As part of a government programme, I volunteered in a rural Nicaraguan community with a population of just three hundred people to improve their sanitation and hygiene. Prior to my departure, I was told that my experience would be life-changing. I was told that seeing the appalling levels of poverty present in the second poorest country in the western world would show me just how lucky I am to have been born in the United Kingdom. It was assumed that a few British volunteers without any real experience in international development, engineering or construction could help to improve the lives of people in rural Nicaragua.
Well, was my life radically changed by my experience in Nicaragua? The short answer is no. Bar the stunning landscape, the wild monkeys and the free roaming livestock I have returned to the UK the same person. Perhaps the only major difference is that I now recognise how ineffective international development in this mould really is.
I think that there is an assumption some of us hold in rich, western countries which is that all those poor people in developing countries need to be taught our ways to be happier and lead more fulfilling lives. Ernesto Sirolli, a professor in sustainable policy at Curtin University, Australia spoke in a Ted talk of an experience he faced working for an Italian NGO in the 1970s. The project he was involved in was to teach Zambian people how to grow food. They chose to grow Italian tomatoes and zucchini in a magnificently fertile valley going down to the Zambezi River in southern Zambia. The local people had absolutely no interest in learning what pearls of wisdom the Italians had to offer so the NGO paid them to help. The plump tomatoes grew beautifully just for the Italians to exclaim what a wonderful job they had done in saving the Zambians from starvation. That was before 200 hippos came out of the river and ate everything in one night. This example of western ignorance reveals just how deluded we really are. If only the Italians had bothered to ask the Zambians why planting crops of tomatoes in that location was a bad idea.
Now although the programme I went on did include collusion with local partners which made sure the communities we worked in wanted us there, the arrogance exhibited in the Italian example still exists. No one in our village really cared about our lessons on how to wash their hands properly, how to use water more efficiently or bury rubbish instead of burning it. They had their own methods for survival which had been crafted through generations of knowledge. The enormous challenges they face on macro levels such as climate change, inequality and exploitation from big business represent the true hindrances to their continued prosperity. I say continued prosperity because the people we met there were rich in many ways. They were extraordinarily generous, they were happy and there was a community spirit which eclipses the horrible individualistic and toxic tendencies we have in our western societies.
I do feel very lucky to be British, I am aware of how privileged I am. However, I also recognise how British people are not superior to people in other countries. Cultures are unique and there is something to be said for all of them. International development should not be about exporting vague western ideals to countries along with a small care package which often ends up in the hands of corrupt officials. The major problems Nicaragua faces are related inextricably to Western exploitation, of resources, the environment and of cheap labour. The best workers in our community earnt $5 dollars a day for thirteen hours of gruelling work cutting coffee. At least they have some sort of an income though because in twenty-five years agricultural output will dry up as countries on the equator begin to fry. What is Britain doing to help Nicaraguans deal with the effects of climate change? What is it doing to stop multinationals from sucking the country dry of its resources whilst flying the flag of free-market capitalism?
In recent months, there has been growing discontent amongst the ruling class in Britain bringing into question the 0.7% of GDP we spend on foreign aid each year. In December 2016, Theresa May made it clear that aid spending will be reviewed before 2020. Priti Patel, the International Development Secretary has suggested that some of the aid budget will be switched to help win post-Brexit trade deals. It is clear that Conservative ministers are taking advantage of the economic instability we face during Brexit negotiations to cut foreign aid spending. People rightly feel worried that the economic consequences of a hard Brexit may be dismal. The Tories are exploiting this predicament to justify targeted DFID cuts. Why should British taxpayers be funding development in other countries when we have enough problems of our own?
Well, I will tell you why. We have an obligation to pay our fair share for the great wounds we have inflicted upon developing countries. We have exploited their people and their resources for centuries. We have even exploited our shared atmosphere. We have absolutely no right to question the tiny 0.7% spending on foreign aid considering the damage we have inflicted upon this world. What the government should be doing to raise money is refrain from cutting the corporation tax rate to 17%. That would save billions which can be used for the upcoming Brexit negotiations. We should be increasing what we do to help developing countries starting with subsidising the cost of developing green technologies and helping to build a renewable energy mix. The self-inflicting damage that Brexit will have on our economy is our fault. We have no right to punish the Zambian farmer for our stupidity.
In essence, our government should not be able to get away with sending unskilled volunteers to tackle problems in developing countries which are so massive that only significant spending can help. Nor can it harp on about how much we are doing to tackle global inequality by sending a few dollars to Nigeria which ends up in the hands of an oil tycoon. Britain and other western countries have a duty to cooperate to initiate low carbon and equal growth in developing countries. Anything less is frankly not good enough. Theresa May and her government should be ashamed.