“Are we creating a dependent underclass?”
So who needs our help most – a starving child in sub-Saharan Africa or a youngster being taught in sub-standard conditions in Athlone? Not much of a moral conundrum really. The basic human right of having enough to eat must take precedence over the less pressing, though desirable aspiration of equal educational opportunity for all.
Sadly it is not as simple as that. It is time to examine our commitment to overseas development aid on a number of fronts- not least whether our tax euro is being used to prop up regimes that are essentially corrupt. Throughout 2009 the government has been accused of breaking a “solemn promise” to the world’s poor with cuts to the overseas aid budget down 24 percent to a still eye-watering $671 million.
Concern, Trócaire et al demand the government gets back on track towards its 2012 target of giving 0.7pc of national income. Protesting against any cut in overseas aid is the knee jerk response of the caring classes.Those that question the received wisdom are branded heartless and uncaring. But questioning how we spend our money, especially at a time when more and more of our citizens are living in poverty, is legitimate. To build schools in another country when our children are being educated in overcrowded, unhygienic prefabs is not the question. But we must establish if our money is actually helping Africa and its people or is it simply creating a dependent underclass incapable of helping themselves.
Ethiopia’s population has more than doubled since the infamous famine of 1984 and Bob Geldof’s valiant but futile attempt to end world hunger through Live Aid. The country is still suffering from food shortages and while its population has dramatically increased the Ethiopian government has done little to improve food supplies or their economy.
Perhaps polemecist Kevin Myers’ was right when he wrote last year, “It’s long overdue that the Irish people abandoned their patronising and racist conceit that we can save Africa. We can’t. Only Africans can save Africa… the longer we continue to reward the outstretched begging bowl, then the longer it will take Africa to learn that basic lesson.”
We are now being forced to face the bitter truth that charity may have to begin at home. The Simon Community has warned recent budget cuts will force more people onto the streets in the coming year. Focus Ireland have recently reported that the numbers of homeless on our streets has increased exponentially during the downturn.
How many of us in the privileged enclave that is Trinity enthusiastically support aid for Africa while at the same time treat our own poor with barely concealed suspicion and hostility?
Natural disasters have reaped a bitter harvest in the third world and any comparison with the impact of recent flooding on communities west of the Shannon appears on the face of it to be ludacrious. But the responsibility of our Government must be to look after our own people first and to make sure that any monies spent on overseas aid finds its way to those who need it most.
John O’Shea, founder of GOAL, has argued that the way we spend money on overseas aid requires a radical rethink. He wrote recently:
”The success or failure of our efforts in these countries depends heavily on the willingness and the ability of governments to govern effectively and tackle corruption. But the simple fact is that good governance for the most part does not exist in the African continent. Africa is not badly governed because it is poor. It is poor because it is badly governed.” Mr O’Shea is right, despite anyone’s best intentions.
“Cutting aid won’t help the Irish economy”
Firstly let us establish the glaringly obvious – the impact of reducing foreign aid on the lives of ordinary Irish people will be minimal, but the impact on the people who rely on aid as a way of surviving, as a way of maintaining hope, will be huge.
Cutting aid almost certainly isn’t going to stop unemployment being 4.2 percent and it definitely isn’t going to reverse the predicted 9 percent contraction in the Irish economy, but it is going to mean that hundreds of mothers in Pakistan will be forced back into prostitution to provide food for their families; it is going to mean that thousands of children in Ethiopia aren’t going to be able to attend school like they have been and it certainly is going to mean that hundreds of thousands more people will die unnecessarily from HIV related-illnesses.
The point is that whilst a few million euros is relatively small fry to us (the government shelled-out 400 billion euro to help the banks), to the people in developing countries it is a vast sum (average income in Zimbabwe is under $1 a day) which could go a long, long way to solving big issues like clean water and malaria. If this money is spent in Ireland nothing will change, if the money is spent as aid abroad hundreds of thousands will benefit.
Another obvious point is that to stop spending on aid now would effectively render all the money spent previously pointless. Over the last two decades the money donated by Ireland has helped a great many developing countries set-off on the road towards prosperity -surely it is nonsensical to stop spending when we are the closest to reaching this goal that we have ever been. The spending of the future is what enables the spending of the past to have its desired effects. There are schools in Malawi, for example, which have enough medicine to vaccinate children against typhoid (spending of the past) but do not have enough syringes (spending of the future) to do so.
To cut foreign aid now would be like draining a saucepan of pasta moments before its cooked, or like waiting 15 minutes to get into the Button Factory only to leave on reaching the front of the queue – if we cut aid now, and even if we start giving again later, we would be consciously choosing to run backwards in the race against poverty which just seems ridiculous.
Although there are a great many more altruistic reasons to continue donating aid, let’s now focus on the selfish ones. Firstly, especially in recent years, a large amount of foreign aid goes towards helping poor countries become more ecologically friendly. Withdrawing this money would result in higher future levels of greenhouses gasses which, as every school boy knows, means melting icecaps (goodbye polar bears),rising sea levels (goodbye Cork) and escalating food prices (goodbye 3 am kebabs).
Another large slice of foreign aid pie goes to establishing and maintaining stability in areas like the Middle East and Central Africa which is hugely desirable as it’s these places, where incomes are low and people are vulnerable, that seeds of extremism often germinate and quickly grow.
If we chose to stop supporting the governments and citizens in these areas in their fight against extremists, we would not only be abandoning innocent citizens to lives of tyranny and danger, but also opening ourselves up to fresh and escalated threats of global terrorism. It’s just too risky.
Cutting foreign aid would, one way or another, directly or indirectly, ruin and possibly end hundreds of thousands of lives – and all this just so some overpaid, greedy, fat cats can go on pretending like they haven’t crippled this country’s economy. Helping other people didn’t get us into this mess and turning away from them now won’t get us out of it.