Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Who's helping who?

Solemn celebrity? Check. Cute kids? Check. Roll cameras.....

Last week I was lucky enough to attend a party given by Comic Relief (as a plus-one for my friend Alicia, whose workplace had been involved). It was all very glamorous, with Richard Curtis giving a speech (“James Corden isn’t here, is he? No? Well let me tell you, he is a tricky bastard. It wasn’t worth the hassle....”) and Jameela Jamil on the decks (although her “DJ” style was quite similar to mine: Play a song. Then when it’s finished, play another one.) Later, Scott Mills mixed seamlessly.

Entertainment was provided by “Some of the biggest acts of the 80s!” (Why? Is Comic relief now a 1980s-themed charity?) Still, it excited the 40-somethings to see Toyah Wilcox, Clare Grogan and Limahl (of Never Ending Story fame).

You’ll be pleased to know that the party was sponsored, so donations weren’t used. Lorraine Kelly announced the total takings for this year £104,496,747. Just in case rows of numbers confuse you as they do me, I’ll repeat that – over 104 MILLION POUNDS. This year. Wowser.

I’ll admit, I don’t love the Comic relief format. To me, it seems weird to provoke tears with footage of starving families, then bounce back to the studio to watch newsreaders throwing custard pies at each other, and then back to skeletal babies again. But this method obviously works (no doubt the rhythm has been perfected with the help of a psychologist). Overall Comic Relief has raised £750 million in the 25 years since it began.

But where has that £750 million gone? There is new footage of emaciated beggars every year. I am not accusing Comic Relief of anything dodgy to see Lenny Henry filming in shanty towns is to know that he is utterly sincere in his desire to help. and I know that it has made some difference. But for that kind of money, I would have expected a more sweeping change to be apparent by now.

There is a school of thought that suggests foreign aid doesn’t really benefit anyone. Zambian Dambisa Moyo, a former economist at Goldman Sachs, is the author of Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa. She puts it thus:

“Say there is a mosquito-net maker in small-town Africa. Say he employs 10 people who together manufacture 500 nets a week. Typically, these 10 employees support upward of 15 relatives each. A Western government-inspired program generously supplies the affected region with 100,000 free mosquito nets. This promptly puts the mosquito net manufacturer out of business, and now his 10 employees can no longer support their 150 dependents. In a couple of years, most of the donated nets will be torn and useless, but now there is no mosquito net maker to go to. They'll have to get more aid. And African governments once again get to abdicate their responsibilities.”

The trend to buy goats as gifts has also apparently backfired, with critics pointing out that the water-slurping animals will just exacerbate drought. (You would hope that the charities would choose carefully when deciding WHERE to send the animals, wouldn’t you?)

Giving to even the most trustworthy charities sends money through a number of hands before it actually gets to the people who need it... and there are governments even more corrupt than ours (yes, really!).

I cancelled my direct debit to Christian Aid, because they constantly phoned to ask for more cash, and the streets were heaving with their chuggers; I also removed myself from the mailing lists of any other charities I’ve ever given to as they would kindly send me frequent updates accompanied by gifts – calendars, pens, stickers, badges. In cases like this, I doubt my donations even cover their admin costs.

Maybe it would help if charities combined to streamline things – one for African orphanages, one for animals etc. Why waste money creating awareness of 30 different (competing) brands, and designing 30 different letterheads? Perhaps there are too many CEOs with egos and a liking for first class travel.

Events such as Live Aid and Live 8 have been criticised for boosting publicity for the celebrities involved, while actually damaging the developing countries they are trying to help. (BTW, If Bono paid his taxes, he would already be contributing to the £7.8 billion Britain earmarked for foreign aid in 2010/11.) Western aid keeps its beneficiaries dependent on outside help, which in turn encourages shady governments.

At least she didn't say "Jump up and down if you want to feed an African!" 

Dambisa Moyo points out “A constant stream of "free" money is a perfect way to keep an inefficient or simply bad government in power. As aid flows in, there is nothing more for the government to do -- it doesn't need to raise taxes, and as long as it pays the army, it doesn't have to take account of its disgruntled citizens. No matter that its citizens are disenfranchised (as with no taxation there can be no representation). All the government really needs to do is to court and cater to its foreign donors to stay in power.”

Another side effect of big publicity drives is the overwhelmingly negative image we end up with. You would be forgiven for imagining the Africa you’ve seen on TV as one giant cesspool when it's actually a beautiful, diverse and increasingly successful continent.

Also, a nation with a reputation for being unable to look after itself will suffer when no investors wish to risk money in it. Historically, no country has ever achieved prosperity by depending on open-ended commitments of aid to the degree that many African countries do.

There are success stories, but they are the ones that we have had no hand in; Botswana was poor back in 1966 when given independence by Britain, but now enjoys a standard of living “comparable to Argentina”. How?  By weaning itself off aid and backing enterprise.  

Another successful way to lend assistance has come through organisations such as The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – providing vaccination against diseases doesn’t have to go though corrupt and inefficient governments.

So, how can we really help? 

Look out for this and accept no substitutes

We can start by buying fair trade: The website describes their mission to “address the injustices of conventional trade, which discriminates against the poorest, weakest producers. It enables them to improve their position and have more control over their lives.” Resulting in sustainable livelihoods for farmers, workers and their communities. What’s not to like?

All you have to do is look out for the Fairtrade logo when you’re shopping. If we choose to buy non-Fairtrade products, when an ethically produced alternative is available, we are essentially supporting a exploitative system.

I also like  which allows you to “lend” money to people across the globe who don’t have access to traditional banking systems.You can scan through their “catalogue” of “borrowers” – which is actually as fun and tempting as shopping. I want to give money to them ALL!

Loans are re-paid, so if you’re really tight, you can “help” without actually losing any money. (Nicer to re-invest it, though.) It’s cash directly to the people who need it, and it’s helping them to run their own businesses. Empowerment to the people!

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