Thursday, November 30, 2006

Charities, aid and the status quo

An unseemly row has broken out in the world of charitable giving about "ethical" Christmas presents which, it is claimed, double-up as valuable aid to people in poorer countries. Aid agencies like Oxfam, Christian Aid and World Vision offer people the chance to purchase farming animals like goats, chickens, sheep, donkeys, pigs and cows for people in developing countries. Prices vary. Send A Cow want £750 per animal, while Farm Friends ask £30 for a goat. This novel twist to do-gooding has caught on to the extent that even Help the Aged is "selling" a cow for only £70. Some agencies even have photos of animals wearing Christmas hats to get customers, if not the animals, into the spirit of the thing. You might have thought Animal Aid would be ecstatic about all this. Not a bit. Director Andrew Tyler has laid into rival charities, using immoderate language and biting sarcasm. Writing in The Independent, Tyler said: "The message might bring comfort to the target audience, but such schemes, sadly, are not a good thing. They serve only to increase not diminish poverty. Why? Because farming animals is an inefficient, expensive and environmentally destructive way of producing food. All farmed animals require proper nourishment, large quantities of water, shelter from extremes of weather and veterinary care. Such resources are in critically short supply in much of Africa." Tyler is supported by the conservation charity World Land Trust, who denounced animal gift schemes as "environmentally unsound and economically disastrous". Goats, apparently, eat "everything in sight", while lactating cows require 90 litres of water a day. The response from Oxfam was equally biting, with a spokeswoman saying: "Animal Aid and World Land Trust’s suggestion that Oxfam is acting irresponsibly in providing animals to poor communities is completely unfounded. Instead of promoting their own product ranges, their allegations are deeply misleading and undermine the entire sector’s attempts to change lives in poor countries."
Oxfam’s retort raises several important questions. Does such giving actually help people in poorer countries? Or does it, as Tyler claims, reinforce poverty because the infrastructure is missing? Does gift-aid of this type primarily allow well-off people in Britain to feel that they are actually doing something about world poverty while they tuck into their expensive, organic, free-range turkey? Do all of these agencies by their activities actually reinforce the status quo by diverting resources and energy away from changing the fundamentals? Lest we forget, that status quo is a world dominated by transnational corporations, the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. They are responsible for the fact that more than billion people – one-sixth of the world’s population – live on less than a $1 a day. They are the reason why climate change has resulted in severe drought in some areas and torrential rain in others. For all the efforts of the aid agencies, the number of food emergencies in Africa each year has almost tripled since the 1980s. Across sub-Saharan Africa, one in three people is under-nourished. Each year, 3.4 million people, mostly children, die from water-related diseases. It’s getting worse all round. About 3 billion people lack adequate sanitation facilities compared with 2 billion in 1990. Overall aid agencies, for all their good intentions, are not even managing to hold the line against the powerful forces that really decide people’s futures. Oxfam and others certainly expose the exploitation of people in the developing world. Yet their ambition of persuading the corporations, the WTO and the World Bank to function "ethically" has failed, as the statistics of life and death show. Changing the fundamentals is patently more challenging a project than giving aid on an individual basis. But it is impossible to envisage a future worth having for regions like sub-Sahara Africa unless we do. Helping to overturn the status quo would be the best kind of aid you could give.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

When is a charity not a charity? Government funding now accounts for almost 40% of charity income, much of it payment for delivering public services. Charities are subsidising New Labour's decision to move from a welfare to a market state, and they are using the money people donate to do it. 14 giant charities now dominate the charity market - and it is big charities that receive most funding. At the bottom of the heap, small local charities run by volunteers, struggle to survive and their income is falling every year (NCVO research). The most vulnerable people in Britain - with learning disabilities, mental health problems, young mothers, children leaving care - are totally dependent for their survival on charities - the state underfunds the cost of providing these services and charities then struggle to cover the gap by grabbing people in the street, junk mailings and heart-rending TV ads. It all reaches a crescendo at this time of year, becoming almost unbearable to watch. Charities should opt out of this fundraising treadmill, and demand a state that pays the full costs of supporting people, not leaving them dependent on hit or miss fundraising.