Alms not Arms

That thine alms may be in Secret… “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face… And now abideth faith, hope, charity… but the greatest of these is charity.”(I Corinthians 13:12-13)Through the dark glass of international politics, witness a curious spectacle. Indian politicians are calling for India to refuse British aid, whilst Britain is pleading with them to continue accepting it. Dissenting voices were also heard in the UK in February, when India chose 126 French fighter jets over British, despite our International Development Secretary making it clear during a diplomatic visit that this was just not cricket. Referring to the £1.2-billion project, he said “The focus is also [sic] about seeking to sell Typhoon.”

Of course, anyone visiting the world’s 13th fastest growing economy must be prepared to haggle, but whilst this looks for all the world like the cynical machinations of arms dealers and morally bankrupt politicians, let us consider a more charitable explanation. The whole problem, brothers and sisters in revolt and rapture, arises from a mistranslation of scripture.

Charity is the “bond of perfectness” (Colossians 3:14), the “end of the commandment” (I Timothy 1:5) and the final saintly virtue (II Peter 1:5-7), but the Greek word agape does not refer to coins in a can. It means selfless love, and more specifically tolerance for other perspectives. In English also, ‘uncharitable’ can mean narrow-minded rather than stingy, and ‘charity begins at home’ is not about sponsoring your sister’s parachute jump, but respecting the opinions of those around you. On the international scale, it might mean respecting the right of other countries to decide their policies.

The distribution of alms (not arms, brother Cameron, alms) is a more delicate affair:

“Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men.”(Matthew 6:2)

Hark the herald bureaucrats sing, and how the UN trumpet blasted out the tune of $10 billion from member states in the wake of the Haitian earthquake. After six months, however, only 2% had been spent on relief, and not a penny of the $1.5bn from the US arrived before the anniversary of the disaster. Until today, less than 1% has been channelled through the Haitian government, and only 23 out of 1,490 reconstruction contracts have gone to Haitian companies.

Compare this tardiness with the 13 months it took for the US Agency for International Development to completely exterminate the Haitian creole pig when African swine fever hit the Dominican Republic (not Haiti). Charitable pig-killers even went onto isolated islands, not to test, but to kill these hardy and humble little pigs, which were the basis of the barter economy. The fat, frail American pigs sent in their stead died, unsuited to life outside of agro-business, and Haiti has never recovered.

Making another charitable assumption that this was not economic warfare, but good-intentions gone bad, it illustrates the complexities of humanitarian intervention, even in noble causes. In 1955 the World Health Organisation began its Global Malaria Eradication Programme, using the recently developed chloroquine and DDT, nearly wiping out malaria in Sri Lanka, but not quite. As any GCSE science student could have predicted, a generation grew up without developing immunity, and the resulting resurgence claims 10,000 victims per year today. The programme has, however, helped wipe out half of the Nepalese jungle and 20% of the Amazon, along with various creatures great and small. Previous attempts to develop the rainforests had been doomed to feverish failure, but “charity” rendered this defence impotent.

Whilst admitting that eradication is impossible, WHOrocrats launched another $2 bn per year campaign in 2008. Until they abandon it, your taxes will fund the spraying of toxic insecticides throughout the tropics, killing all manner of insects along with mosquitoes, and starving and poisoning the animals above them in the food chain.

As well as disastrously stupid do-goodery amongst aid organisations, there is also Machiavellian scheming:

“When thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth” (Matthew 6:3)

Before the invention of the toilet roll, ancient cultures differentiated between a private and a public hand, a right hand for giving and a left hand for taking. While the dexterous right hand gives aid, what does the sinister left hand take?

70% of US aid is tied to US goods and services. Most of the $3 bn given to Israel is military credits, and African AIDS relief funds stipulate that the drugs be US-made, rather than generic alternatives. Then there is the diplomatic game. In 2003 various UN member states including Guinea and Angola were threatened with losing aid if they opposed the Iraq War. Pacific nations receiving aid from China do not recognise Taiwan; those funded by Taiwan do.

Aid often ends up with the rich, beyond that simply stolen by corrupt politicians. Half of EU aid to Latin America goes to the biggest 17% of farms. A quarter of the £3mn British package to Malawi in 2005 went on hotel bills and meals for US operatives. More seriously uncharitable, in the biblical sense, is using aid to force neoliberal policies upon developing nations.

“And if thy brother be waxen poor, and fallen in decay with thee; then thou shalt relieve him…

Take thou no usury of him, or increase: but fear thy God; that thy brother may live with thee.” (Leviticus 25:35-36)

When poor countries were unable to service their debts, the IMF directors, not being suitably God-fearing, negotiated debt relief and aid agreements in return for structural adjustment programs (SAPs). Traditional lands went on the market in Zambia and Sierra Leone; communities and ecosystems were bought up by investors and replaced by monoculture farmlands. Land, water and labour were diverted away from small farms towards export crops, and free grain programmes dismantled. Currencies were devalued and grain stocks sold off to service debt, leading to serious food shortage. Farming subsidies were cut (except for export crops) whilst the US, Europe and Japan continue to spend seven times the total global aid budget on farm subsidies, meaning that their produce outcompetes locally grown food. Not surprisingly, the statistics reveal that “when a Sub-Saharan African nation is under a World Bank structural adjustment loan, then it tends to have higher levels of child mortality.”

Somalia’s nomadic herdsmen were self-sufficient in the 1970s, but the privatisation of both the veterinary and the water service meant that medicine became expensive and uncompetitive boreholes fell into disrepair. Cheap grain imports and a 15-fold increase in food aid shifted farming and eating habits. Currency devaluation was imposed in 1981, fuel prices rose and infrastructure collapsed. Today it is considered a failed state and pirate haven.

Now as in the days of Sir. Frances Drake, the real pirates are backed by imperial powers. Aid is a bargaining chip in a game of political favours, and this is only the tip of the iceberg – who knows what politicians get up to when they gather in their covens and raise their demons.

Virtues are fraught in the New Testament, but commandments are simple, and boil down to two. The second is:

“Love thy neighbour as thyself.” (Mark 12:31)

In today’s multicultural Benetton ad of a world, you might be forgiven for thinking that your neighbour lives in Kathmandu, but hark ye: Your neighbour lives in your neighbourhood, and that is where you should raise a stink! If your government robs local pensioners and closes your local library whilst funding war, ecocide and land-grabs on other continents, it is neither charity, nor alms, nor love. It is nothing more noble than greed.

Also published at The Occupied Times

Thanks to Alex Charnley for the illustration.

Leave a Reply