… what more can we do?
Humanitarian catastrophes seem to abound. Today we have Darfur, possibly, Burundi again, other African countries. The question inevitably arises what are we to do about them? Can we really look on people suffering and dying in hundreds of thousands without sending help?
We also have vested interests. The aid industry has become vast. Big charities no longer live off private donations but state subsidies, a.k.a. taxpayers’ money. The British government gives large sums but the European Union gives even larger ones. The new Commissioner, Louis Michel, wants to raise the contributions handed over by member states to the EU for the purposes of foreign aid.
The EU money is administered partly through its own agency, the scandal and corruption-ridden ECHO and partly through funds donated to charities or quangos. The difference between the two in the modern world of the aid industry is minute.
Staff of quangos, charities and direct aid agencies have become important players on the scene. In an unrelated article, Gillian Tett of the Lex column wrote in Saturday’s Financial Times of left-wing professionals who live in Hackney and who include journalists and aid workers. It was a telling comment: aid workers have become professionals. In other words they know nothing about the world except how to work for a large taxpayer-funded quango, charity or aid agency. Their agenda both in theory and in their own practice is likely to be on the side of serious government intervention and as an international or would-be supranational organization like the EU can provide more funds and a greater degree of intervention, so they are likely to welcome its assumption of a leading role in the foreign aid circus. The notion that, as far as possible, countries should try to develop their own economies through a free economic relationship with the rich western nations is not part of that outlook.
It is not part of the EU’s outlook either, partly because it is run by professional officials who are obsessed by managerial rather than political governance and partly because aid rather than trade fits well with the prevailing protectionist point of view. If Louis Michel’s proposals are anything to go by, this outlook is not likely to change with the new Commission either.
So what can be done about an immediate catastrophe, before the world’s, that is the Western world’s attention turns somewhere else? Should anything be done? Natural disasters are relatively easy to deal with - they are caused, more or less, by what insurance companies call acts of God and the immediate needs are obvious: food, clean water, shelter, blankets, medication.
There will always be political problems since even natural disasters like earthquakes tend to hit the less well developed countries with the more corrupt governments harder. Last year’s earthquake in Raz was an unimaginable catastrophe that claimed thousands of lives and destroyed a huge area; a similar or even stronger earthquake that happened almost simultaneously in California caused serious damage that was reasonably quickly dealt with. No lives were lost.
Therefore, even with natural disasters the aid has to be handled carefully, to ensure that what is needed gets to the people who need it. The EU, who uses aid as a political weapon and, in any case, operates through large organizations and, particularly, its own agency (the one Louis Michel will be in charge of), is hardly in a position to do so. The fact that there are no proper reports or accounts of aid provided during natural disasters and those that do exist do not meet the standards set by the Court of Auditors would indicate that even in these cases immediate aid, as it is organized at the moment, does little good and, probably, a great deal of harm.
How much more difficult it is to deal with disasters that are the result of political decisions and actions. There is, in the first place, the problem that the constant foreign aid has, by upholding oppressive and corrupt governments, probably contributed to the immediate disaster that needs immediate aid. Can that immediate aid be provided without helping the guilty government or semi-government, since many of the states in question have not simply failed but disintegrated completely? The UN has dropped food in Darfur. Does anyone know who got those supplies and how they were distributed?
The EU is trying hard to negotiate with the Sudanese government to send aid into Darfur. One has to be very pure and elevated in mind to believe that the Sudanese government is blameless of the disaster area that country has turned into.
Other charities, quangos and aid agencies are standing poised to go in when the government lets them. The money, food and supplies have been collected but those who have contributed rarely get told what happens to it all.
The presence of aid workers in difficult areas like Afghanistan or Iraq has been a mixed blessing, to put it mildly. When they are there they require security, which is often ill spared. If they do not get security, they pull out at the slightest difficulty. (This is not to mention the politicking of many of these organizations, ECHO among them, who are trying to push their own agenda, which just happens to be anti-American, anti-British and anti-liberal.)
If they stay in place, they can do little. All the various aid workers who poured into Kabul have stayed in Kabul. They cannot and dare not move outside. In Kabul they have undermined the local economy. By being able to afford higher rent, they have priced most of the available accommodation out of most Afghans’ reach. By paying higher salaries, they have pulled people out of their proper jobs. Who wants to be a badly paid and ill-equipped doctor in Afghanistan when they can earn three times as much driving an ECHO official or aid worker round and round Kabul?
And so it goes. More and more one has to ask oneself whether the aid industry, so beloved by the European Union and its regulatocracy, really exists to help the people in need? If, as the reality on the ground proves again and again, it is not capable of doing so and, apparently, has no idea how to go about it, what is to be done?
To be continued