To abstain: Diplomatic wisdom in the face of reality


Thursday, February 22, 2018

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Recently, US President Donald Trump, as is his wont, stirred controversy yet again by declaring America's decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. This move is largely symbolic, but symbols mean a lot to Arabs and the Arab world is livid. A vote was therefore put to UN member states in the form of a resolution urging the US to rescind this controversial decision. Jamaica — which I gather had previously extended an invitation to the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to visit the island — abstained.

Jamaica's decision to abstain from voting in this UN resolution has garnered some interesting responses here and abroad.

Shadow minister on foreign affairs, Lisa Hanna, expressed her disagreement with Jamaica's decision to abstain. In subsequent comments, she used words like “pride” and “what's right” to strengthen her position that Jamaica should have opposed the US in this matter. The truth is, demonstrations of pride is, regrettably, not always possible when you are poor. And might seems to trump right whenever it is put to the test these days. Hanna can be forgiven for seeing the world through rose-coloured glasses these days, but it's Andrew Holness that is facing the music. And it's not the tranquillising strains of Mendelssohn's Wedding March that he is hearing.

A few days after the vote, the US reduced their budget allocation to the UN by US$285 million.

Donald Trump surprised himself and everyone else by winning elections to become president of the United States and the most powerful man in the world. He then shocked the world again by choosing his favourite daughter and her husband as his senior advisors. Their collective experience does not go far beyond putting up buildings, but he has demonstrated an incredible public intolerance for anyone who fails to genuflect in his presence.

Until this matter surfaced, Nikki Haley — his ambassador to the UN — came across as a well-mannered and measured person. After her speech, which conjured images of an ultimatum from John Gotti, many felt that the ambassador's words contained contumely that was inappropriate for diplomatic settings. Implicit in her statements were a sort of, “We'll show you how malapert countries are treated.”

It is in humiliating times like these that thinking Jamaicans are forced to be introspective. We need to look at our situation as well as the myths and misunderstandings surrounding this 'foreign aid' arrangement. We cannot deny that it is, in great part, our handling of our affairs that has put us in an “abstention” position. We have perfected a culture of dependency. Like the Salvation Army, we seem to be all over the place with our arms outstretched — with the palms up — and for the same reason. Many, many years ago, a Food for the Poor official told me that they had eight 40-ft containers coming into the island with items to give to the poor every day. I don't know what the situation is today. but the poor are all around us and Food for the Poor's storage facilities have been greatly expanded.

There are countries much smaller than us, with far fewer resources, but they have managed them so well that if the US approached them with this kind of offensive ultimatum, they would have been told where to go and what to do when they get there. We can't!

In his first budget proposal in May, Donald Trump, waving his 'America First' flag, indicated his intention to reduce foreign aid by a whopping 37 per cent. Lawmakers with more experience have been urging him to reconsider. I don't think they will be successful and this is now a perfect excuse for him to exercise this threat.

All of this is due to certain misconceptions held by most uninformed Americans, including Trump. Polls suggest that Americans think about 25 per cent of federal spending is on foreign aid and other countries aren't doing enough. The truth is that it's not 25 per cent, but somewhere around one per cent of federal spending. And if we were to look at net official development assistance by country as a percentage of gross national income America's contribution places them in 20th position. Those who understand the parable of the widow's mite will understand the implications.

But there is a concept that has been making the rounds for so long that we in developing and poor countries — as well as Trump — have come to believe it: It is that rich nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, out of kind, Christian charity, just give of their wealth to poor and developing nations to eradicate poverty and disease. People assert that these countries are wealthy because they used us as slave labour to take our natural resources and, after a century or two of this plundering, were able to form a solid foundation for sustained development in their countries. We are encouraged to believe that such individuals are just failed academics who are angry with the world. Are they?

US-based Global Financial Integrity and Centre for Applied Research, based at Norway School of Economics, have some of the most well-rounded researchers. They claim that when a reckoning is done of resources transferred between rich and poor countries, annually, the flow of money from rich countries to poor countries pales in comparison to the flow that runs in the opposite direction. In 2012, developing countries received US$1.3 trillion, including “aid”, investment, and income from abroad. But that same year, US$3.3 trillion flowed out of them. Since 1980, net outflows of US$16.3 trillion flowed out of developing countries. That's roughly the gross domestic product of the US.

Most of these outflows are in the form of interest payment on debt. This item — US$4.2 trillion since 1980 — is far greater than the 'aid' received during the same period. There is also income on investments. Does anyone really believe that BP Plc, formerly British Petroleum, is going to run down to a bank in Nigeria and lodge their massive earnings from Nigerian oilfields there? Of course, there is the 'biggy' — unrecorded capital flight. Criminal, really, but when it is discovered — as it rarely is — nice-sounding terms like “trade misinvoicing” are usually used to describe these activities.

The strategy by rich countries of extending aid to poor countries can best be described as 'enlightened self interest'. The more enlightened Americans have this to say:

“If you don't fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.” — General James Matthis.

“The programme supported by the International Affairs Budget are as essential to our national security as defence programmes. Development and diplomacy protect our nation by addressing the root causes of terrorism and conflict.” — Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.

I suspect the 128 countries that rejected that remarkable show of disrespect from the US at the UN are aware that this is just 'hot air', but who knows what can happen before hot air cools.

We cannot demand respect from the United States, but we can command it. And the way to start is by so conducting our affairs that we use our God-given talents to legitimately maximise the returns from our resources and use them to improve the lot of our citizens. We will see signs of this respect when their embassy here starts to make basic provisions to accommodate Jamaicans doing business with them. I pray for the day when, in a crisis, our prime minister can, responsibly, hold his head high and say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” But he needs help to do it.

Permit me to close by giving readers an assignment. Although I know they have already started, I want them to ask themselves, What would Michael Manley do in this situation? Would it be right? Would it be the right decision? The last two are not necessarily the same.

Glenn Tucker, MBA, is an educator and a sociologist. Send comments to the Observer or

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