New Internationalist

The wrong kind of solidarity

UKaid in Pakistan [Related Image]
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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  1. #1 elaine newby 24 Oct 13

    Whilst I think I understand the thrust of the article,it is not either or but often efficiency that makes organisations focus their efforts. Many of the same NGOs ARE concerned with national as well as overseas or international problems and patterns of disadvantage (sg Red Cross in local Indigenous communities and war zones, International Journalists Association or Journalists without Borders that highlight increasing restrictions on press freedom and dangers to journalists reporting on crime or government corruption, business malpractice); some organisations have separate arms for this reason (eg Lutheran World Service operating in conjunction with the UNHCR in refugee camps and Lutheran Community Service in domestic situations - rather like the Brotherhood of St Lawrence etc). The heads of these organisations are frequently criticised for 'being political' when they speak out about causes of the disadvantage with which they have to deal, or lack of facilities etc when in fact this is PART of their role, that is they may militate for what some see as a political goal (eg higher pensions, adherence domestically to international conventions to which we are a signatory, greater availability of respite care for those caring for adults/children with disabilities, school funding according to need not a simple portable per capita grant that appears equitable but only entrenches disadvantage). Organisations with which I deal respond to the stated needs of those in the community in which they operate if in 'overseas aid' and provide the training for trainers so that self-sufficiency rather than continued dependence on further foreign aid is an outcome. Many NGOs have to deal with governments that see aid through an increasingly national interest perspective that distorts state (and thus govt aid dependent) organisational budgets. Private donor NGOs have greater freedom in terms of the governments in their home countries but ... And certainly the internationalisation of the reach of capital without the spread of the rights of labour to those same countries seems to pit workers in one country against those in other countries and help create a greater income divide in both the developed and developing country. Goals do need examination - do we sacrifice community to western individuality, mutual generosity to greed, production to match need to excessive and resource wasteful consumption - goals for serious thoughtful examination in developed as well as developing countries. We want to see goods that last, are repairable not disposable, housing that is affordable, medical treatment available, etc - and across the globe, in developed and developing countries. Ordinary people like me do not want to make things worse with our donations or with govt aid funded by our taxes (eg sink toxic wells or deplete precious aquifers, create dependency, or prop up state sanctioned corruption etc) - increasingly many organisations DO respond to this with results-driven targeting, transparency etc. Indeed in some instances demands for transparency and accountability has actually pushed up costs and eroded donor dollar effectiveness - but ethical behaviour must be demonstrated. Just a few thoughts, sorry for the length.

  2. #2 Jonathan Glennie 25 Oct 13

    Great blog Nick, I would emphasise some of the progress we have made as well as the challenges, but broadly agree re the problems and the way to face them. I am not sure you got the point I was making on internationalising our way of thinking. I wasn’t suggesting we forget the nation-state, much less that we should focus our attention on global issues at the expense of problems closer to home. I was saying something simpler – that when we formulate policies we should take into account the impact on people the world over as much as people in our own countries. And I was criticising our current politics, including supposedly “progressive” politicians, for failing to do so. What are you going to change your name to? ODI is even worse - ’Overseas Development’

  3. #3 Jonathan Glennie 25 Oct 13

    ps this is what I wrote on this issue a few years ago:

    But I do see the shift you are emphasising, and I think you make it convincingly...

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About the author

Nick Dearden a New Internationalist contributor

Nick Dearden is the director of Global Justice Now (formerly World Development Movement) and former director of Jubilee Debt Campaign.

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