Aid and the Spirit of Sharing
In the writings of Alice Bailey, it is said that the great spiritual achievement and evolutionary event of our age will be the communion and human relationships established among all peoples, enabling people everywhere to sit down together in the Presence of the Christ and share the bread and wine (symbols of nourishment). She notes that preparations for this symbolic shared feast are on their way, and those preparations are being made as peoplestruggle and legislate for the economic sustenance of their nations, and as the theme of food occupies the attention of legislators everywhere. The difficulty of this task should not be underestimated, as it is undeniable that the Earth’s fertile croplands, as well as minerals,fresh water, and other resources that sustain human life, are far from equally distributed among the nations. Thus, arriving at right sharing requires the conquest of selfishness on the part of national governments. What are the governments of the world currently doing to meet this challenge?
In early May this year, the United Nations convened a conference on the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in Istanbul. The UN uses three main criteria to decide whether a country falls into this category: low average income; human resource weakness (based on indicators of nutrition, health, education, and adult literacy); and economic vulnerability. At the moment, 48 countries across the world are classified as LDCs.1 Moving towards a more developed state is a complex process, involving many different factors, and this was recognised in the Programme of Action released by the Conference. Nevertheless, one significant component of development continues to be direct development aid from governments. Development aid is distinct from humanitarian aid, which is given in response to short-term disasters.
The simplicity of the term ‘aid’ masks the complexity of the political and economic factors which come into play when considering who gives what to whom. To take one recent example, Britain has been a long-term donor to India, partly because of its historical link as an ex-colony. But now, India’s economic progress means that India has its own aid programme, and a small but growing space programme. Thus, the question of whether Britain should continue to give aid to India has received attention in both British and Indian media. A key fact which complicates the picture is that poverty is still a major factor in Indian society: as economist Andy Sumner observes, almost a billion people living in middle-income countries like India are poor.
So donors have not only to consider the LDCs, which have high average levels of poverty (implying also at the low end, terrible extremes of poverty), but also the poor within middle-income countries, who may require more sophisticated targeting. As we enter an era of high technology, the transfer of data (e.g. satellite imagery), knowledge (e.g. how to interpret this data), and expertise (e.g. how to translate these interpretations into positive policies) may become increasingly important to the governments of middle-income countries, relative to simple monetary transfers. And, as Sumner argues, middle-income countries may also “be more concerned with the designing of favorable and coherent development policies on remittances and migration, trade preferences, and climate negotiations and financing”.
As a set of broad targets for the outcomes of aid, the UN Millennium Development Goals help to give a relatively simple answer to the question, “what is aid intended to achieve?”2 Nevertheless, because each ‘developing’ country will be at different stages of having reached each of the eight goals, it still means that donor countries have to consider how to help each recipient on a case-by-case basis. A basic UN target for the amount needed to achieve such goals, agreed in 1970, is that donor countries should give 0.7% of GDP, which a small number of developed countries now meet or exceed. 3
Not everyone believes that aid is an unalloyed good. The Hungarian economist Peter Baeur proposed that aid increases the power of governments and fosters corruption, and, echoing this argument, the African economist Dambisa Moyo, in her book Dead Aid, suggests that aid isn’t a good idea, but that foreign investment is. She believes that, as it is right now, foreign aid only exacerbates Africa’s problems, and that stopping it would actually spur economic growth. She says, “There is a consistent flow of evidence over the past 60 years that aid has not gone to support productive investments, and rather it’s gone to support despotic and tyrannical leaders across the continent. But corruption’s just one of the problems. I think the most fundamental problem is that aid disenfranchises Africans, and in that sense it means governments are not accountable to Africans. They spend their time courting international donors who basically pay their livelihoods.” Also, the Center for Global Development (cgdev.org), a US think tank, publishes a Commitment to Development Index which encompasses not just aid, but also a number of other factors such as trade, investment, migration etc. It is intended to highlight the fact that aid is not just about quantity, but also quality, and that development policy is about more than just aid.
What the Commitment to Development Index helps to return us to once more is the great complexity of the issues involved when countries simply try to share with one other. What can’t be denied is that the impulse to share is never wrong. The challenge lies in finding ways to intelligently channel this heart-centred impulse. There are many creative initiatives now led by civil society which are finding innovative ways to help disadvantaged groups in every land. If governments can find ways to create partnerships with civil society, this will surely help aid be deployed more effectively. Above all, if goodwill can intelligently motivate the governments of donor and recipient countries, and their citizens, then development aid would become in truth right sharing, a necessary prerequisite to right relationships among all the peoples of the Earth. When the resources of the Earth are so distributed that every individual, and thus every nation, can realise its full potential, then surely we shall see an era of creative global cooperation that will mark a great step forward in humanity’s spiritual progress.
1. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Least_developed_country#Current_LDCs for a list.
2. The UN Millennium Development Goals are discussed in more detail here: www.un.org/millenniumgoals/
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