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Poverty and history

Posted by helen on Sat 25 Jun 2005 at 11:45
At the turn of the millennium, the United Nations General Assembly agreed on a set of development goals, the supreme one being the eradication of poverty. It is not trivial that world leaders use the language of "eradication" instead of "relieving". But victory it was not. We have the means to end poverty; the world is endlessly rich and more redistribution would not be costly. The real impediment is the old one: it is about will. ... Unnecessary misery persists because the will to end it comes not from our hearts, where we are all pure, but from our collective opinions and actions, where we are not.
Stein Ringen

I'm not sure how I feel about Live 8. On an aesthetic rather than political level I am pretty much indifferent to Live 8. The fact that the same people are organising it means that it feels less like "cashing in" on Live Aid's success. But this event nonetheless suffers by comparison to its predecessor: I don't expect the music to be of comparable quality or the national mood to be as overwhelmingly affecting.

But on a political level - and that's ostensibly what this is all about - I cannot, in good conscience, be indifferent, particularly when I have so many reservations about the way the entire campaign is being organised and presented. For a start, I'm not at all sure about Geldof. His dynamism, his force, his charisma are definitely better working against poverty than for it. Howoever, just as the Live 8 website is simplistic and sensationalist, I've found many of his statements leading up to G8 to be naive, over-simplifying, obscuring. And I have the same problem, to a lesser extent, with the Make Poverty History campaign. Geldof's aim is to get the world leaders on his side, and thus his challenges to them are not as strong as some might want them to be. He praises the aid and debt relief efforts made so far without making any mention of the conditions placed on them, or the ways in which the economic policies of the governments involved are damaging these countries far more than the sums mentioned are helping them. I don't think Geldof is corrupt, but it's the age-old problem of a punchy versus a nuanced message. Geldof is an extremely persuasive and powerful spokesman, but that power, that sound-bitey and emotive catchiness of his phrasing, does not allow for subtleties. Which is, perhaps, as damaging as it is rousing.

I was there in 1998 at the G8 protest in Birmingham, and although I was too young to understand, for the most part, the political dimensions of what I was campaigning for, I was as thrilled as anyone else when the UK agreed to 100% debt cancellation. I'm still thrilled by that, although I find the version on the Make Poverty History site somewhat abhorrent, smugly emphasising how much more the UK has done than other countries, how it "must now push other countries to follow its lead", while somehow not actually mentioning which countries are responsible for the fact that "little more than 10% of the total debt owed by the world's poorest countries has been cancelled". "Rich countries" are impersonally blamed, with no particular pressure on America, and no acknowledgement of the many ways in which the UK supports the arms trade, economic exploitation of impoverished communities and governments, or corrupt governments that further the poverty of their own people.

Which is, of course, pretty much what went wrong in 1985. The organisers of LiveAid did not succeed in running aid efforts directly, and instead channelled most of the £50m raised through the NGOs in Ethiopia. As David Rieff writes, "the relief effort may have cut the death toll by between a quarter and a half. The problem is that it may have contributed to as many deaths." I really know very little about this (any more information would be appreciated!) but a quick google shows that the story doesn't vary much (it may well originate from a single source): the government in Addis Ababa learned to manipulate the NGOs, and much of the aid money was used to fund the Dergue's policy of forced resettlement, which affected nearly four million people and killed, through systematic and compulsury over-land deportations of starving people, shocking numbers of them. "The trip usually took five or six days. To this day, no one knows how many people died en route. The conservative estimate is 50,000. MSF's estimate is double that."

For Oxfam, and Geldof, there was no political dimension to the famine - it was presented as being as natural and biblical as the tsunami last year, thus neatly relieving the need for any responsibility on the part of governments or economic powers. The Dergue was corrupt, is thankfully no more, and the NGOs were passive or accidental, rather than active or deliberate, participants in its crimes. However it goes without saying that this is an issue that needs to be addressed. If the campaigners in Edinburgh succeed and the amount of aid going into Africa is increased, who will decide how it is spent, and how public will be the process by which that decision is made?

The problem is that aid on its own is not enough - if failing social systems are as much responsible for poverty as environmental circumstances, then aid will at best relieve poverty - it will never make it history. And yet how does one approach the reorganising of social or political infrastructures in other countries, without being in danger of approaching the hubristic atrocities committed in Iraq over the last few years? To what extent do "we" (the UK, the UN, the west, the rich) have the right to "re-organise" other countries, however corrupt and damaging they are?

On one level it seems that the emphasis should move away from active participation. As Ringen notes, "Tony Blair's Commission for Africa fails to allow Africa responsibility for itself, a peculiar form of reverse prejudice". That's not to say there should be an end to aid. But rather that the focus of efforts to end poverty should be in minimising the control and influence we have over these countries' economies. Aid and debt relief are often given on conditions of privatisation, especially of public utilities (the Make Poverty History website gives the example of the water supply in Tanzania, controlled by the UK company Biwater), or other market changes designed to benefit foreign importers and financial institutions. The Dergue resettlement in the 1980s was facilitated, however accidentally, by NGOs' participation in government policies, rather than concentrating on local, direct aid - agriculture, education, healthcare. Equally, stopping our activity in the third world will in many cases do far more good than increasing it. As George Monbiot puts it, "[Bono and Geldolf] urge the G8 leaders to do more to help the poor. But they say nothing about ceasing to do harm." If we cannot stop funding from being misdirected, like the Dergue atrocities, like the US HIV relief that is currently being channelled to fundamentalist Christian groups campaigning against condom use, then perhaps funding should not be our focus but raising awareness of the damage being done by our own economic and trade policies, the control we have over market forces, our exploitation of poorer economies? Monbiot expresses it forcefully:

"At what point do Bono and Geldof call time on the leaders of the G8? At what point does Bono stop pretending that George Bush is "passionate and sincere" about world poverty, and does Geldof stop claiming that he "has actually done more than any American president for Africa"? At what point does Bono revise his estimate of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown as "the John and Paul of the global-development stage" or as leaders in the tradition of Keir Hardie and Clement Attlee? How much damage do Bush and Blair have to do before the rock stars will acknowledge it?"

It's a tough one. Clearly, the mistakes of the past, and the damaging and corrupt elements of globalisation, should not be used as arguments to "give up" on aid. On an immediate and occasionally even long-term level, it demonstrably works; it saves lives. However, it's a tricky balancing act to pull off. If "social justice rather than charity" should be our concern, where do we draw the line? How much interference is acceptable and how much is arrogant? Since we cannot hope for a real, global redistribution of power or money any time soon (and even that comes with associated dangers - the Dergue resettlement was undertaken on communist principles), what is the ethical way to use the power we have? Where lies the best position between being patronising and being indifferent?