Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Recently, I had to watch a documentary called Life and Debt for one of my classes at Princeton. I had to write a short reaction paper, which I decided to publish below. The documentary by Stephanie Black, which has received numerous prizes around the globe, deals with Jamaica's terrible economic performance and blames the USA and the IMF for it. Here is a link to the documentary's website.
This is the trailer of the documentary
This is my review:
Life and Debt is an interesting, well-made documentary with a misguided message. In its attempt to explain Jamaica’s deep social inequalities and its unsatisfactory economic performance, the movie gives a heavily biased account that leaves the viewer rather uncomfortable. The film is a typical IMF-bashing, anti-American piece that falls into old, repetitive clichés centered solely around the message that the difficult social and economic reality of Jamaicans is the product of globalization. To that extent, Life and Debt is the epitome of Dependency Theory thinking.
The excellent photography of the documentary, equally good in showing Jamaica’s breathtaking natural beauty as in presenting the miserable conditions of many of its citizens, clashes strongly with the one-sidedness of the ideas it conveys. It is clear that the producers of the movie did not put the same amount of effort in trying to provide their audience with a balanced message as they did in filming beautiful landscapes and overcrowded shantytowns. It is telling that only two (an IMF official and a former Minister of Finance) of the many interviewees shown in the film gave voice to the other side of the argument. The result is that the movie looks more like propaganda and less as a piece that seeks objectivity or academic rigor –and it that sense, the documentary loses credibility.
Nevertheless, I got something good out of watching Life and Debt: it awoke my intellectual curiosity for Jamaica, and it led me to do some basic research about the arguments presented in the movie and the people featured in it. The documentary portrays Prime Minister Michael Manley as a man who wanted to stand for the economic rights of the Jamaican poor in a world that had started to globalize. In his first term as Prime Minister, he nationalized some sugar plantations which became inefficient in the hands of the state, raised import tariffs on some products, and used the bully pulpit to ramble against capitalism and multinational companies. He also became friends with Fidel Castro, praising him in public. Unsurprisingly, his rhetoric and his actions widened the fiscal deficit and scared investors away, worsening the impact that the oil crisis and the world recession had on the Jamaican economy –but this, the film does not tell you. Nor does it tell you that Jamaicans grew tired of Mr. Manley’s policies and voted him out of office in 1980, in exchange of the conservative Edward Seaga. By the time Mr. Manley was elected Prime Minister once again, he had moderated his anti-capitalist language and made peace with corporations working in Jamaica.
So, the makers of Life and Debt will acknowledge that what they show is far from being the whole story. Granted, some of the IMF policies were mistaken and hindered Jamaican progress, such as devaluating the Jamaican dollar in a time of a spiraling price of oil, which had to be imported for energy and transportation. But the Jamaican economy and its people would have suffered considerably less across time if the government would have made serious efforts to balance its budget in order to stop chronic borrowing. Even today, the government’s budget deficit equals a whopping 7.7% of GDP, which means that the government needs to constantly finance a large part of its operations with 1) domestic private capital, thus crowding out credit for private individuals, or 2) with more external debt.
The fact that in the current world recession Jamaica’s economy will certainly not collapse thanks only to the IMF and the 1.2 billion dollars it is making available for the island nation, should give Life and Debt believers some pause for thought. Perhaps the wicked, greedy, destructive IMF is not as bad as it is portrayed in the movie. Maybe the United States is not as evil either: America is the main destination of Jamaican products, for it buys about 26% of all the island’s exports. Were it not for the US demand for Jamaican alumina, bauxite and sugar, Jamaica would certainly have many more jobless poor people in the streets. Inequality, hunger, crime and exploitation would be even more widespread.
But Life and Debt is silent about all these points, and it allocates blame for Jamaican underdevelopment exclusively to one group of actors. The truth is more complex, however. It is just a shame that the producers of the film were not objective enough to admit it.