Tuesday, 22 August 2006

Does charity aid create poverty?

Six months ago I wrote about the problems goats were causing in the third world, particularly Africa. I criticised aid charities for funding goat keeping and encouraging the British public to think of goats (and camels and cattle) as a solution to the problems of poverty in Africa. I pointed out that there was plenty of evidence that they were in fact often the cause of poverty.

The response was huge; almost entirely supporting my contentions. The only people supporting the position of charities such as Oxfam, Farm Africa and Christian Aid, were usually doing it from either purely emotive standpoint, or based on misinformation. But support for my attack on goats was universally well informed, and from scientists, foresters, tropical ecologists and that ilk.

It is truly worrying that, according to Oxfam, one of the five most frequently asked questions is 'How can I buy a goat'. This is scary. To a conservationist or an ecolgist it has the making of a horror movie.

Yet six months on aid charities are still promoting goats and other livestock as a solution to poverty. How short-sighted can you get? And, paradoxically, this is depite criticisms that some organisations are not actually using the money raised in this way on buying goats.

However my investigations into the issues surrounding goats and poverty also led me to look more closely at the aid charities' strategies. And I did not like a lot of what I found. It often seemed patronising, and almost a form of modern imperialism. Selling to underdeveloped countries technological fixes that would make them dependent on further aid or debt to the developed world. Many of the agencies employ significant numbers of field staff. And many of these people are paid at European salary levels, and drive around in 4x4s, living in western style accommodation.

And then there is inappropriate aid. I will give a single example. When travelling in southern India after the tsunami, I saw (and photographed) the fibreglass boats donated by aid charities that had been supplied to replace the wooden fishing boats used by the local populace of poor fishermen. The main beneficiaries were undoubtedly the relatively more prosperous manufacturers of fibre glass boats. Now the fisherman had boats, but they needed an outboard motor and fuel to power them. The relatively primitive, wooden, outrigger sailing boats they had previously used needed neither of these. But no doubt the donors felt they had done really well by providing a more 'modern' alternative.

And then finally, what is meant by poverty?
I sent Oxfam the following on the 7 July:

Please can you let me have a definition of poverty, and an understanding of that is meant by making poverty history. How will it be established when a person or a nation is out of poverty? What are the measures?

A few days later I received a reply. Of sorts. It was the sort of response one comes to expect from BINGOs (Big International Non-Government Organisations). It was a standard response giving a few web addresses, none of which actually answered the question posed. Here is their response:

Thank you for contacting Oxfam recently regarding your research. We are always pleased to hear from people who are interested in the work we do. As we do have limited time and resources unfortunately we are unable to arrange interviews, complete questionnaires or organise visits to projects we support. However, I?m sure you will find the information you need from the resources that are available to you.

We have a fantastic website, which contains an abundance of up to date information about our work. It includes recent policy papers, press releases, newsletters and also development and campaigning information, which I hope will provide you with the information you need for your studies. You can find our website at: http://www.oxfam.org.uk/

There is also our website for teachers and young people called Cool Planet, which has lots of information about our work and ways you can get involved. Please click on this link to take you there: http://www.oxfam.org.uk/coolplanet/

We also have a range of published books and journals, covering issues and case studies surrounding development and relief. A number of these are available through our Oxfam Publishing catalogue, which can be viewed on our website at: http://publications.oxfam.org.uk/oxfam/search.asp?TAG=&CID=
If you would like us to send you a copy of the catalogue, then please contact us on 0870 333 2700. You may be able to borrow publications listed in the catalogue through your local library?s inter-library loan service. Alternatively, they can be ordered by credit card, either on-line via our website, or from our distributor, Bournemouth English Book Centre, on 01202

Now the WLT along with many other small charities also gets lots of enquiries, but somehow, we manage to respond to almost all of them. Since 'making poverty history' is a slogan being bandied around with considerable abandon, surely it is not expecting too much for a clear definition to be available? If it is, I certainly could not find it on any of the sites referred to by Oxfam. There were several complex definitions, which left me even more confused, but no simple statement of targets.

So let's ask a few more questions. Do we expect everyone to aspire to the basic standard of living acceptable in England? Clean, hot and cold, running water; flush toilets; free, accessible, primary and secondary education; affordable housing? These do not seem unreasonable targets -- after all many people living in the UK with all of the above are still considered as living in poverty in the UK. But to bring everyone in Africa and Asia to that standard has huge implications for the continents' resources. In fact I would suggest that it would be totally unsustainable. Has anyone thought it through? I suggest not. Not remotely. And meanwhile almost all the aid charities pursue policies that ensure that the fuse on the population bomb gets shorter and shorter, day by day.

One of the problems is that, within the charity sector, it has become almost de rigeur to not criticise other charities. But when another charity is carrying out operations which are apparently undermining the efforts of others, I think it is time to speak out. There is nothing illegal or uncharitable in the activities of the Aid charities, but in my personal view, they are often based on naive strategies, short-term thinking and a lack of understanding of the long-term impacts. They are playing on the emotions of affluent westerners with a guilt complex.

In the 19th and early 20th century missionaries spread all over the world, and one of the first things they did was clothe the 'natives' as their nakedness was an affront to Christian morality. Aid agencies regularly dump second-hand clothes in the third world, which is now creating a demand for 'designer' and fashion goods even among the poorest sectors of society. It's the same evangelical missionary attitude in another guise, ensuring western values are adopted, and markets for western goods are created. Trade not Aid, is a concept that comes nearer to a fairer non-interventionist approach, but most of the agencies only play lip service to it, and international trade is not always the best way forward.

It's a debate that is largely supressed, but I believe should be opened up. However, just as with the goat issue, the charities involved don't want to discuss it because it could have a major impact on their fund-raising capabilities. But a healthy debate may well improve their strategies, and actually achieve something that 40 years of aid to Africa, has so far almost universally failed to achieve -- the actual relief of poverty overall and the ongoing degradation of the environment.

This was a longer meandering than usual; but I believe it is one of the most important issues confronting wildlife, particularly in Africa.

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