Friday, 29 April 2005

Making Poverty History

The beginning of 2005 has seen a lot of publicity about a campaign to 'Make Poverty History'. In the UK leading politicians have committed to using both the G8 and EU presidencies to make a significant difference on the policies affecting the world's poorest nations. Charities are also being urged to play a major role. However, I would like to question that this is a priority for charities involved with international work. For several years the relief of poverty has been among the criteria at the forefront of decision making when giving grants by the national lottery or DFID.

But is this really the responsibility of charities based in the UK? First one should closely examine the cause of poverty, and then see if the use of charitable funding is going to solving that problem. And the answer is usually that not only is the use of charitable donations not solving the problem, in many cases it is actually exacerbating it. Most of the poorest nations in the world are not poor because of a lack of money, they are poor because of an unequal distribution of resources and wealth. Charitable donations take away from the governments the responsibility of looking after their own people. And end up creating refugees who become aid dependent. Most of the African countries that UK charities support at present, spend more on buying arms, than the charities donate in relief. There is plenty of highly visible, ostentatious wealth in India.

I have just returned from India, working on new projects with our partners. While there, I passed through some of the areas affected by the tsunami, and it is quite apparent from even a superficial overview, that some (possibly most) of the foreign aid has caused considerable social disruption. It will be sometime yet before it is known how much of the millions poured into the public appeals actually got to those affected -- to the families who lost children, parents and breadwinners. But I will bet that it is a pretty small percentage. And I am pretty certain that most of the decision making will be by outsiders, and that the villagers affected will have very little say how the money is spent. Evidence of this was already visible in the rows of (largely unused) brand new fibre-glass boats on the beaches, replacing the traditional boats built from sustainable local resources. Almost everything I saw suggested that almost no thought had been goven to sustainability, and that no thought had been given to the impact on traditional ways of living. On the bright side, there was an incredible awareness of the linkages between the loss of mangroves and the increased risk of damage from tsunamis and other natural phenomena.

I would be very interested to hear of any one else who has observed negative effects of aid -- we generally only get the up-beat news from the agencies delivering aid.


  1. I was initially very supportive of the make poverty history campaign - however I've recently read that the infamous white bands were actually made in sweatshops in China - where workers were paid 16p an hour as detailed in Anti-poverty wristbands made in sweatshops - Scotsman article. I as uttlerly disgusted to read that Cafod and Christian Aid continue to source their wristbands from the same supplier as part of an "active engagement" policy.

  2. I know it has little directly to do with green issues, but I also question the motives behind the announcemnt this morning that Tony Blair has persuaded the Americans to increase aid to Africa, in the face of a potential famine in Eritrea and Ethiopia. Countries both spending huge amounts on armaments. Aid absolves the governments from solving their own problems. I would ask the question: "Does aid create poverty?". Certainly looking at the situation historically, those countries that have been receiving long term aid, generally have greater levels of poverty that 20 years ago.

  3. This rather depressing (but not very surprising) article talks about NGOs using unqualified builders and low standard materials to build boats for fishermen who lost theirs in the tsunami. According to FAO these boats will have to be replaced because they are so unsafe they are putting the fishermen's lives at risk...