Life and Debt explores the effect of the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) policies on developing countries through Jamaica's experience with the organization. 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, which were cheaper than those produced locally, resulting in a loss of jobs and economic self-reliance. Interviews with Stanley Fisher, Deputy Director of the IMF, reveal that the IMF's mission is to alleviate short-term deficits, not assuage long-term economic hardship.
A powerful example of the cycle of dependence is seen through the method of milk production. Because production is heavily subsidized for farmers in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and the European Union, milk solids enter the Jamaican market at an extremely low price. The powder has become the normal form of milk consumption, for though it is produced at a greater cost than fresh milk, the subsidies make it less expensive to purchase. In one unsettling scene, dairy farmers dispose of thousands of gallons of fresh milk that they cannot sell. Many farmers have reduced the size of their operations by slaughtering or selling cattle, and the dairy industry has become debilitated beyond repair.
The viewer is also privy to the reality of life in Jamaica behind the façade of the tourist industry. Inadequate schools, medical facilities and living conditions dominate the areas apart from the plush hotels that dot the coastal beaches. In a voice over written by Jamaica Kincaid, the narrator emphasizes this striking contrast between ideal scenic beauty and the squalor of poverty.
The strength of the film lies in its comprehensive explanation of the role of the IMF and its interrelationship with the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. All audiences will benefit from the examination of global economic policies and their effect on developing economies.
This film is suitable for younger audiences. With teacher and adult guidance, high school students working on economic issues can benefit from this account of a complex economic issue.