Sunday 10 October 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

"I still think that if we give more money to poor countries, they will solve their problems". Call him stubborn and he can be sometimes, but my son was arguing his point fair and square. We had just finished our lunch and were going through the pieces of homework he had completed and the ones he had yet to. The above point was made whilst discussing his Geography assignment for which his teacher had asked him to research the charity, aid and trade side of the relationship between developed and developing nations.

Upon hearing my son's comment, my wife felt disheartened, my daughter remained undisturbed whilst my emotions ranged from optimism to despondency.

The reason why my consort felt dismayed was because she was under the impression that my son was clever enough to realise that aid without a mid- and long-term plan would be fruitless and possibly detrimental for a developing country. We've had several discussions at home in the past about the role charity plays in the economic relationship between rich and poor countries. But I think that it's tough for a twelve-year-old to know when to identify colonial legacy as an influential factor and when to focus on bad governance - domestically speaking - as another element to include in the equation.

Prior to the general election in May this year, the three main parties pledged to support the UN's target of spending 0.7% of gross national income on aid by 2013. However the real story was that trade did not feature as highly in each party's manifesto as it should have done. The Tories were the ones that came closest to a tangible idea with some ambiguous, nice-sounding message about "trade and economic growth are the only sustainable way for developing countries to escape poverty". Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats just beat around the bush.

The whole "trade not aid" or "trade vs aid" issue is a murky one. For starters, I think that there's a charitable side to all human beings regardless of our provenance, or what we do. That we're able to empathise with those who are worse off than us is one of the human traits that still fuels my optimism. But sometimes we need to put our pragmatic glasses on and look beyond the rim. Where does aid really go? Who benefits from it? What are the long-term effects?

Apologies if I have already used this example before, but it's a standard one. If you carry a child on your shoulders everywhere you go from babyhood to adulthood, that child will never learn how to walk. Furthermore, at some point the child will be conscious enough to want to walk him/herself only to find themselves falling down at each step they take.

It's a similar case with aid. Countries that have long been dominated by powerful nations, or which have seen their economies suffer through sanctions or corruption are in a weak position when democracy is ushered in. Whilst some kind of stimulus package - to use a phrase de nos jours - is probably very welcome, at some point that country needs to, no, sorry, correction, must begin to fend for itself. Where we could do something to help is in clearing the path towards that nation's self-recovery and ultimately self-sufficiency. For instance, we should raise our voices in unison at the unfair way in which European farmers are subsidised by the state and the European Union, thus allowing them to sell their goods in Africa, Asia and America at lower prices. The outcome of this injust trade-off is that local industries can't compete and eventually they have to close or specialise in enterprises that will mainly suit the big corporations. No amount of aid will solve that, but pressure on parliament and government is one of the ways forward.

There's also another side of the coin with which to contend. It revolves chiefly around the fact that aid has been used on many occasions to bring a rogue political figure to power. Or it has been used to prolong and fund civil wars unnecessarily. There are examples aplenty: the Congo, Sudan, Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Another consequence is that in the same way we empathise with the plight of poorer countries, we put our blinkers on when it gets too much. I've heard many well-meaning people who give to charity and do voluntary work ask me: "Well, they've had time to sort themselves out, haven't they, so, why can't they get it right once and for all?". My answer varies depending on the person. Sometimes I go back to the reason at the beginning of this paragraph. Aid gets sidetracked by whatever dictator is in power and the beneficiaries are an elite who doesn't care about those on the lower rungs of the ladder. Or, I try to explain that it's quite hard for countries that have been dependent for so long, to find their feet in a few decades. But they, and I, too, can sense that the mood is changing. There's an economic recession going on and as of the 20th October in the UK, at least, we'll have a full breakdown of where the budgets cuts will fall. No one is safe, and when a person's job security is threatened, paranoia sets in. It follows that questions about the commitment to aid I discussed at the beginning of this post will be asked.

During that lunch both my wife and I asked my son, who had just had his grandmother (my mum) visit him from Cuba, if it was fair that her grandma couldn't come and go as and when it pleased her. We asked him which option was better: her grandmother earning enough money to pay for her own trip and expenses, or her continuing to be invited over by her son and his family without having the financial ability to even treat her relatives to a meal in a restaurant? To our relief he chose the former, but he was still adamant that aid was fundamental.

Maybe in time he will change his mind. I hope so. I am of the opinion that as well-intentioned as many people are, money or donations by themselves will not lift countries out of poverty. Good governance does, though. Fair trade where the beneficiary is the local community does, too. Above all, I would like my son to see people from developing nations as human beings who want to work and who would like to see the product from that endeavour turned into better living conditions. A bugbear of mine for many years has been the photo of the pot-bellied African/Asian/Amerindian child that comes with my weekend papers. It was effective for some time, but once you meet people from those continents - and I hail from that neck of the woods myself - what strikes you at first is that there's rarely a sign of self-pity. And there's plenty of evidence around of what happens when they use the power that is denied to them by both the big corporations and the Bono brigade (there's a famous story about the U2 lead singer, maybe apocryphal, that at a live concert he silenced the audience and said: "Everytime I clap my hands a child in Africa dies", to which an audience member snappily retorted: "Stop f*****g clapping then!").

But there's a factor that shouldn't be underestimated. A twelve-year old who takes time from thinking about getting a snake or wishing for a Wii (yeah, right, dream on, son!) to stop to muse on those less fortunate than him deserves to be commended. At an age when some of his peers are already using immigrants and aslyum seekers (sometimes in the same sentence without trying to understand the differences between the two groups) as scapegoats for all society's ills, the fact that he thinks that charity is the start- and end-point of economic development for poorer nations should be the least of my wife's and mine worries.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Killer Opening Songs', to be published on Tuesday 12th October at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. He's a child who wants to share and that's to be commended. The complications of the adult world ARE too much to comprehend... I still struggle with it all.

  2. It's good that he's thinking about it :) I'm not sure I would have understood those subtleties at his age...

  3. What a precious child he is to be so compassionate and giving! I want to give him a hug.

    I agree with you, Cuban, about encouraging trade in poorer countries because we can't solve every problem by throwing money at it.

    Not only that, charity as a foreign policy is not sustainable. We might be happy to throw money at problems while we have the money but what happens we our own economy implodes as it has done over the last couple of years? It doesn't seem fair that our own services get cut, meaning that our kids and our grandparents and our poor and vulnerable get shafted while we throw money away overseas that gets eaten by dictators and corrupt governments.

    Creating more trade is a much better way to encourage sustainable living for people all over the world. However, it has to be fair trade, not multi-national corporations eating the hearts and souls of people. So it's a fine balancing act that needs to be made.

    Your son is wonderful and when he's older he'll start to understand these subtleties. God knows it took the rest of us long enough.


  4. At least he's thinking about it, which is to be welcomed. This is an interesting post. My mother is becoming more right wing in her old age, which I find uncomfortable, especially when she gets it wrong about the extent of immigration and asylum and the 'rights' that 'everyone knows they have'. I find it difficult to challenge her because she's my mother, but feel I should because she's just wrong.

  5. Many thanks for your kind comments.

    I feel proud of both my kids, although it was only my son who was the active voice this time around. My daughter, despite being only nine, already has formed ideas of fair and unfair, sometimes a bit too 'advanced' for her age. :-)

    I guess that one of the reasons why my son thinks the way he does is that he belongs to a local group whose ethos is intrinsically charity-orientated. There's always a lot of talk about helping and giving.

    I agree with you, Jai, that when things get tough in one's own country (of origin or residence) we have to ask ourselves if aid is all that important. That doesn't turn us into monsters, but it does bring a little bit of reality into our lives. As one of my mottos goes: If I can't swim, I can't save you from drowning, but I will either look for someone who can save you or throw you a life-jacket.

    Have a great week.

    Greetings from London.

  6. Cuban, I like your motto.

    There's also a point about respecting others. Giving aid money to people without actually trying to figure out what their problems are is to dismiss them. Everyone has pride but in dismissing people we ignore this. We have to find other options that help people while also acknowledging that they are people with self respect who want to better themselves.

    Great post, my friend. You got me thinking.


  7. Yes, trade not aid. But what about individual gifts to individual people?

  8. what a comprehensive post on the issue - one we struggle with my Model United Nations class most weeks in preparation for the next conference...thanks for all the thoughts and greetings from Mexico..

  9. Aid definitely helps but give it directly to the aiding organizations not into the hands of gov'ts.

    Makes me think too that I should do more with my sons.


  10. What a profound testimony to you and your wife's approach to child rearing that, first, you choose to have such a meaningful discussion and, second, that your son will get engaged in it. Well done.

  11. First of all, I think the new photo(how new? Yikes, I don't know. I've been away too long...) is terrific and the colour combination is great. I'm a sucker for aesthetics.

    Now to your post. It's excellent that you have these kinds of discussions with your kids. Off the top of my head, I think the two best things you can do as a parent are to make your kids readers and critical thinkers. And of the two, the second one is the more important, IMO.

    The aid issue is a big one for Canada as well as we have - as you know - a lamentable situation vis-à-vis aboriginal people. They receive considerable government funding (although it is insufficient for even basic requirments in some cases, with some communities unable to access clean drinking water) but the result has worked against the development of autonomy and independence. There have been a few native leaders who rejected the idea of aid and encouraged their bands to become entrpreneurs, and in some cases this has meant a spectacular turnaround for their communities. But there are few chiefs who have the vision and courage to go against the prevailing view that aid is not only necessary but owed to native people.
    It will take time for attitudes and policies to change, but it is in the works as far as I can see, for Africa and elsewhere. I use a similar analogy (child learning to walk) but suspect it of being a bit simplistic, and there's the rub. Once you start adding in all the other factors - slavery, famine, corrupt governance - then the view of what is right and necessary gets a little skewed. I'd be interested to know what you think about the redress of past wrongs. Very interested. Would you write about that?

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  15. Oh yes I agree with that last line of yours! I wish my male students (at 16 and 18) had an iota of your son's intelligent ability to discourse with a father such as yourself. But if he were simply discoursing without heart, that would be unnerving - luckily he sounds full of heart and compassion :) Does he dance too?!
    I do hope you are all well? And that life is treating you kindly x

  16. There are so many important points in this post that I'm going back to re-read it. I'm impressed, especially by your son -- he seems incredibly well-educated and discerning --

  17. Such an interesting analysis of this topic. I know from first hand experience of working in Africa that it's a very complicated and sensitive issue. When I first arrived in Namibia, I really believe that outside influence and support would help in so many ways. By the time I left after 2 years of seeing abuse, negligence, dependence, misdirected energy, etc, I changed my whole perspective on giving aid.

    I don't really know what the solution is, but I know that there's so much danger in the "giving" without equipping these societies with skills to manage the money and resources.

  18. Many thanks for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.



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