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The wrong kind of solidarity

Development (Aid)
UKaid in Pakistan

UKaid providing drinking water in the aftermath of the 2010 flooding in Pakistan: is international development today just about aid? UK Department for International Development (DfID) under a Creative Commons Licence

When New Internationalist was established, it seemed to many of its readers that the central division in the global economic system was between the Third World and First World. It seemed much the same to me when I started in international anti-poverty campaigning in the 1990s.

No matter what our problems here in Europe, they were nothing compared to our exploitation of the global South which made our standard of living possible.

Of course, there remains more than a grain of truth to this idea. But a fast-growing neoliberal elite in pretty much every Southern country, rapid growth in emerging economies and a vicious structural adjustment programme destroying the last remnants of social democracy in Europe, all mean we must re-conceptualize internationalism. Or maybe we should simply remind ourselves what internationalism should always have been.

I disagree with Jonathan Glennie that we should stop thinking of the nation state. Corporate globalization is still totally dependent on the nation state – to impose free market rules, to pour public resources into corporate profit and to police the popular response to the growing inequality that results. Ask most activists in the global South what you can do to ‘help’ and they are amazed that we haven’t thought of fighting against our own structural adjustment as a priority.

For many people in Britain, there is more than a little whiff of a cosmopolitan elite lecturing them on the importance of a ‘global society’ while they suffer poverty at home. It could be our government, it could be an NGO – they all look the same from this perspective. If those who believe in internationalism can’t help fight for change at a national level, they consign themselves to irrelevance. It is right and important to point out that the resources to build our welfare state were based on exploitation of southern countries – but only if we are fighting for a better solution for those with most to lose from the demise of social democracy.

More worrying still is the idea that internationalism has become little more than charity. ‘International development’ today seems often cast as primarily about aid. Aid in this narrative is simply money our country gives because some people are poor and we’re very caring. Our government is good, our companies are good. Let’s be more good.

We erase empire, slavery and exploitation. We erase power and class. We erase history. This is not internationalism as it would have been understood by the East End sweatshop worker or Liverpool docker of the early twentieth century. It is the language of empire builders throughout the ages.

Internationalism today should mean we stop thinking of ‘the poor’ as incapable wretches deserving of our pity, and start thinking of them as part of our equal struggle for humanity. ‘Development’, on the other hand, is now an utterly compromised term which often simply means further penetration of private capital into the global South. To many of the people we are supposed to be ‘helping’, what today passes for development is the very last thing they want. This is one of the reasons we are considering changing our own name at the World Development Movement.

The most important role of an internationalist is to stand with those who are truly winning their battle for emancipation from global empire. The incredible struggles in Latin America have shaken the North’s domination in a way not seen since the 1970s. Interestingly, the victory of a regional struggle only began to be a possibility when victory had been secured at the national level.

However many nuances and contradictions there are in these struggles, the defeat of Hugo Chavez’ Bolivarian revolution, in Venezuela particularly, would truly be the defeat of hope. We must defend it – and do what we can to encourage its spread to the fertile grounds of North Africa.

But our efforts as internationalists are often best employed trying to stop our governments deepening exploitation of other parts of the world. The focus is not ‘more aid’ but ‘less of everything else’.

There is no contradiction between opposing another crusade in the Middle East and an internationalist perspective. An understanding that it is not the role of the once-ruler of the world to police that world is prerequisite to us developing a truly internationalist position and genuine relationship of equality. This is as much a challenge to NGOs as it is to our political class.

Being an internationalist is a struggle for us to become less important.

The Internationalists blogging series has been timed to mark NI's 40th anniversary. Read the other blogs exploring perspectives on development and global solidarity.

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