The UK public is being sold a story about aid that is entirely misleading and highly immoral – and charities, politicians and journalists are all complicit in peddling the tale. (And yes, I’m guilty.)
As David Cameron appears to have reneged on his promise to enshrine foreign aid spending in law, we need to realise that the story about aid is being entirely misrepresented.
It’s a story goes as follows: “Wealthy countries have been charitably giving to poor ones for decades.” And that’s it – not a complicated story. It understandably leads people to question whether, when facing difficult times at home, we can afford to continue to be so generous overseas.
But the story’s warped. The image of aid is a lie.
The notion that resources flow in one direction only – from wealthy countries to poor – is so far from the truth it would be laughable if it wasn’t such a terrible tragedy.
The truth is the rich world has been ransacking what we call ‘developing countries’ for decades, hindering the so-called ‘development’ we profess to support. We have stolen their wealth, taken control and destabilised their governance, fuelled corruption, made it impossible for them to earn a fair living through trade, and devastated their environment.
Each year through practices like tax evasion, unfair trade, debt payments, unethical recruitment of health workers and unfair sharing of the costs related to climate change, rich countries steal far, far more from poor countries than they then return through ‘aid’.
How dare we use that word! It’s like someone getting away with breaking into my home and stealing everything I have – then feeling a bit bad, giving me a food parcel to feed the kids, and calling that charity.
So let’s not call this payment ‘aid’. Call it ‘reparation’. Call it ‘compensation’. Call it “Giving back a percentage of what we’ve stolen this year” – not snappy, but at least it’d be true. But not aid. Aid suggests charity, and we have no right to call it that.
This isn’t just an argument about honesty and good taste. The point is that the language of aid portrays a false story, and this false story is the one that the public react to. It has devastating political consequences.
The picture of repeated hand-outs hides the truth from the public. The truth is that we in the rich world are collectively taking much more from the poor than we give back each year, and really the poor are giving to us. But the impression given through the language of aid is the opposite. This misrepresentation – especially when constantly repeated – leads to devastating consequences in terms of public attitudes. Is it any wonder people are increasingly disenchanted and irritated with ‘aid’ payments? It’s a natural consequence of the story they’ve been told for so long.
Suppose it had been different. Suppose that in place of every demand for aid over the last 30 years, the public had instead heard calls for ‘compensation’ or ‘damages’ highlighting specific ongoing wrongs. After 30 years the response might still be increasing anger, but the irritation wouldn’t be with aid and the ‘needy poor’. Instead there would be increasing outrage at the continued theft by the rich world – until this outrage eventually forced real change (which aid alone never will).
Those of us who work in the development sector – and I’m one – have much to answer for. For decades we’ve been complicit, reinforcing this concept of ‘aid’ in our calls for funds to reach the 0.7% target. We’ve similarly done it in our own fundraising messages. It’s heinously irresponsible of us, and ultimately counter-productive.
It’s an easy excuse to say we need to keep the message simple and engaging. But we mustn’t let ourselves off the hook that way. The truth about poverty is more complex than a simple ask for a donation and an emotive image of a starving African child. We’re perfectly capable of communicating it in accessible ways – and if we do, we have a far more powerful and engaging story to tell than one of aid and charity.
To be clear, ending the scandal of mass poverty and the suffering that results does require finance. And for rich countries to cough up at a level of 0.7% GDP to deal with the problems they play such a big part in creating is for them to get away lightly. These payments should be made – and indeed should be more.
But aid, even if correctly labelled, isn’t the answer to poverty any more than paying victims compensation is a solution to crime. The only real solution is to stop the theft and exploitation happening in the first place. That’s the real story – and if we’d told that story as often as we talked about aid and charity, then the public attitude and political context would be very different.
It’s time to start telling the truth.