George Walford: Charity Perpetuates Poverty

Simon Jenkins writes in the Sunday Times (13 Dec 87) of the efforts to save the famine-stricken people of Ethiopia by charity. In 1984 £85m was given, and this winter Bob Geldof and the BBC are putting Ethiopia forward again. Jenkins asks whether the effort already made has helped the starving Ethiopians; doubtless it saved lives at the time, but the danger is that saving a hundred today can mean thousands dying tomorrow.

The Mengistu regime in Addis Abbaba, which seized power in 1974, is odious. It spends its foreign exchange on luxury goods and on equipping one of Africa’s largest armies to combat rebellion.

In 1984 ‘an obscene $55m celebration was in progress,’ with soldiers keeping starving hordes from entering the capital. The terrible question is whether the effect of the aid given in 1984-5 was to sustain the civil war and prolong the Mengistu regime, confirming its belief that famine is an act of God rather than of government, and encouraging it to continue with its policies producing mass starvation.

There are other causes crying out for charity; how does Ethiopia attain priority? Jenkins’ answer is clear, and difficult to dispute. Ethiopia wins because it has been selected to receive BBC publicity; the actual sight of starving people on the television screen carries an impact that is hard to resist. Yet if the reason for giving is that the sight of stavation makes us uncomfortable, for whose sake is the gift made?

There is nothing wrong in making gifts that leave us feeling happier, provided the recipient also benefits, but if there is a risk that the effect may be to prolong suffering, or even to increase it by easing the demand for radical measures to remove the cause, then we need to stop and think. The primal motivation, lying at the base of all intentional behaviour, is to overcome limitations. With increasing sophistication we learn not to take the immediately easiest route but to consider more long-term effects. For the sake of the Ethiopians, and of others brought forward as objects for our charity, we need to consider the probable outcome of our actions rather than the feeling of well- being they may immediately produce in ourselves.

from Ideological Commentary 32, March 1988.