – as usual. But still, this was a step in the right direction. And other G20 decisions offer hope of a better tomorrow. There’s the decision to endorse a World Bank food initiative, for example. And a proposed World Bank trust fund would help distribute food aid from the $20 billion that G8 leaders allocated at their July summit.

So, the world’s economic leaders have met once again, and countries like Jamaica watched from the sidelines – again. But this time, some progress was made. And Jamaicans have learned to be patient. We are well aware that “one-one coco fill basket.”