Life and Debt

2001, 86 minutes
Director/Producer: Stephanie Black
Distributed by New Yorker Films

Life and Debt: Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

by Andrea Holley, Manager of Outreach and Public Education, Human Rights Watch

Life and Debt explores economic phenomena at play in many lesser-developed countries today. Using Jamaica as a case study, filmmaker Stephanie Black frames a series of issues that reference and relate consumption in developed economies, production in underdeveloped economies, and international financial institutions. Narrator Jamaica Kincaid points out that Americans and other foreigners visit countries such as Jamaica for brief periods and have closely choreographed experiences. The living conditions of the local people and the rules their government must follow are not apparent.

Life and Debt explores the effect of the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) policies on developing countries through Jamaica's experience. Jamaica, having gained its independence from Britain in 1962, found itself struggling as a result of the oil embargo the following year. In order to receive loans from the IMF, the country entered into a tricky agreement with its lenders. The terms of the loan stipulated that Jamaica had to agree to reduce trade barriers by withdrawing its local import restrictions, and thus enter the world market. The local economy became flooded with foreign goods that were cheaper than those produced locally, resulting in a loss of jobs and economic self-reliance.

The domain of human rights referred to as Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, based on the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, is the subject of Life and Debt's discourse. Due to the disproportionate consumption of goods by countries such as the United States, nations like Jamaica must sell their products on the world market at prices dictated by international financial institutions. Furthermore, Jamaicans must work for foreign companies in "free trade zones" at wages much lower than those paid in the United States and elsewhere.

As Americans, we have the right to know where our food and clothing come from and how it is obtained. We also have the ability to choose whether we want to buy goods produced and procured under these conditions. Our role as consumers can be our greatest pathway to activism. By making informed decisions about what to buy or not to buy, we as a market can impact how our own economy and those of other countries are structured.


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