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IUO: The Debt Threat and Why we Must Defuse it

A review of Noreena Hertz's new book

New Statesman, 8th November 2004

It has always been hard to take Noreena Hertz, self-appointed "It-girl of the anti-globalisation movement", seriously. She wears fur coats and short skirts and is friends with Bono. She is, we are told, "the Nigella Lawson of economics". Vogue interviews her about her make- up, and she regularly interrupts political articles to write about what she happens to be wearing. Take, for example, this typical description of her appearance at a World Economic Forum:

'I had to give some thought as to how to present myself in a way that would be taken seriously in this social whirl. And I certainly looked as if I belonged there in my white, Bianca Jaggeresque trouser suit designed by the British design duo Boudicca. Few who complimented me on my attire, of course, got the irony. Boudicca prides itself on being fashion's first anti-capitalist label.'

It is hard to know how to respond to this. Hard, too, to know what to think about a woman who, on the one hand, writes diatribes against multinational corporations but who, on the other, is paid substantial amounts to address them about globalisation. As her biography on a leading corporate speakers' website puts it: "Hertz . . . explains that the political 'right' is not necessarily wrong, for no one group or movement has a monopoly on moral imperative."

None of this would matter if her books were any good. Personal vanity, after all, is a trifling matter compared to the iniquities of the global economy. Unfortunately, our Noreena is the Joanne Harris of political writing - and IOU, like its author, is all style and no substance.

The book kicks off with a chapter about Bono, the lead singer of U2. Bono has given the book a glowing plug that is reproduced on the cover, which is not surprising, considering that the first 21 pages are a breathless account of the "Herculean efforts" of the "pierced and sunglasses-wearing rock star" who, according to Hertz, single-handedly forced the US government to cancel $435m of debt to the developing world. But this is just introductory colour, right? Er, no.

Hertz devotes several chapters to a workmanlike run-through of the debt issue: what debt is, why poor countries suffer from it, how rich countries stitch them up, the bad things that the International Monetary Fund does. All fine, but also largely redundant, because this stuff has been circulating for years, and Hertz adds nothing new to the mix. Worse, some of what she says is plain misleading. For example, her old employer the World Bank emerges with a curiously positive report card from a book about a problem it created almost single-handedly. The bank's former chief economist Larry Summers is represented as a passionate champion of the poor. Perhaps Hertz is not aware of the infamous internal memo that was leaked from the bank, in which this angelic man wrote: "I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that . . . I've always thought that underpopulated countries in Africa are vastly underpolluted . . ."

All this suggests that Hertz is going through the motions - and somewhat bizarrely at that. "The world's fish stocks are facing collapse, Great Apes are facing extinction, toxic shrimps are being found in our food," she writes of the planet's environmental crisis. Eh? Toxic shrimps? Where? Whose food, exactly?

There is a lot of this sort of thing: IOU (great title, by the way - and only five years after the New Internationalist magazine used the same one) contains some remarkably bad writing. Was Hertz in a hurry when she wrote that "the Herculean efforts of Bono and Shriver are a beacon to what the civic community can achieve"? And was her editor asleep when it went to print?

The book ends on a grand declamatory note, with Hertz laying down her own ideas about how the "debt crisis" can be solved. "The proposal I have laid out is a blueprint for a new way forward," she writes, in the last paragraph. "Discuss it. Refine it. Improve upon it. But don't ignore it. You can't afford to." The trouble is that you can. All too easily.