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Resistance And Survival: Education & Free Software

Resistance And Survival: The Case Of Education And Free Software


by Toni Solo

In one sense what happens in the centres of power is irrelevant. People will take decisions about their lives regardless of what imperial front men like George Bush or any of the other representatives of the global plutocracy say or do. Marginalised rural workers tend not to look over their shoulder and whisper to each other "Golly, but what will Mr. Bush think....?" before they occupy unused land so as to grow food for their families.

The same is true for any people dismissed and abandoned in their own countries. As often as not, survival may impose apparent inertia on the impoverished majority. That suits the purposes of empire just fine. However , when people do act, it is not just for effect, but to redeem their humanity and survive as whole as they can. People do what they think is best for their own situation.

Cuba - Galileo to the neo-liberal Inquisition

In most of Latin America, people at grass roots are stuck with little chance of raising their living standards. Government health and education services fail to meet their needs. As a result, education is supposed to be a priority area for World Bank development interventions. It is obvious that World Bank development practice fails in its stated objectives.

It is self-evident too that the policies applied by the World Bank and the IMF can only be intended to fail. Nothing else explains the refusal of the international financial institutions and their accomplices to acknowledge what everyone else can see perfectly well. When one looks at Latin America one has to ask why it is that Cuba (52) sits just above Mexico (53) in the 2003 UN Human Development Index. Similarly, one must ask what massive development "aid" has done for the impoverished majority in the Central American countries that sit dozens of places below Cuba in that index.

Cuba has been the victim of 40 years of US sanctions. It has received no significant development aid since the Soviet Union fell apart over a decade ago. By contrast, during precisely the same period, Mexico has been the dubious beneficiary of "free trade" with the United States and Canada. Central America as a region has received billions of foreign "aid" both governmental and "non-governmental".

Cuba sets standards in education and health most of the rest of the world views with envy. But Mexico and Central America remain in socio-economic crisis unable to meet the health and education needs of their peoples. Even official government data point to scandalous failure. In education, the deep and probably deliberate contradictions between World Bank/IMF practice and the accompanying rhetoric are clear.

Here are figures for 2002 from the Central American governments for the percentage of school-age children who abandon school before finishing secondary level and for illiteracy among people over age 15:

Country Desertion Illiteracy
El Salvador 30.00% 21.30%
Guatemala 40.00% 31.50%
Honduras 47.00% 25.00%
Nicaragua 34.00% 33.50%

The Economic Commision for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) in its Social Panorama for Latin America for 2001-2002 wrote "ECLAC calls on governments to prioritize in their social agendas programs aimed at reducing scholastic desertion. But clarifies that this effort will not fully yield fruit without dynamic accompanying generation of quality employment and adequate social protection which permits productive absorption of the higher qualifications offered." [1]

Somehow ECLAC manages to parrot these worthy and fatuous sentiments without receiving a public chorus of well-merited scorn. Throughout Latin America, the World Bank and the IMF act to make sure ECLAC's wishes never come true. As ever Nicaragua provides a good example of the futility of World Bank practice.

Vladimir and Estragon go to Nicaragua - waiting for an education

Honestly discharging his duty to report the facts, the Nicaraguan Education Minister declared in October 2002, "Scholastic desertion is enormous, this coincides with levels of poverty."[2] . The same press report quoted Ministry of Education statistics putting the number of school age children not attending class at 861,000. That's 41.8 percent of the total school age population. Around 70% of Nicaraguans live in poverty. In plenty of marginal barrios in urban centres around the country unemployment is over 60%.

This is the context in which the World Bank prates about its latest education project for Nicaragua as "strengthening the stewardship of the Ministry of Education; improving the framework of accountability for service delivery by supporting school autonomy; and implementing student testing, classroom observation studies and dissemination of results." [3] These peripheral activities are designed by and for a useless neo-colonial managerial class of "advisers".

They do very little to deliver education to the people in Nicaragua who need it. But they are financed by a US$15m loan that will have to be repayed by hapless Nicaraguan taxpayers over 10 years. Meanwhile, teachers get paid less than two thirds what they need to meet basic needs. The waste of money is grotesque, absurd and typical.

Neo-liberal Central Planning - plutocrat bodge-it and splotch-it

This process and all the others like it around the world are funded by taxpayers mostly in wealthy countries, members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. They have no say how the money is spent. In the "beneficiary" countries too, taxpayers are directly mugged by their own governments with little or no public discussion. Governments are frogmarched into the whole deal because the World Bank and the IMF long ago imposed policies that stripped away public sector funding, leaving social spending programs broke.

A parasitic managerial class lives very-nicely-thanks off the process. The real beneficiaries are multinational corporations and finance businesses who themselves help devise the wide range of neo-liberal scams and fakery the World Bank and the IMF then roam the world imposing on their victims. It is hard not to wonder how much longer neo-liberal charlatans and shysters can continue touting this corrupt system of global corporate welfare before the game is finally up.

Over decades, the US and European governments have perfected an integrated two step with their IMF and World Bank partners. The latter cripple governments' autonomy and rip out their social spending programs. Once other options have been deliberately and purposefully closed down, developing countries are then faced with a barrage of neoliberal "there's no alternative (since we closed all choices down)" propaganda. And smiling, brow-beating carpet-baggers like Robert Zoellick (and now, for Europe, known double-dealer, twice forced from public office for misleading conduct, Peter Mandelson) step forward offering pen and ink so governments end up signing disadvantageous "free trade" deals to further benefit the corporate global plutocrats who structured the whole deal from the start.

Resistance and survival - free software cleans up

Here one returns to the sense in which what happens in the centres of power is irrelevant. The neoliberal-garbage dispensing system and its ancillary "development" NGO travelling circus are not going to change. Too many powerful interests need them just as they are. While the global aid bureaucrats perform their sterile palaver, at grass roots people organize to get the best out of available resources. Where necessary too, people mount what resistance they can.

Making ends meet for grass roots community development is a daily challenge. Sustainability is at once imperative and elusive. A powerful tool to help with survival strategies is free software. Education is a clear case of its advantages.

To address Nicaragua's problem of school desertion, a remedial answer may be low cost community-based education programs in areas where desertion is highest for young adults who abandoned classes for economic reasons. It is has been possible for years to set up small computer networks of diskless clients (impossible to do cheaply with proprietary software, but readily done cheaply with free software). Installing these in accessible locations for rural students unable to travel to urban centres to make class every weekend is an affordable way of creating viable options for good distance learning.

Coupled with solar power, as experience has shown in India in Uttar Pradesh [4] , it makes well-resourced secondary and adult education in remote rural areas a real possibility. There is no need to put up with World Bank or development agency bullshit to be able to do this. Determined solidarity networking can make this kind of solution work very well. Other examples abound across the world.

At the same time, free software skills equip people to devise new, better independent resources for themselves to address their education and training problems. The free software ethos of mass voluntary cooperation so as to optimize creativity is diametrically opposed and demonstrably, decisively superior to the arid, mercantile practice of the international financial institutions. It also makes nonsense of the standard cant about "free trade" and the intellectual property rights shell games so dear to giant multinational corporations.

What's true in education is true across the range of socio-economic policy. There are plenty of alternatives and more than enough desire and will to make those alternatives work. Economic and military power may be on the side of the global elite. The creativity and solidarity of peoples can put them straight.

Toni Solo is an activist based in Central America. Contact via www.tonisolo.net

Notes
1. ( http://www.eclac.cl/cgi-bin/getProd.asp?xml=/prensa/noticias/comunicados/0/11260/P11260.xml&xsl=/prensa/tpl/p6f.xsl)
2. La Prensa October 10th 2002
3. (For project documents see: http://web.worldbank.org/external/projects/main?pagePK=104231&piPK=73230&theSitePK=40941&menuPK=228424&Projectid=P078990 )
4. In Uttar Pradesh the state government, run by the socialist Samajwadi party is using solar panels to run computers from schools in rural areas unconnected to the electricity grid. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/3623864.stm

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