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Searching for global solidarity in the age of inequality


© Photograph: Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images.

The first New Internationalist magazine rolled off the presses in 1973. Put together with a tin of Cow gum and Letraset, and priced 25p, it featured an interview with Kenneth Kaunda, the first president of independent Zambia.

The 1970s was a time of optimism: more African states had gained independence, idealistic leaders were demanding change, UK living standards were rising. A new global economic order was seen as right and just, even by the political establishment.

In those days, internationalism meant a commitment to securing "basic needs for all" – it was believed that clean water, sufficient food and seeing your children grow into adulthood should not be the preserve of the prosperous north. For our magazine, it also meant educating developed countries about the true causes of global poverty. Inequalities were not, as Kaunda and several other leaders were keen to stress, a historical accident but the consequence of a set of economic relationships rigged to the north's advantage.

In some ways, our mission has not changed much; but the balance of power has. The global south has its own rapacious elites – Oxfam reports that 5% of Indians own 50% of the country's wealth. But the gap between the richest and poorest countries has grown; and the excluded – those without political power, the isolated and discriminated against – continue to lose out. It prompted New Internationalist's founder, Peter Adamson, to describe the 21st century as the age of inequality and call for greater focus on the poorest 20%.

What do these changes mean for those who hold internationalism dear? Our 40th anniversary blogging series threw up some big ideas. One bugbear is the very idea of development. The term is such a semantic muddle that it can also mean multinationals seizing land from women farmers in Mozambique, or real estate growth in China. Many of those who understand development as the route to more resources and rights for the poor want to ditch the term altogether.

Nick Dearden is director of World Development Movement (WDM), which aims to tackle the root causes of world poverty. The organisation is another child of the 1970s. He says the organisation is planning a name change and also lambasts the habit of conflating solidarity with charity. This reduces the internationalist to doing good while leaving the poverty producing architecture intact. Without the grounding of mutual respect and common cause, aid recipients remain distant victims.

This is a pernicious problem. One worker from an international NGO recounted how a supporter called to say that after seeing beneficiaries with mobile phones they would no longer donate. The implication is that we like our Africans supine, not people taking charge.

Senegalese entrepreneur Mariéme Jamme is so fed up with Comic Relief's grim parade of African suffering that she has called for it to be banned. Humiliating representations of poor people are often cited by majority world spokespeople who reject aid, despite chronic need in their home country.

Even Avaaz, the formidable online campaign group, is at fault. It has helped to internationalise local causes with impressive results. But its recent push to end child labour in India featured a weeping, wretched child, which, if you downloaded it, retained its glib title of "crying kid". There are dignified ways to portray harsh realities; those of us in the business of global solidarity must do better.

Solidarity stripped of history is another no-go. It leads to campaigns such as US NGO Invisible Children's Kony 2012, whose slick video crusade against the brutal Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) leader, Joseph Kony, went viral. A classic case of motivate over educate, it appalled Ugandans for its oversimplification of the conflict and for casting the US as would-be saviours.

When global solidarity so often misses the mark, it's no surprise that New Internationalist and WDM are not the only ones suffering an identity crisis. The Sheffield Institute for International Development has decided to reframe its area of study as "global justice". In her blog, Professor Jean Grugel makes a compelling case for the urgent need to catch injustice at source, by focusing back to the structural political and economic changes needed to make a fairer world.

A sharper focus on justice helps to focus the internationalist mind. Ever-growing inequality and the rollicking wealth of the 1% should bring it home to the British public that solidarity applies within and across borders.

We can draw on Britain's radical history here. Don Flynn from the Migrants Rights Network, recalls leafleting Liverpool dockers to agitate against Enoch Powell's Rivers of Blood speech. He sees the same spirit of solidarity rising again in the interconnected world of new generations.

It is time to line up behind an internationalism that is properly informed and compassionate, not sentimental and sensationalist. This means embracing complexity, not oversimplifying. In the UK, it may also mean fanning the flames of your local Bonfire of Austerity on 5 November.

This article was orginally published by The Guardian.

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