Monday, 28 July 2008

Fuel and food myths

There is a panic in the press about rising fuel prices and rising food prices. This is misleading the public, because the reality is that for the past 40 years we have been living in a blip in history. We are now getting back to normality.

Historically, the basic necessities of life have consumed most of an average family's income. For hundreds of years, most of the income a family generated went on feeding, clothing and housing. But for the past 40 years, in Britain and Europe, all these commodities have been getting progressively cheaper and cheaper. But this reduction in cost was based on unsustainable premises.

I could argue that a lot of the western economy, based as it is on extreme capitalism, is under threat. Crocodile tears have been shed at the collapse, or near collapse, of financial institutions, but why should we care? What do they really contribute? When capitalism is taken to the extremes of globalisation, there are huge numbers of people making money out of doing absolutely nothing productive -- simply shifting money around (but of course somewhere, someone is almost certainly being exploited, as any old fashioned socialist can explain to you). I can't get too upset about this, except it does have a major impact on wildlife. It leads to ever more rapacious attacks on natural resources. Agriculture expands, to provide more and more, cheaper and cheaper food, for our wasteful societies. I recall a recent statistic that stated around 40% of food in the UK was wasted. No wonder the rainforests are being cut for soya plantations.

What's the answer? Forget switching off the TV, we need to be far less wasteful in many other really big ways. Forget the idea of constant economic growth. Forget the idea that everything should be as cheap as possible, and thrown away in a few months. And bring population growth to the top of the political agenda. More and more people are going to put more and more pressure on resources; resources such as healthcare and transport.

I will repeat myself (and continue to do so whenever possible): Governments are using climate change and all environmental issues to obfuscate the real issue, and that is human population growth. And they are also ignoring the fact that any increase in population in a developed country, has significantly more environmental impacts than in a very poor country.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Should we call for an end to aid in Africa?

I have written about the problems of foreign aid on many occasions, and am going to develop the theme I first put forward on 28/06/07. Does aid wipe out poverty? Thinking about it, raised another question in my mind. Does aid actually encourage poverty? I don't know the answer, and would welcome feedback, particularly from the agencies which promote it. But surely if aid agencies pump in millions of dollars worth of aid into a country, they are really taking away the responsibility for carrying out those vital humanitarian actions from the government of the country concerned. Many of the recipient countries have significant natural resources

Take Uganda, for example -- a country universally accepted as being fairly corrupt. In the most recent budget I could find (2007-2008) income of $3000 million was projected, of which 10.2 million was to be spent on anti-corruption -- an indictment in itself. But $19 million was spent import of arms -- the most recent figures according to:

According to this latter website Uganda spends 2.2% of GDP on military, but only 1.9%on health. Could it be that pumping foreign charitable aid into a country on a longterm basis is actually a cause of ongoing poverty? It certainly does not seem to be solving the problem. Finding out how much aid the NGOs etc were pumping into Uganda proved beyond my resources.

And is charitable aid, just another form of colonialism? Again, I don't know. But I I know huge quantities of western-manufactured medicines and equipment are purchased, and I see images of relief operations unloading vast packages of plastic bottles containing water. I do wonder if the bottled water industry is benefitting more than the aid recipients, and I am certain the pharmaceutical companies are profitting. Surely a lot of aid is simply encouraging the sort of consumerism that dominates our own societies? It certainly is not encouraging 'sustainable development' (what ever that is, if it's not an oxymoron).

There are other even more difficult questions that need to be answered: for instance, is it morally right to prevent the traditional forms of population limitation, to increase survival rates, but without introducing alternative forms of population control? I think it was Spike Milligan who once said that every loaf of bread sent to Africa should be inside a condom... or words to that effect.

These sorts of issues are swept under the carpet by aid agencies and politicians alike. But I think it is high time they were addressed. The quality of life is certainly not improving for the majority of Africans, and in the 40 years I have been taking an interest in it, the negative impacts on the natural environment and wildlife have spiralled out of control. And while putting more and more (often marginal)land under intensive agriculture may well make aid agencies feel happy, and will almost certainly line the pockets of agri-business, but is unlikely to help the starving of Africa. Anymore than increasing the out-of-control goat population of the continent will benefit the people living in marginal habitats.

It does seem that countries in South America and Asia, once just as poverty stricken as much of Africa, have fared much better. Why?

I wrote most of the above several weeks ago, and now I am on a sabbatical in Paraguay where I happened to watch a spokesperson for Oxfam on the BBC World News, justifying their activities in Africa. The problem was that nothing she said gave me any confidence that the aid agencies had thought through their activities properly. It was still full of the hyperbole of 'wiping out poverty' and worse too, almost everything the aid agencies say smacks of social Darwinism. That there is "progress" towards a "better" , more "advanced" society. As any biologist knows, that is not what evolution is about, though Soapy Sam Wilberforce tried to portray it as such. Organisms evolve to be fitter for their environment. They do not progress to a higher plane -- that was/is an anthropocentric view, based on the premise that there was/is God, them humans, then the rest of creation. Aid agencies are very little different to 19th century Christian missionaries. Convinced they know better, convinced that theirs is a better way of life. And what does long term aid actually achieve? One thing I do know it achieves: absolution of the governments concerned of their responsibilities -- those government invariably have the resources needed; they just choose to use them on lavish lifestyles, grandiose western-inspired 'development' schemes, or worst of all, armaments.

Finally, I would add that I am not discussing emergency aid, in the wake of disasters -- that, as recent events in Burma, China and elsewhere have demonstrated is an entirely separate issue.

And I am not coming to any conclusions, yet. But the more I see of the world, the more I doubt that most long-term international humanitarian aid has significant long-term benefits other than to the donors, and the economies of the donor countries. Clearly a controversial view, and one I would be happy to modify, should evidence present itself. Just as if aid agencies were to carry out environmental impact assessments before carrying out projects that impact the natural environment, I would have more respect for them. But at present I am more of the opinion that the majority modern the foreign aid programmes carried out by NGOs are far too similar to nineteenth century missionaries in both outlook and objectives. Of course this is a personal view, but I wonder how many people think this, even if they don't admit it? The world has become so politically correct, that it is often considered wrong to even question the staus quo.

Facts and figures contradicting some of my assertions would be welcome. Opinions are easy to find, but facts much more difficult.