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Can we really make poverty history?

Jonathan Cornford

Manna Matters November 2011

In July this year the Government released the findings of an Independent Review of Australia’s overseas aid program. The review made clear that one of the major challenges facing AusAID (the government department responsible for the aid program) in the coming years – and one perhaps unique to Australia - will be to simply spend its budget. Since 2005, both sides of politics have given support to a policy of increasing Australia’s aid budget to 0.5% of Gross National Product by 2015. Many other donor countries have made similar commitments, however, Australia is one of the few that have not retreated from these commitments since the global economic crisis. As a result, by 2016 Australia will have an estimated aid budget of around $8 billion and it will have moved up the rankings from a light-weight aid donor, well into the middle-weight rankings. This is a significant turn around from the days when Australia rated as one of the stingiest aid donors in the OECD.

Much of the credit for this turn around can be traced to the impact of the Make Poverty History campaign. Starting in the UK in 2005 and coming to Australia the following year, Make Poverty History has been fantastically successful at bringing together a large number of aid and justice organisations to campaign under a single, prominent brand. And it has been, by all measures, a very successful campaign. Perhaps most importantly, the campaign has put the issue of international poverty back on the public agenda, so much so, that governments have had to pay attention. In particular, it has introduced the issue of poverty to a new generation of young people. Many of the organisations campaigning under the Make Poverty History banner – and perhaps especially the Christian organisations campaigning under the parallel Micah Challenge campaign – have produced some excellent educational resources on poverty, and including sometimes excellent theological discussion of poverty. Overall, Make Poverty History has injected a new note of optimism into debates about global poverty.

So how could anyone have any misgivings about making poverty history?

I do have misgivings, although I am almost reticent to air them. I am highly conscious that many readers of Manna Matters will have identified with, or taken part in, the Make Poverty History campaign in some way. In sharing my misgivings, I do not want to dampen the enthusiasm for justice which the campaign has stirred up, and I especially do not want to contribute to disillusionment or cynicism. Nevertheless, while there is much that is laudable in both the intent and accomplishments of the Make Poverty History campaign, I do believe that there are a few important areas where there needs to be some critical reassessment, especially by those who come to these issues because of their faith in Jesus.

The first area that should be reconsidered is the name itself. This is hard to say because the name expresses such a compelling and heart-felt sentiment, and it has proved to be such an effective campaigning brand. Nevertheless, we must seriously pose the question to ourselves, can we really make poverty history? The question matters because it cuts to the heart of what we think poverty is and how it is caused, and therefore how it is addressed. Bono’s famous statement that “For the first time in history we have the know how, we have the cash, we have the lifesaving drugs, but do we have the will?” reveals what I believe is the prevailing assumption about poverty: it assumes that poverty is essentially a lack of know how, money and drugs.

I have discussed the inadequacy of such conceptions of poverty previously (see Manna Matters November 2009) and do not want to revisit this subject at length, suffice to say that such conceptions do not reflect the self-understanding of those we call “the poor”, they do not explain their complex realities, nor do they sufficiently capture their aspirations. Not only are such preconceptions inadequate, they are ultimately harmful.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus famously states that “You will always have the poor among you.” (12:8). This one-liner (Jesus has no more to say about poverty in this passage) has been much misused over the years (including by Tony Abbott) to justify not doing anything about poverty. It is clear that this is not Jesus’ intent – he is quoting from the seminal passage in Deuteronomy 15 where poverty is discussed as something that need never happen “if only you obey the Lord your God” (v.5), but which, recognising the human condition, is nonetheless inevitable (v.11). The whole point of the passage is to urge the people of God not to be “hardhearted or tightfisted” toward the poor (v.7).

The understanding of Deuteronomy and Jesus is that “poverty” (we shall put aside the problem of definition for the moment) is something that lies at the heart of the human condition. Once we move beyond sloganeering we discover that poverty is actually a very difficult subject. Dorothy Day, after decades of working at the coalface of poverty, wrote this:

Poverty is a strange and elusive thing. I have tried to write about it, its joys and its sorrows, for thirty years now; and I could probably write about it for another thirty without conveying what I feel about it as well as I would like. I condemn poverty and I advocate it; poverty is simple and complex at once; it is a social phenomenon and a personal matter. Poverty is an elusive thing, and a paradoxical one.

The mystery of poverty is so deep that Jesus taught in the first beatitude that some sort of experience of poverty is actually necessary to participate in the kingdom of God (Matt 5:3, Luke 6:20).

Thus, from a Biblical perspective, the statement ‘make poverty history’ is a bit quizzical. We might as well say ‘make history history’. The challenge of poverty is not so much its existence, but our response to its existence. This is not merely an academic objection, a quibble about words and ideas – our willingness, or not, to grapple with the mystery and the complexity of poverty determines how we respond to it … which brings me back to the Make Poverty History campaign.

The second aspect of the Make Poverty History campaign with which I am uncomfortable is its articulation of a ‘solution’. From the outset the campaign has articulated three simple and forceful demands: trade justice; drop the debt; and more and better aid. On the face of it, these seem imminently reasonable and laudable demands, and they are. However, when you put three soundbite-sized demands together with a name like “Make Poverty History”, conveyed through a swathe of hip and, at times, seriously dumbed-down social marketing and communication, then you are in danger of seriously misinforming the public about the nature of the problem. Unfortunately, even if we were 100% successful in achieving trade justice, dropping of debt and more and better aid (ignoring the gargantuan complexities of what that even looks like), we would find we had hardly made an appreciable dent on the face of global poverty. The truth about poverty is far more messy, far deeper and far more uncomfortable than that.

The Make Poverty History solution is a neat and sellable package to a consumer society that likes neat and consumable packages. Make Poverty History is unlikely to say, for example, “stop buying the mobile phones and ipads and laptops and mp3 players at such ridiculous rates which are driving the global mining boom which tears-up the livelihoods of rural communities, forcing them into city slums at the mercy of low-wage labour or human trafficking”. (Actually, Make Poverty History says the opposite – this quote from a video on the MPH website: “I’m still a Westerner, and I still own an iphone, only now I can use it to help people”, referring to the “MPH app”). This side of the problem (it is only one of a thousand-sided problem) is not very popular. The reality is that wherever selfishness, greed and the desire for power operate - that is, in every place and at every level of the human system – poverty is being created and maintained.

The longer-term danger of the success of Make Poverty History, having won a generation over to a feel-good package solution to poverty, is that when it doesn’t work (it won’t) the fallout will be an even deeper and more destructive cynicism and selfishness than we have seen to date. How we understand poverty is critical to which part of the human spirit is activated in response. If we activate a consumer response to poverty, we will get a consumer response when the product encounters problems – switch product!

The question of how we understand and therefore seek to address poverty becomes particularly acute when we focus on the question of aid. Despite the three core demands of Make Poverty History, in Australia the campaign has really been about “more and better aid”; and, indeed, when push comes to shove, it has primarily been a campaign about “more aid”. It is indicative of our understanding of poverty that the idea which has the strongest resonance as a solution to poverty is send more aid. It is a symptom of a culture which believes, in a deep way, that money is the answer. Unfortunately, aid is far from a neat solution to poverty.

Here I need to make myself clear. I am not against aid, not by a long shot. But in Australia debate about aid has tended to be forced into two polarised positions: those who question the efficacy of aid, want reduced aid spending and are essentially hostile to aid; and those who support aid, argue its efficacy and the need for increased aid spending. I am not satisfied with either of these positions. Like poverty itself, the realities about aid are far more messy and uncomfortable.

While I support the idea of aid, I cannot escape the conclusion that the international aid industry is deeply flawed. The vast majority of aid (90%) comes from donor governments (such as Australia, the UK, US, Japan, Sweden etc) and international institutions (such as the World Bank and United Nations agencies). The correct term for this sort of aid is ‘official development assistance’ or ODA. And here is where things get problematic. At the heart of the international aid industry is a project called ‘development’. You could fill a very large library with all that has been written about development, however, at its core, development has always been a civilisational project exporting modern industrial capitalist society. In layman’s terms, that means the object of aid is to help everybody live like us. This objective is based on three massive, though rarely articulated, assumptions: (i) that everybody can live like us; (ii) that the way we live is good; and (iii) the planet can sustain the way that we live. These are deeply flawed assumptions.

It is virtually impossible to get your head around the size, complexity and variety of things going on in the aid world, which delivered around US $123 billion globally in 2009. Even trying to get your head around Australia’s aid program (around $4.8 billion this year) is a daunting task, so making generalisations about aid is fraught with danger. Nevertheless, there are some deep truths which need to be named about the international aid system, as it currently functions.

Just as Christianity - with many admirable agents working from the best motives - was nevertheless used to add a humanitarian veneer to European colonialism, international aid – whatever good things have been done along the way - has also acted as a Trojan horse for the global economic order. For decades now, Australian aid policy has been centred around a fundamental belief that poverty cannot really be addressed without economic growth. That means poor countries should emulate the economic policies of wealthy countries – they should: liberalise trade; privatise utilities; convert to large-scale, commercialised, export agriculture; exploit natural resources; encourage the private sector, especially foreign investors; and give attractive tax incentives to the rich. The policies which, holding their hand on their hearts, aid economists will swear are best for the poor, just happen to be the policies which most suit our own economic interests. The Australian government is not alone in such beliefs; this is the orthodoxy in international aid – the high priest of this creed is the World Bank (see article on p. 7), and Australia is a devout acolyte.

As a result, Australian aid has supported infrastructure development in Laos and Cambodia that has ultimately contributed to a frenzy of resource exploitation - logging, land grabbing, hydropower and mining – that is undermining the very basis of rural communities and driving ‘new’ poverty. In the Pacific Islands, particularly the Melanesian countries, Australian aid policy has contributed to the alienation of land that is leading to growing landlessness and land conflict, the selling-off of forests to foreign loggers, land grabbing and community breakdown, while also encouraging trade policies that would allow Australian goods to flood their tiny domestic markets. Through our support of the World Bank and Asian Development Bank – the largest single channel of Australian aid outside of AusAID – we have helped to export this creed to the whole developing world.

The actual result of this sort of development is that for many people – too many – life has gotten worse, not better, and that we are accelerating, not reducing, our unsustainable exploitation of the earth. But here is another problem – how do we actually measure whether things are getting better or worse? The World Bank and Asian Development Bank will tell you that development has been an unequivocal success story – that the proportion of people living in extreme poverty is less than ever before, and more people have a better quality of life than ever before. The numbers prove it. There is no space here to go into all the problems with these sorts of numbers (there are many), but as the saying goes, there are lies, damned lies, and then there are statistics.

While I am in the mood for heresy, let me say this: not even the exalted millennium development goals (MDGs) provide a reliable indicator of people’s actual experience of development and change. In Laos, the numbers show that there has been a substantial increase over the last decade in the numbers of ethnic minority groups who have access to clean water, health care, child immunisation, basic education and rising incomes. What you don’t read about is that this was achieved in large part by a program of coercive relocation of minority groups from the uplands to the lowlands resulting in what is effectively a slow burn humanitarian crisis and cultural disintegration. And this was largely funded by aid money.

Of course, not all aid is like this. Australian aid money has funded very many projects that really have helped to improve the conditions of life for people who have been suffering, whether it be in agricultural support, basic health care, clean water or such things. But even here we need to be careful – there can be a tendency to think that if aid money goes into the health or education sectors, then it must be good. The case from Laos above shows that this is not always the case. The reality is that the Australian public (development NGOs included) know very little about the real impact of aid money once it leaves these shores.

What then should we do? There is no quick fix solution, however the urgent task before us is to encourage a much more rigorous debate about what represents ‘good aid’. This will require moving beyond rhetoric, dealing with complexity and being prepared to acknowledge uncomfortable truths.

(In case you are wondering, I certainly do believe it is worthwhile sending money to many of the aid charities that are out there - we do. While these groups are certainly not beyond critique, they are much closer to the human face of need. Where aid charities have been remiss is in their lack of courage in talking honestly about the flaws of the industry in which they participate.)

Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. When it is done well – and it is much harder to do well than is generally understood - aid has an important role in directly alleviating conditions of suffering in poorer countries. Done well, aid can even empower the voice of the poor. However, we must not assume that all aid is good aid. And we must not imagine that aid is an answer to poverty. It is not and cannot be. The ‘answer’ to poverty lies much deeper within the human soul, and we are all implicated.