Wednesday, 29 June 2005

Goats, desertification and aid

Amongst a wad of junk mail I recently received a leaflet from Christian Aid soliciting donations to give a goat to the poor of Rwanda. The leaflet explains how a Rwandan orphan was loaned two goats, which then produced three kids. What the leaflet does not explain is how a rapidly expanding goat population is sustainable. Desertification is rife in the more arid parts of Africa, and among the main agents are goats. In fact most wildlife conservationists see goats as one of the main threats to the African environment. Huge areas of Mediterranean Europe were devastated by overgrazing by goats, and fortunately more enlightened agricultural attitudes have allowed many areas to regenerate. But all over the world, goats are a major problem, particularly in Africa.

To me, the Christian Aid leaflet epitomises the problem of aid, in particular the drive to eradicate poverty. Both politicians and humanitarian charities are only ever looking at the short-term, rarely, if ever, at the long term. Competition for resources is usually at the root of wars, and unless those resources are more evenly distributed the ongoing cycle of warfare and famine will continue. A couple of years ago I travelled extensively in Uganda and it was a country of great agricultural wealth, and it also has mineral wealth, and an abundant labour supply. But it is aid dependent. What happens to the wealth of the country? Presumably, as is so often the case, it is shipped abroad to foreign banks, and invested in western economies. And with the profits made, a tiny fraction is sent back as foreign aid. But the continuing cycle of foreign aid allows this to continue. In fact it encourages it.

Refugee camps are sponsored by aid charities, absolving the national governments from taking any action. But what happens to the inhabitants of the refugee camps? What are their long term prospects? What are the exit strategies of the aid agencies? Amid great publicity Blair, Geldoff and others have trumpetted their ambitions to 'make poverty history'. But have any of them thought through what this really means? Have any of them thought what it would mean in terms of consumption of resources. What the energy bill would be for instance? How that would affect global warming. This came home to me in a rather bizarre way when visiting India recently.

As a westerner, I find the oriental methods of cleansing after excretion problematical, being used to using loo rolls. But it was pointed out that if a billion Indians converted to loo rolls and flush toilets, there would be one hell of an environmental impact. What would happen if every family in Africa had a single car? Or even a motorbike? What would happen if every family in Africa used the same amount of water used by Britons? That is what would happen if we wiped out poverty. This does not mean we should not try and do something to redress the terrible injustices that are reflected in the poverty of countries in Africa and elsewhere, it simply means that handing out aid over the past half century has not worked, and never will; it is time to try something different.

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