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
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
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
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?
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
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.