This is a potentially volatile post with plenty of room for misinterpretation. I am writing from my own personal experience, and I have had a lot of these realisations around my own behaviour and thoughts – so this is as much directed at me as anyone else. I am one of the people I describe, and don’t make the statements flippantly. Also, I don’t believe people should stop supporting aid organisations either, nor that such donations are a bad thing. This is an important part of making a difference in the world. Rather I am suggesting that unless we think deeper than the dollars, and unless we start to recognise our own role, these problems will not be adequately resolved.
There are millions of people around the world that donate money to various organisations (World Vision, Unicef etc.) to sponsor a child (and the like) in the majority world. This is a good thing, I know, and yet I can’t help but think that many of these people don’t actually think beyond the money that they are giving to seek out why, exactly, the money is needed in the first place. Nor do they think about or equate how their own behaviour, as consumers in the western world, have a direct impact on the communities they believe they are helping.
I also think there is also a level of elitism about our thinking – seeing how these poor people need help, they mustn’t know how to manage their own lives and get ahead. There is little recognition that in many instances, the people have tried to get ahead, only to be squashed by the “powers that be” through unfair trade, unfair foreign policy, support of dictatorships and brutal regimes, and in far too many cases, military intervention from military powers such as those that sit on the UN Security Council.
I was thinking about this the other day, and I had this thought: I would like to see an ad from one of these agencies actually tell more of the story. Imagine a deep, male voice-over, with an American accent (I’m picturing the current crop of ads on TV, not making a gender statement there), saying to the TV viewing audience:
“As a result of corporate irresponsibility, bad government, and lack of a global outlook by the people of the ‘minority’ world these children live in squalid conditions, don’t have drinking water, don’t have health services or the chance of an education.”
And instead of asking for money so that some multi-national aid agency can spend 40% of that money on advertising, revenue generating and administration, perhaps it would be nice for once for the ad to finish with something like:
“You may spend $30 each month on sponsoring a child. This month why not spend 30 minutes a week reading about the cause of this child’s poverty, and do something about it. It’s a small price to pay to learn how your actions are helping cause these conditions. Turn off the TV news and read about fair trade and how so-called free trade agreements are devastating communities around the world. Learn about how your government’s trade and foreign affairs policies continue to stack the cards so that they fall on these children.”
Of course, this wouldn’t work. It’d piss people off and alienate them. We don’t like being shown how the things we do cause bad shit to happen in the rest of the world. It’s too depressing. It takes too much energy. Or there’s denial “I do the right thing. I didn’t cause these people’s suffering”. But that’s precisely the point – we don’t directly cause this suffering, and we feel we have no choice to change the world because our institutions that are supposed to deal with these issues don’t.
Would we en-masse change our buying habits? Would we respond to our government and demand that free trade agreements, like those the Australian Government is currently negotiating behind closed doors (without parliamentary scrutiny or approval) with the U.S and Chinese governments? Will we ever realise that our collective inaction needs to be replaced with collective action to effect real change in the world?
People already feel empowered by spending $30 a month thinking that they can make a difference. I can only imagine what would 30 minutes a week would do.