Recently, the subject of overseas aid has been kicked around like the proverbial political football as UK plc starts to come to terms with the impact of over consumption and debt. Even in a recession, 0.7% of GDP for a wealthy industrialised nation strikes me as being affordable. If redeployed at home, I very much doubt that it would lift all British citizens out of poverty. If it were that simple, we would have made poverty history a long time ago. Furthermore, there would be very little political support for overseas aid. This is a crucial point because it tells us that overseas aid makes a fundamental difference. If you look at the case studies presented by the various charities, the evidence is crystal clear. Foreign aid saves, prolongs and enriches life.
Whilst the UK was apparently enjoying a period of debt-fuelled growth, child poverty has been increasing. This suggests a growing gap between rich and poor, rather than a lack of financial resources. Evidence elsewhere strongly suggests that the US and the UK, for all their material wealth, have the worst levels of social inequality in the developed world. It will surprise very few people that we do not score too highly in Gross Domestic Happiness, relative to other OECD countries. Figure 1b on Page 2 of the UNICEF report ‘The children left behind – A league table of inequality in child well-being in the world’s richest countries” spells it out in graphic terms.
Religious and political dimensions
The 0.7% percentage makes interesting reading, especially from a religious perspective. Almsgiving (the giving of alms to the poor) is part of a long established tradition amongst Jews, Christians and Moslems. Within the Abrahamic family of world faiths, you will find simple folk with warm hearts who regularly and quietly donate a percentage of their income. This is on top of the offertory collections each Sunday when different charities benefit from parishioner contributions. As a child, church attendance provided me with some useful insights and perspectives on overseas aid. Intermittently, we would receive guests who would speak for the poor and their role in relieving poverty at home and overseas. This helped me form a spiritual connection with the wider world, long before there were Internet connections.
“Charity starts at home”. Or so the saying goes. However, this does not mean that charity ends at home. Neither does it mean building walls around the British Isles and becoming insular and uncaring. On the contrary, it provides us with the opportunity to grow in an environment where small acts of compassion and generosity are appreciated. As we mature and experience the wider world, we are equipped with the courage and moral resolve to help those who are much less fortunate. Helping can manifest itself in many different ways. We can raise funds for our favourite charity by parachuting from 30,000 feet, go on a sponsored walk, shop for an elderly neighbour, befriend a refugee, or dip into our bank accounts in response to a natural catastrophe. CAFOD define these forms of help in three simple words; Give, Act and Pray.
Generosity, in the deepest sense, is linked more closely to spiritual wealth. It is measured by the depth of our compassion, rather than the depth of our pockets. Our values are less tangible of course, but they define us as human beings. This is an important distinction to make at a time when many people feel worse off. Although many of us are worse off, we are regularly subjected to what I would call the ‘Austerity Assault’. This is the stream of messages that rain in from the media, government and business. In this atmosphere, overseas aid is seen by some as fair game. This plays in to the hands of the mean spirited and/or isolationists. In the absence of any moral authority, some of those more hard hearted views become energised. They gain succour at a time when our elected leaders tell us we are “all in this together”.
Austerity conjures up all sorts of depressing images. However, given the compounded fragility of our planets’ resources and our financial systems, we are better served by using this as an opportunity to develop resourcefulness, creativity, resilience and inter dependency. Spending less money on non essentials can translate into more time spent on the things that matter in life. These are the nuts and bolts of society and they help to bind people, communities and enterprises together. If the result of the credit crunch is a stronger, bigger society, then we can and must move past our material and financial anxieties. My hope is that this will make us more compassionate towards each other. Austerity at home should certainly rein in our love of materialism. However, it is not likely to be life threatening and for some, it could even be life enhancing.
In balance, I believe that the case for diminishing overseas aid is ill founded. In my own experience, some of the poorest people I know are the most generous. In his intriguingly entitled book ‘Affluenza’, Oliver James alludes to this contrast by interviewing people from around the world. A selection of his articles can be found on the author’s web site. In his write up in the Herald Scotland, published August 15th, 2010, he boldly suggests that the recession may even provide us with a remedy. This is broadly consistent with the philosophy that the symmetry between the credit crunch and the prevailing eco-crunch is inextricably and fatefully linked.
Interestingly, when the Archbishop of Canterbury criticised the previous government for its tax payer funded bail out of the banks, his comments were met with derision from secularists. His point was simple and far from controversial, given the public mood. For a nation facing bankruptcy, the government had capacity to draw upon reserves to rescue large financial institutions deemed “too big too fail”. More recently, a large care provider, Southern Cross fell into bankruptcy. Evidently, Southern Cross and other care providers were not considered important or big enough to bail out. When such attitudes prevail in the political culture, it is little wonder that we rank so poorly in the world of health and social inequality. The science writer, Edwin Cartlidge writes an interesting article ‘Of Money and Morality’ for The Tablet, published May 8th, 2010. It provides a number of interesting insights about how the state and private enterprise contributed to the credit crunch.
Our relatively comfortable western lifestyles make it all too easy to speculate ad infinitum about complex economic and political government interests. They are part of the dynamic political interplay that define relationships between nations. How you interpret this game of foreign relations will depend very much on how you see and experience the world. When I examine my own conscience, however, I fail to see how the poor gain very much from my conspiracy theories, no matter how well articulated. Through this prayerful and meditative process, a truth is revealed. This truth transcends the ego and political vantage points.
We also need to be able to see this from poverty’s own perspective. The world’s poorest do not have time to indulge in the motives behind government aid. Our individual perspectives, no matter how well meant, cannot transform the fortunes of those who struggle daily for food, shelter and medicine. It troubles me greatly that some might use this to validate their opposition to sustaining government sponsored aid.
Another diversion, as I see it, is the argument that public and private donations help to line the pockets of large charities and corrupt overseas governments. In recent times, charities like Oxfam and Barnardo’s have developed a tendency to operate more like businesses so this point does have some moral force. However, one has to consider how competitive the voluntary sector has become. The new political landscape is tough and has greatly diminished the funding capacity of local authorities who distribute grants to community based charities. These charities, whether small or large, are best placed to meet the needs of people on the ground.
Charities do face something of a dilemma. By investing in promotion, they help to raise awareness about issues that are sometimes overlooked by the mainstream media. As an onlooker, you might argue that these financial resources would be better deployed at the coal face, so to speak. This would presumably benefit recipients of aid more directly. This is also a central theme in the public sector where back office or head office functions are perceived to be of little value, relative to ‘front line’ services. At the other end of the spectrum, smaller or more specialist charities may not have the resources to spend on promoting their raison d’être. Here, one might argue that insufficient resources are being deployed on activities that help to increase their public profile. This rationale being based on the promise of increased donor income.
Regrettably, corruption in government does exist. However, this should only serve to strengthen our determination to help others. Corruption occurs in every state and we are not immune from it here. We must place trust in those NGO’s on the ground to develop the most expedient means for delivering sustainable aid when and where it is needed most. The demonization of states must not be used as a lever to callously divert aid from the innocent victims of conflict. These are people who live on the very margins of human existence and we must not abandon them through the deployment of economic sanctions and the withdrawal of humanitarian aid. Sanctions are part of a blunt and ineffective instrument that punishes the poor disproportionately, relative to those oppressive regimes that misgovern them.
If we are sincere about justice, we must not disengage spiritually and emotionally from the needs of others. The poorest Britons are amongst the world’s wealthiest people on the planet. Though we should do everything in our power to redress poverty and suffering at home, this should not lead to us abandoning the world’s poorest. Whilst governments formulate policy, we as individuals have power to examine our own consciences. This introspection can help us to firmly anchor our moral compass and steer us through what may seem like a moral conundrum.
One of the starkest contrasts between first and third world is hunger. This is a tangible measure of crushing poverty. We are fortunate that this is something that the poorest in our own society will very rarely have to encounter. Issues around lifestyle, poverty of aspiration, overcrowded housing, drug dependency and obesity cause the greatest concern amongst domestic agencies. These organisations are equally committed to lifting the UK’s poorest citizens out of poverty.
There are a great many indexes available based on health and social deprivation. Social scientists use this data to inform government(s) and we must look to charities to influence government decision and policy making. NGO’s welcome the ring-fencing at 0.7% as this supports a long-standing and generous commitment given by successive British governments. Traditionally, this has received cross-party political support. However, it is not enshrined in law and other considerations may yet have an affect on the aid budget. To see how UK official development assistance (overseas aid) is distributed, it is worth scrutinising a report that was published by the Department for International Development (DfID) on 24th February, 2011. It is 8 pages in length and makes interesting reading, especially in the context of the current debate.
Back to the future
As someone who is of the Live Aid generation, my own conscience is somewhat troubled by the contrast between the excesses of domestic consumption and the images of malnourished children overseas. Geldof’s plea still resonates. “Give us your f****** money!” To this day, the only thing I find offensive about this is the image of malnourished children and gluttonous westerners turning a blind eye. During the recent Comic Relief effort, one of the presenters made light of the fact that some viewers only tune in to enjoy the show. Maybe Sir Bob didn’t swear loudly enough.
For those still not listening, it may be worth reflecting on the number of preventable child deaths. The facts are staggering and in my view, totally unacceptable. World Vision calls this the ‘Silent Emergency’ because these deaths don’t tend to make headlines. This is the story is of 8.1 million children who will die each year before their fifth birthday, all from preventable causes like diarrhoea, malnutrition and malaria. If you only have time to read one related link to this article, please do visit this web site and help in any way you can. Thank you.
The case for protecting or increasing overseas aid is further reinforced by some sobering statistics which have come to light in the wake of the government’s vision for a ‘big society’. On July 14th, 2010, BBC Newsnight broadcast a programme which featured the Sussex coastal town of Hastings. It claimed that a third of Britons do not engage in voluntary work. Having researched this further, I discovered an IPSOS survey on charity giving that was commissioned by The Samaritans in 2005.
It reveals some interesting if not disturbing facts about attitudes and habits in relation to charities. Amongst the key findings were that 1 in 5 people never give to charity and that two in five people do not currently make a regular charity donation. This certainly helps to account for the surge in isolationism and hard heartedness that has infected the current debate. It provides cause for concern, especially for a government that appears to be trading in public services for more unpaid activism. And it should concern each and every one of us, especially when you take on board the subsequent contraction in the voluntary sector.
Much of this has been caused by cash strapped local authorities, a point not lost in this Guardian article, published June 5th, 2011. Collectively, these findings paint a rather bleak picture. Our public finances are certainly not helped by the attitudes of some individuals, especially when you consider the perceived importance of the voluntary sector in a shrinking state. What does this tell us about the moral health of our own society?
I contend that we should continue to give support to those NGO’s and charities that play an active part in relieving suffering for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens. Our own society, big or otherwise, will be the healthier for it, as compassion breeds compassion.
My favourite charities
…and a plea with not an ‘F’ word in sight!
Natural catastrophes – worldwide