Set to a beguiling reggae beat, Life and Debt takes as its subject Jamaica's economic decline in the 20th century. The story has reverberations in the plight of other third-world nations blindsided by globalization, like Ghana and Haiti. After England granted Jamaica independence in 1962, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) stepped in with a series of loans. These loans came with strings attached--the kind that would eventually plunge the country $7 billion into debt, stranded without the resources to dig themselves out.
Utilizing excerpts from the award-winning non-fiction text "A Small Place" by Jamaica Kincaid, Life & Debt is a woven tapestry of sequences focusing on the stories of individual Jamaicans whose strategies for survival and parameters of day-to-day existence are determined by the U.S. and other foreign economic agendas. By combining traditional documentary telling with a stylized narrative framework, the complexity of international lending, structural adjustment policies and free trade will be understood in the context of the day-to-day realities of the people whose lives they impact.
The film opens with the arrival of vacationers to the island-- utilizing Ms. Kincaids text as voice-over, we begin to understand the profound contrasts behind the breathtaking natural beauty of the island. The poetic urgency of Ms. Kincaids text lends a first-person understanding of the legacy of the country's colonial past, and to it's present day economic challenges. For example, as we see a montage of the vacationer in her hotel, voice-over: "When you sit down to eat your delicious meal, it's better that you don't know that most of what you are eating came off a ship from Miami. There is a world of something in this, but I can't go into it right now." (adapted excerpt "A Small Place")
As we begin to understand the post-colonial landscape outlined in Ms. Kincaids text, we cut to archival footage of Former Prime Minister Michael Manley in a post-independence speech condemning the IMF stating that "the Jamaican government will not accept anybody, anywhere in the world telling us what to do in our own country. Above all, we're not for sale."
Former Prime Minister Michael Manley was elected on a non-IMF platform in 1976. He was forced to sign Jamaica's first loan agreement with the IMF in 1977 due to lack of viable alternatives-- a global pattern common throughout the Third World. At present Jamaica owes over $4.5 billion to the IMF, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) among other international lending agencies yet the meaningful development that these loans have "promised" has yet to manifest. In actuality the amount of foreign exchange that must be generated to meet interest payments and the structural adjustment policies which have been imposed with the loans have had a negative impact on the lives of the vast majority. The country is paying out increasingly more than it receives in total financial resources, and if benchmark conditionalities are not met, the structural adjustment program is made more stringent with each re negotiation. To improve balance of payments, devaluation (which raises the cost of foreign exchange), high interest rates (which raise the cost of credit), and wage guidelines (which effectively reduce the price of local labor) are prescribed. The IMF assumes that the combination of increased interest rates and cutbacks in government spending will shift resources from domestic consumption to private investment. It is further assumed that keeping the price of labor down will be an incentive for increasing employment and production. Increased unemployment, sweeping corruption, higher illiteracy, increased violence, prohibitive food costs, dilapidated hospitals, increased disparity between rich and poor characterize only part of the present day economic crisis.
In one segment addressing the Free Trade Zones, we meet workers who sew five-six days a week for American corporations to earn the legal minimum wage of $30 U.S./week ($1200 - $1500Jamaican dollars/week). The port of Kingston is lined with high-security factories, made available to foreign garment companies at low rent. These factories are offered with the additional incentive of the foreign companies' being allowed to bring in shiploads of material there tax-free, to have them sewn and assembled and then immediately transported out to foreign markets. Over 10,000 women currently work for foreign companies under sub-standard work conditions. The Jamaican government, in order to ensure the employment offered, has agreed to the stipulation that no unionization is permitted in the Free Trade Zones. Previously, when the women have spoken out and attempted to organize to improve their wages and working conditions, they have been fired and their names included on a blacklist ensuring that they never work again. Free Trade Zones are encouraged by the U.S. government, for example projects financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development (U.S. AID) have used over $34,960,000 in U.S. tax dollars to target, persuade and provide incentives to American companies to relocate offshore in Jamaica. Yet now due to NAFTA, these dismal yet precious jobs are being lost to Mexico, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic.
Another segment tells the story of a chicken plant which had a flourishing business selling high-quality chicken to the domestic Jamaican market. Business has recently been undercut by U.S. "dumping" of low-grade chicken parts in Jamaica . While there are many restrictions on foods and goods imported into the U.S., there are often no restrictions on food and goods exported to foreign developing countries. Agreements such as NAFTA and the Caribbean Basin Initiative function to enforce this inequity under the guise of "free trade."
Life & Debt includes a segment on the banana industry wherein Jamaica has been granted preferential treatment from the British through the Lome Convention, providing a tax-free import quota for 105,000 tons/fruit per year to England. Through a case the U.S. brought to the WTO, the U.S. government is demanding the Lome Convention quota removed, (although the U.S. does not grow bananas on its own soil) forcing Jamaica to compete with exporters from Central America and South America. Specifically Chiquita and Dole, which are U.S. companies who produce bananas on a large scale. Central America is characterized by cheaper labor, a different soil type, high rainfall and a climate suited to large-scale banana production and thus more efficient. In 1993, a strike at Chiquita Farms in Colombia wherein 25,000 workers protesting for better wages was settled by firing shots at the striking workers and killing 40 people and the banana ships rolled insuring Chiquita's high rate of "efficiency." Jamaica's entire banana production could be produced by one farm in Central America. Banana's bring in 23 million US to Jamaica, comprising 8% of all exports. Yet, in the Windward Islands, bananas account for 50% of total exports. In St. Lucia, St.Vincent, bananas also comprise significant % of total exports, so quota loss will impact the entire Caribbean. At present the European Union has granted $600 million to help Jamaica become more efficient in their banana production so that they may attempt to compete on the "free market" in year 2000. The quota that is being so forcefully contested by US multinationals is under 5% of all global banana production. It is unlikely that the banana industry here could match the price of bananas from Central America. Already the number of small banana growers on the island have shrunk from 45,000 to 3,000.
Every country aims to be self-sufficient in milk production. The milk farmers in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and the European Union all receive huge subsidies to keep their milk prices low. Thus when the milk solids from the U.S. or Europe are exported they are at an artificially low price due to support. Jamaica's local production of milk was on a strong upward climb. In a 5 year period (1987-1992) the industry grew to 30 million liters, producing over 25% of the nations consumption, and was poised to rapidly increase production. In 1992, liberalization policies demanded that the import taxes placed on imported milk solids from Western countries be eliminated and subsidies to the local industry removed. In 1993, one year after liberalization, millions of dollars of unpasteurized local milk had to be dumped, 700 cows were slaughtered pre-maturely and several dairy farmers closed down operations. At present, the industry has sized down nearly 60% and continues to decline. It is unlikely the dairy industry will ever revitalise its growth.
Life & Debt aims to clarify the impact that these economic policies have on the day-to-day lives of the people they are said to benefit. The voting rights within the IMF are roughly proportionate to the contributions paid in by member nations. The breakdown of the democratic process becomes clear as the Jamaican people are removed from participation in the decisions that truly affect their lives. The IMF promotes an agenda of monetary austerity, currency devaluation, and lowering wages. The goal is to reduce inflation by balancing a nation's loan repayments and imports with its export earnings. The result is usually a recession. The World Bank takes a longer run perspective. It aims for structural adjustment, which means trying to transform a borrower nation's economy into a free- market economy. It typically proposes market deregulation, sometimes accompanied by new lending from the World Bank and private lenders. These policies are supposed to benefit Third World economies by integrating them into the global market. What actually happens is that Third World people suffer, while commercial banks in the North collect a great deal of interest. In Jamaica, only 5 percent of total money borrowed since 1977 has been able to stay inside the country.
The lessons of Jamaica--where these policies have been in effect for nearly twenty-five years--extend far beyond its shores. In nearby Haiti, former President Aristide was pressured to accept loans from the IMF; in Russia, billions in IMF loans have been accepted for the first time and the country is already suffering from the stringent conditions prescribed by the Fund; throughout Africa, countries struggle to meet scheduled adjustments. Life & Debt is a tribute to the ingenuity and strength of the people who defy the odds of survival, yet its primary aim is to inform young adult audiences in the U.S. of the impact these policies have on our neighbors abroad. http://www.lifeanddebt.org