Aid: the new frontier in the fight for justice

Addressing poverty isn’t about eliminating need.

For decades the West’s policy in fighting global poverty has been exemplified by Bob Geldof’s immortal words: “give us the money”.

Millions of people heard this call from gigs around the world, organised to raise funds for an ongoing Ethiopian famine which had impregnated and planted itself in the consciousness and conscience of an altruistic public. Live Aid was an important moment for the world. A moment when millions were galvanised by Geldof’s simple message that poverty isn’t unfortunate, it’s unacceptable. Geldof communicated urgency and gave us a clear way to finally take action against the festering injustice of poverty. Poverty was the question and the answer was money.

Music became the vehicle for a mass movement of cash from global North to global South and philanthropy exploded with unstoppable force. Official Development Assistance, the measure of aid given by members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, rose from USD 75 Billion in 1985 to 146 Billion in 2015.

The Validity of Aid

In 2015 the UK’s aid budget exceeded £12 billion – meeting the UN target of providing aid of at least 0.7% of Gross National Income. This is a target which has been enshrined in UK law and is long established as the marker for international philanthropy; a yardstick against we stand to measure the worth of our wealth.

But marching stoically behind the steady rise in financial generosity has been an equally steady critique of UK aid policy. Condemnation of the 0.7% target and the overall volume of UK aid has never been stronger. That condemnation has been a core pillar in the rise of British nationalism and protectionism so powerfully expressed in the majority decision of the UK to sever itself from the EU.

At the heart of the anger over UK aid is a burning feeling of injustice, eloquently described in the words of its chief opponent, the UK Independency Party: “while millions in the UK are struggling with the rising cost of living, while over 500,000 are dependent on foodbanks, and the homeless population continues to rise, we are borrowing money to send to countries with space programmes, aid programmes of their own, and even surplus cash in their own banks”.

This isn’t necessarily an argument about the effectiveness of aid or the legitimacy of aid. First and foremost, it’s an argument about the justice of aid. How do we reconcile our own need and altruism under the same roof? And how do we reconcile our altruism with a perception that the need of those on the receiving end isn’t legitimate? If our conception of the validity of aid is based on need, then we can always find the need at home (food banks) and prosperity abroad (space programs).

Aid or Justice?

But this misses a fundamental point: addressing poverty isn’t about eliminating need, it’s about challenging the structural inequalities in our society that cause poverty in the first place. Somehow we have allowed our conception of poverty to be defined by its symptoms rather than its causes. We are shown hunger and asked to fix it with food. But that convenient logic hides an inconvenient truth: it doesn’t explain or address the cause of the problem. Poverty isn’t created by chance; it is the effect of a political and economic system which is built on inequality, whereby the powerful have the means to maintain the power. Poverty is the system operating normally, and no amount of money will quench that fire without proper systemic change.  ‘Give us the money’ is irrelevant unless followed with ‘give us the justice’.

Take Palestine, for example. A recent Guardian article by an anonymous aid worker highlights the futility of aid: “In some cases, development organisations build houses in Gaza, only to have them destroyed in an aerial bombardment”. For Palestinians, there’s little purpose in building a new facility while the governments of the world sit by and either ignore the cause of the problem or worse perpetuate it.  For Palestine, we’d be better off saving our money and changing our policy.

Frequently, giving aid is less about altruism and more about turning our back on justice. And as long as we allow ourselves to bask in the narcissistic fiction of our goodwill, there will be one consistency: that aid will have little effect in reducing poverty – unless we radically address the structural flaws in our financial and political systems that keep the rich and the poor in their places.

Ben O'Hanlon

Ben has an MA in International Relations and Development studies from the University of East Anglia in the UK, where he explored power relations in the international garment industry. He has worked on a pioneering Security Sector Reform project in Lebanon, which has been successful in adopting a community model of policing as an alternative method of addressing the country's security challenges. He has also researched working conditions on banana and pineapple plantations in Ghana, and is a founding trustee of a charity which supports the advancement of better end of life care provision in the country. Based in London, Ben currently works for a human rights charity which challenges poverty and injustice by forming global partnerships and calling for systemic change.
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