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Peter Stalker
New Internationalist
[image, unknown] Editor: Peter Stalker

Can you help?

[image, unknown]
Photo: Claude Sauvageot

Responding to disasters is relatively simple. Supplies are needed, and needed fast. But Third World poverty isn’t something which fades with the images of the latest tragedy on the TV screen. Peter Stalker explains what aid agencies have to do on your behalf if they are to make any serious impact.

He throws a smile at the camera and a bottle of champagne against the side of the ship. Bob Geldof, Boomtown Rat, Irish pop star and current media saint, despatches the noble vessel on its way to Ethiopia.

Band Aid I is a heavily laden ship. It carries all the food, all the medicines, all the supplies that a multi-million selling pop record can finance. The crates are stacked high on the deck and deep into the hold. And who knows whatever else may be lurking around in the odd nook or cranny. A crumpled-up press release or two, a photographer’s flash bulb. Maybe even a tattered ‘fanzine’ showing the heavenly choir clustered around the microphone.

Bhil father and son. India's 'tribals' are threatened by the disappearence of the forests.
Photo: Peter Stalker

Easy enough to be cynical about all this - and plenty to be cynical about: overpaid pop-stars clambering aboard a rolling wagon: the obvious posturing for publicity. But that ship is loaded with more than famine supplies. It carries the goodwill of millions of people. Those who dug into their pockets to buy the record - and those of us who made our own little sacrifice by listening to it.

This is aid that can be understood. The frightening, almost unwatchable, scenes of hunger - and one huge, solid response floating towards them. For all the razzamatazz and the uneasy conjunction of vast wealth and absolute poverty this is a clear and uncomplicated gesture.

Poverty that can be presented as an emergency generates an unambiguous reaction. And the aid organizations - the Oxfams, the Save the Childrens, the World Visions - know just what the public expects of them. The people of Ethiopia need food and plenty of it, fast.

But what of the rest of the world? Ethiopia has no monopoly on hunger and certainly not on poverty. And while the public searchlight might be on Africa the aid agencies haven’t stopped working elsewhere.

There are, however, no ships steaming towards the shantytown dwellers of Manila. No vessels are expected in Catlao, Peru to help people whose standard of living is dropping almost out of sight. Probably just as well too. Shipping food or blankets or medicines to such countries is scarcely necessary; Ethiopia may at this point have absolute shortages, but in most countries this is not the problem. All of these things are available - if you can afford to buy them. The mistake the poor make is not having enough money.

This kind of poverty, though simply stated, is very hard to respond to, There are no obvious lines of attack, no easy ways in. Difficult to believe, perhaps. Surely the answer to the lack of money is a transfer of wealth. But what form should that wealth take, and how should it be transferred?

At this point you should put yourself on the spot. The spot I suggest is somewhere in the centre of India, in the far west of the State of Madhya Pradesh. This is not an easy place to be. In fact it is downright dangerous. But it will do.

Most of the people here are Bhil ‘tribals’. They are among the original inhabitants of India and literally a race apart. They certainly look different, wearing minimal loincloths and bright red or yellow turbans - and probably carrying bows and arrows. Even more colourful is their reputation for drunkenness and violence. Local Indian officials consider this something of a punishment posting and drive around in their jeeps in fear of their lives. The murder rate in these parts is around 250 a year in an area with a million people – approaching the levels of Detroit, USA.

The Bhils used to make their living from the forest - clearing land every so often for agriculture but also making full use of the trees for everything from fruit to rope. Hard to credit, looking at the bare hillsides all around. Now a vehicle can cut straight across open country for miles tearing up clouds of dust.

The trees went when the timber contractors came. Some of the wood was sold to them by the Bhils, the rest of it was just taken. Tribals are under similar pressure in other parts of India, though ironically from reforestation as well as deforestation. There are projects funded by the World Bank, for example, replacing the luxuriously foliated dhak and solvan by the simple fir. Easier to harvest no doubt and much more profitable, but providing little of what the tribals need.

It is easy to be confused by all this information, But this is complex, probably just as complex as your own life if you tried to explain it to the Bhils. The only real difference is that they are desperately poor - and the kind of people you might want to help.

Be warned though. They are not easy company. Desperation can take many forms and one of them here is drunkenness. The one tree that has been stoutly defended against the contractors is the tar, whose fruit you only have to slit to generate a sweet yeasty liquid which will ferment in a matter of hours. The tari that results is a highly alcoholic wine, and comes virtually on tap.

So here is a problem. People who are not just poor but caught in a steady downward process of impoverishment and sinking their frustration in alcohol. Where does the Indian government stand in all this? In theory at least, on the side of the tribals. Their official designation is ‘scheduled tribes’, referring to the specific schedules in the Indian constitution inserted to protect their interests, They are supposed, for example, to be allocated seven and a half per cent of government jobs.

There are also government employment schemes like well-digging which should offer them some income. But nothing is that straightforward. Labour recruitment is in the hands of private contractors. And though the official wage is around a dollar a day the tribals are lucky to get 50 cents after the contractor has removed his portion. Anyone who complains is fired.

The police too are on the make. It is supposedly illegal for the tribals to sell tari. But the trade goes on - supervised by the local police who demand their cut in any activity. Even the school-teachers find themselves in a position to exploit the illiterate Bhils. Many take the salary but don’t bother to show up for work. ‘They arrive.’ as the local saying goes, with nothing but a lotah (water pot) and a pair of plastic sandals. When they leave they need a truck.’

So there you have it. Poverty, exploitation, corruption. Not characteristic of Indian society alone: familiar all over the world. Is this kind of situation susceptible to aid? Yes, it is. In the case of the Bhils there are British and Australian charities who have been helping. But not just by handing over cash. What they have done is help the tribals fight against the forces lined up against them. They have funded a local organization that has been trying to free the Bhils from the grip of the merchants. It has set up a co-operative shop, for example, to help them get fair prices for their goods. It has also been supporting them against the timber contractors and the police. This is essentially ‘political’ involvement. And it might seem an odd, even offensive role for a foreign aid agency -- to become so intricately woven into local politics.

Preparing to educate the public in the 1970s Designing posters and packs for schools.
Photo: Camera Press

It is certainly a far cry from where most of these charities started out. Some, the church-based ones, are the inheritors of the missionary experience of the nineteenth century and earlier. Others were born in the flush of international concern that emerged during and after the Second World War to deal with the plight of refugees. All started from the premise that direct physical needs should be met wherever they arose. And they have responded to similar disasters from Biafra to Bangladesh to Ethiopia ever since.

But the people who arrived with the relief parcels in Africa or India discovered what the local people already knew. Poverty, it was evident, was not a single event but a continuing reality. It was soon to be christened ‘underdevelopment’ for the implication was that there is a logical path of development to follow, the one pioneered by the Western nations. What the poor countries needed was help and encouragement in the same direction. You could call this ‘Phase II’ of voluntary aid: the transfer of Western techniques to overcome inefficiency - better farming methods, good sanitation, or higher standards of education.

The public who filled the collecting cans were reasonably convinced of the wisdom of Phase II. But they could never get excited. They would still respond more energetically when the call for help went out after an earthquake or a Hood. It was not that they actually minded the money being spent on long-term’ development. But they never got that interested in the well-digging, or the literacy classes, or the ‘mother-and-child’ clinics. Worthy but dull.

At this point - in the late 1960s and early I970s - a gap started to open between the aid agencies and the public. The aid professionals were not content to spend the money with the passive co-operation of the donors. They wanted to ‘educate’ the givers. to convince them of the value of what was being done and ply them with newsletters and fact-sheets and pictures of happy people. digging wells and taking classes in how to keep clean.

But now, later in the 1970s, there was to be a Phase III of voluntary aid - and this is where the donating public really started to get left behind. The problem was that much of what was being suggested as the ‘development aid’ of Phase II wasn’t having much effect. It was not that using a plough instead of a hoe didn’t help produce more food, or that washing your hands didn’t reduce the chances of disease. Such things were not being allowed to work. No use, for example, encouraging Bhil mothers in India to use more soap on their kids if the steady draining away of their livelihoods meant they would be unable to afford the next packet. No use suggesting that they irrigate and fertilize their land if they could be swindled out of it, or see it fall into the hands of the moneylender.

Phase III demanded therefore that aid projects work at a political as well as a technical level. Without this they will stand little chance of success. But here things start to get tricky. As you move towards the core of the issue the temperature begins to hot up. Those who benefit by the present system will not only object to any changes but also be in a strong position to do so. You can expect the or police-chief and the schoolteacher to be vociferously petitioning the local politicians about the activities of ‘meddling foreigners’. Development at this point becomes a tense and complex business.

Complexity was not what most people had in mind when they pushed their coins into the charity collecting can. Nor was politics for that matter. The majority of people shy away from anything that smacks of politics in their own country. And the prospect of diving into the crosscurrents of 101 different political systems in strange and foreign lands will almost certainly cause their eyes to glaze over.

The aid agency has, therefore, a peculiar role in Phase III. They can continue to raise money on the general promise of relieving poverty. The children will still stare appealingly from the advertisements. But the money will have to be spent in ways which are beyond the ken of the donors. A bit deceitful, you might think, but not at all. The donors can continue to receive accurate information about what is going on, but will be unwilling or unable to absorb most of it.

Money was raised on the basis of compassion or guilt but spent in a more hard-headed way.
Photo: Camera Press

So the cash is being taken in one spirit - pity, guilt, charity, compassion, whatever it may be - and being spent in quite another. The organization may even be serving as a bridge between two incompatible groups.

Those who supply the funds are often quite conservative in outlook. Those who spend it may be anything from liberal to marxist.

But as long as it is the interests of the poor which take priority this should not be too disturbing. It is when the donors are put first that you should start to worry. There are so-called ‘donor-oriented’ agencies who decide what people are most willing to give money for and then plan their programmes accordingly. The child-sponsorship agencies are the most notable example of this - and indeed claim that their great strength is that they attract money from people who would refuse to give at all if they could not be promised a child of their own. But sponsoring a single Bhil child is unlikely to change the circumstances that besiege the tribal people.

If Phase III served to create a gap between the donors and the more progressive agencies, it did at least keep them safely apart. There is, however, a Phase IV and this offers nothing like as comfortable a solution for either the donors or the agencies. It grew out of the recognition that it is not just local political factors which keep people poor, but International ones. They could be to do with a system of international trade which rewards Third World producers poorly for the tea or coffee they export. Or they could be to do with international finance. They might even be connected with official aid programmes. If the World Bank is making life more difficult for India’s tribals, do not the aid agencies who know what is going on have a duty to speak out?

They will have to do so in a very public arena. They will have to take a stand in the politics not of some distant land but in their own country and in full view of the people who have financed them. The general public is notoriously sensitive about political activity from organizations to whom they have given money.

Can you help? Yes, you can. You can support those agencies that take a more realistic approach to what aid can and cannot do. And if they get into hot water because of it (as they almost certainly will) yours is the kind of support they will be looking for.

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New Internationalist issue 148 magazine cover This article is from the June 1985 issue of New Internationalist.
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