‘Charity’ doesn’t end at home: Justifying development assistance in the ‘age of austerity’

Photograph: Pexels

I am scrolling down the cesspool that is the comments section of the Daily Mail’s latest article in a crusade for the abolition of the UK’s Foreign Aid budget. It is a campaign that is gaining traction, which recently culminated in a petition signed by over a quarter million people. Then inventively they drop the bomb, a phrase that seemingly justifies all criticism: “Charity accutane 30 mg begins at home!” If I had a pound every time I have read this ill-judged quip I would be able to make a sizeable dent in the social care budget deficit single handed.  The sum of this argument is simple: why send our money to the faceless foreigner when this money can be better spent the problems at home? Thus, diverting the 0.7% of GDP committed to the development budget we can, at a stroke, solve all our domestic ills. An argument so misguided that it probably should be sprayed onto the side of Boris’ red bus.

Firstly, let’s dispose of the notion that our development assistance is “Charity.” This implies that we’re the benevolent kind-hearted donor who is saving the impoverished other. This notion is patronising and outdated.  The colonial exploitation of our ancestors has a lot to answer for. When I look at any determinant of the current crisis across the global south the root cause can, at least partially, be attributed in some way to colonial intervention.  The thinking that underpins much development cooperation has to change if we are to make the case for aid in a new era. We need a fresh narrative on aid. We should re-imagine foreign aid as an investment between equal partners.

The assumption underlying this is that if you care about the global poor you don’t care about those struggling in the UK. This brings to mind the Dickensian dystopia of Mrs Jellyby. She is depicted as a flailing philanthropist who devotes her time and energy to setting up a mission Africa while ignoring the needy in her own family and neighbourhood. Is this what our society has become?  I will concede Government Departments and Aid Agencies are commonly staffed by the relatively wealthy. DfID has the highest proportion of staff with PhD and Masters degrees in the civil service. Such people will generally not have the first-hand experience of poverty in within their own country. I’ve never had it tough, never had to resort to using food banks, never slept rough on the streets. However, this is not a zero-sum game, aid spending is a spectrum and we must not be blind to the needy either at home and abroad.

I argue we can afford to do both. Living within’ our wealthy Western bubble we can become insulated to how wealthy our country is. I am of the opinion that we as a country a with the 5th largest economy in the world can help the needy both at home and abroad comfortably within’ our means. “Charity begins at home” implies that we have yet to reach a point of affluence where aid can be legitimised. A person on jobseeker’s allowance is still in the top 20% of world income. This number seems very abstract so, rather crudely, let’s put this in perspective by comparing this with our own income distribution.  In relative terms, someone in the top 20% has an income of £60,000 in the UK. It would be ludicrous within’ our own society that anyone with an income of over £60,000 formed an insular group that didn’t contribute to helping the rest. Incidentally the owners of the newspaper channel millions through devious tax affairs to avoid paying their fair share to the NHS budget. This campaign is just a veiled extension of the selfish rhetoric that the rich should contribute nothing to wider society.  We should be pressuring our politicians to challenge the elite and redistribute that £9.93 to where it is needed most. You don’t need, as I saw in Milngavie this week, your fifth iPad for a three-year-old…

Charity, they argue, should begin at home because it is natural and desirable that we should give greater consideration to some people rather than others.  We should be kinder, more generous and have stronger moral obligations to our family or fellow countrymen because they are closer to us. The development assistance budget represents easy pickings as it has an intangible outcome to the everyday taxpayer. A twice weekly bin collection due to cuts affects us directly whereas empowering women in Ethiopia or improving infrastructure in far-flung corners of the globe do not. Tax payer’s money can do better in abroad than in Britain. I am not for a moment suggesting that such process is without flaws and it would be ignorant to suggest anything to the contrary. Development assistance isn’t the simple pre-packaged programme of simply installing a water tap or bed net that is presented in our charity campaigns. It is a complex process. We must accept some collateral damage through corrupt governments and failed projects. In short, there is no magic bullet. We don’t know what the answer to the development question is otherwise we would have solved it! Although there is a waste we must not neglect the fundamental fact the direst need and the most easily alleviated suffering on the planet is to be found far away from Britain. A 4-hour wait for A&E is not a ‘humanitarian crisis’ when one thinks of the rural health centres in Malawi in which there are no drugs; similarly, a trolley in a corridor would be a mercy for the hospitals in Syria that remain as mere heaps of rubble. The Daily Mail’s apparent ‘concern’ for the vulnerability of the worst-off in British society is laudable, but let’s get a sense of perspective. For even if charity begins at home, there is no reason I can see for it to end there.


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Niall McCumesty 1 Article
Masters Student in International Development at University of Glasgow.

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