Today We Learn About: Life & Debt!

Life & Debt is a feature length documentary directed and produced by Stephanie Black. Released in 2001, the documentary brings together citizens of Jamaica, employees of the International Monetary Fund, and various other authorities to discuss and spotlight the plight of the Jamaican government and people that has been caused by globalization and modernization. The general principles at play here are that the International Monetary Fund, along with the World Bank essentially hold nations back from their true potential under a disguise of trying to assist the nation to become a player in world trade. In reality, these institutions are putting at risk nations into a dependent economic state using questionable tactics with questionable motivations. The point of view that the film takes is that Jamaica has been victimized to an almost irreversibly dependent and economically unsound state. The blame is placed on the contracts that the Jamaican government has signed with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, as well as the tactics used by these institutions to secure these contracts.

The intended audience of this film appears to be privileged white westerners. This is apparent because of the blatant contempt and resent in the narrators voice when she discusses tourists and the fact that they do not question the intricacies of indoor plumbing or the lack of infrastructure present in Jamaica. The narrator also uses heavy-handed remarks to describe how “you,” meaning the audience of privileged white westerners, find joy in the boredom and banality of life in the islands poor areas. The narrator takes a snide tone and makes sweeping generalizations and high-horsed remarks that greatly diminish the films credibility. It is difficult to send a message to any given group while diminishing their character and treating them as ignorant. In a sense, the film does that which the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank do – they treat the viewer as an ignorant and lesser being, as the film states, “it is an insult to our dignity.” The intended audience of this documentary is expected to have an unreasonably high level of insight and personal accountability. No tourist goes to an island nations to ponder running water, and suggest that they should is somewhat off base. Indeed, people should be mindful of their surroundings and question all that they encounter, but using running water and sanitation as an example in the film does not serve this purpose. This is because the toilets and sanitation in the island resorts behave and appear to be exactly the same as they are in our homes. Are we to be so cynical about everything we encounter as to question whether everything is not what it seems? This goes far and above being aware of our surroundings, and borders on dwelling on the inanity of life. I support the point that the film was trying to make, but I cannot support the means used and the characterization of the audience that comes along with it.

Information within the documentary is present in a variety of forms. We have International Monetary Fund Deputy Director Fishmann who presents us with a narrow view of what the International Monetary Fund and World Bank had as plans in order to improve the Jamaican economy. We also have farmers, exporters, and importers who offer their point of view and reveal some of the devastating effects that the International Monetary Fund and World Bank have had on their business. There is also information presented by the Rastafarians of the island. The presentation of this information appears to be largely anecdotal and informal, as it is communicated while the gentlemen sit around a fire, and at time smoke marijuana. Overall, the information presented is verifiable, as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank contracts are cited, and the Jamaican work force are primary sources and generally reliable. There are some downfalls, however. Many of the people interviewed who offer statistics and insight are not named, and this hurts the credibility of the film. Further, the Rastafarians are not named, and offer no sources or evidence to accompany their insight. They are similar to arm-chair philosophers in a college dorm who have a basic knowledge of world issues, but no real grasp on what a solution would be in any sense. These men may have perfectly applicable credentials, but they are not revealed in the film.

Life & Debt provides information and insight into scenarios that inspires the viewer to ask fundamental questions. While viewing the film, I found myself asking many questions such as; should we not go to Jamaica? Would Jamaica be better off without these loans? Would Jamaica be better off without an importing and exporting industry? Who signed these awful contracts that are being spoken of, and are they being held responsible? Lastly, is it better to not work at all than to work in a free zone? Often when controversial topics are addressed in any medium, more questions arise out of the answers provided, but this documentary did not answer any questions. It served to shine a spotlight on the plight of the Jamaican people. This is a perfectly noble cause, which certainly has a place in the world, but there should also be some time dedicated to providing possible solutions. Further, this film draws parallels between unrelated topics. On more than one occasion the individuals being interviewed in the film will be making a point, and suddenly begin speaking about and comparing the situation to slavery. This sort of comparison is perfectly acceptable to make, but it is made too often with little to no explanation as to what the speaker means. It is almost as if the concept of slavery is being used as a scare tactic in the film, and this diminishes the films credibility.

The main positive aspect that I took from the film is the fact that there are people out there who are focusing on the negative effects modernization and globalization are having on third world nations. Many poorer nations are taking advantage of the material riches that globalization offers, at the expense of letting outside forces control their economy, the countries adopt free trade without fully grasping the concept, all in an effort to enter the global marketplace (Aristide 10). While there are positive effects of modernization and globalization, this documentary gives a first hand account of the negative effects present in the world today. By aiding viewers in the realization that there are places in the world where imports are less expensive than locally grown goods, the film aids to inform people on a level that is rarely seen in media of all kinds. Our reading seeks to spotlight these phenomena in the case of Haiti stating, “import prices began to rise, leaving Haiti’s population, particularly the urban poor, completely at the whim of rising world grain prices. And the prices continue to rise” (Aristide 11). While the west remains largely unaware of the difficulties that many nations face, our industrial forces drive poor nations deeper in debt and further from their original goal of independence. Once these nations, like Jamaica, are in a dependent state they are forced to proceed under the direction of these world powers or face death by slow starvation (Aristide 13).

As it relates to education, this film reveals the fact that it is not easy to just walk into a nation and setup an education system. Often there are other factors that need to work out before education can be made a priority. Civil unrest, economic meltdown, and political uncertainty are all factors that effect the education a government provides to its citizens because all of these things effect where the money goes in a government. When a nation does not have the money to build roads and bridges, they cannot be expected to build schools. Also, when a nation cannot hire enough police officers to keep their streets safe, then there is not going to be any money for teachers. Instating an education system is one thing, but maintaining it is completely different. Difficult as it may be for an outside group to enter a country and instate an outside system of education, the host nation needs to be prepared to support and maintain this system. Life & Debt reveals that sometimes it is not an easy task for a nation to get every aspect of their society under control. When one industry or aspect of the nation, especially an aspect as important as economy, is mismanaged or a state of ill repair it effects every single other aspect of a nation. In situations like this a country needs to prioritize, and all too often education takes a back seat to economy, security, foreign relations, and infrastructure issues.

Jamaica has an obligation to her citizens to provide the best education they can manage. In this I believe the nation would serve itself well to designate and outline a long-term plan to bring children into schools that are well equipped and staffed by competent teachers. This is going to take some time, but I believe the payoff will be well worth the energy spent. First I would set-up a sort of community schooling system that will keep the children educated in the meantime. Teachers should be trained from within each community to teach children in an area familiar to them, in a manner that is conducive to Jamaican custom and tradition. While this current generation is being educated, I believe the nation should institute a work program for the jobless adults, where the people are put to work making infrastructure improvements part-time, and learning to master their craft the rest of the working hours. This way the adults can gain an education while helping to build roads and school for the younger children and those as yet unborn. These workers can then be put in charge of the maintenance of these infrastructure improvements they have built, thus generating what amounts to lifetime employment. While all of this building is going on, the nation should be training additional teachers. The logistics of such a plan may be out of reach, as all of these people need to be fed, clothed, paid, and given a place to sleep. Perhaps the government of Jamaica could impose an additional tax on all goods and purchases related to tourism, as this is a major form of income to the nation. Once the money is gathered to pay these people is collected, the roads and schools are built, and the teachers are trained, the children should slowly be assimilated into these new schools to continue their education that is ripe in the values and traditions of Jamaica. A purely western approach is not appropriate. The children and teachers should work together to learn and teach in a method that spotlights the cultural aspects and history of the nation, thus making the children and teachers more committed to their educational endeavors, as they will feel as if they are doing something not only for themselves, their families, and each other, but that they are working towards the greater good of Jamaica.

Not all plans are attainable, and setting up a plan with unattainable goals is counterproductive. I think that a nation like Jamaica should set itself up for attainable goals over the long term, with a focus on job creation and the education of a youth who will be able to bring about an inter-dependent nation. There is need for massive restructuring and reallocation of lands, the import and exportation of goods should be tightened and made fairer, free zone labor should be reallocated to labor that benefits the citizens of the nation as a whole. These are tall tasks, but over the long term they are very attainable. Education for all should not be the main goal for Jamaica. Jamaica’s main goal should be to have a nation totally independent of world monetary influence first, so that they can step onto the world stage at a later time as a completely self-sufficient nation. This will allow them to fully take advantage of the opportunities that globalization and modernization provide, while not selling its, government, economy, culture, and education short.

Works Cited

Aristide, J.B. (2002) “Globalization: A View from Below”. In Bigelow, B. and Peterson, B. (Eds) Rethinking Globalization: Teaching for Justice in an Unjust World, pp. 9-13. Milwaukee: Rethinking Schools Press.



Filed under today we learn about

2 responses to “Today We Learn About: Life & Debt!

  1. It is often overlooked in these types of films as to how the World Bank and IMF get involved in the first place. I am not sure about Jamaica, but other developing nations experience a post colonialism market failure where they have a economy focused around low value added output.

    The IMF and WB are lenders of last resort that the government approach because other banks find the political environment or labour force too unstable.

    While there is some argument that the IMF and WB have unsavoury strategy for what they consider development, they have a HARD job and they must operate within local and international laws.

    A lot of movies tend to set themselves apart and point at the IMF as an obstacle for development, but they do not propose any alternatives to market failure. While the IMF and WB are not perfect, they are last resorts for desperate situations.

    • If my memory serves me, this film’s message revolves around the IMF and WB’s tendency to come into nations without a proper time table to withdrawal. There was plenty of reason for their initial intervention, as you allude to.. It was a post-colonial clusterfuck. But the residents of modern day Jamaica are of the opinion that they would be able to sustain on their own without the intervention of the IMF and WB.

      Another interesting thought about the film and IMF/WB involvement surrounds the question of local culture. At what point do we (western nations, the IMF/WB) step back, and let a nation follow their own path towards modernity and economical health. We are certainly in a position where we NEED the sugar that is cultivated in Jamaica, as there are other places we can get the crop.

      At what point does our rescue effort become meddling, and more importantly.. Who makes the distinction?

      I’m of the opinion that the nation in question should rule their own destiny. While the leaders of these nations stand to benefit from IMF/WB intervention, the citizens often suffer in the long term. This is the case with many organizations that enter nations with the intentions of improvement, not the IMF/WB, exclusively.

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