Tuesday, 28 June 2005

Everything is relative - including poverty.

Live 8 has deserved mention in its own right ever since dear Bob came up with the idea but somehow without a more comprehendible context, I just couldn’t bring myself to write about it.

Well thanks to Panorama, I now have that context and can tell you pretty much exactly how I feel in relation to a real problem. I can also talk about my wife and her midwifery, which is a relief since I daresay most of you thought I had made that up just to make myself appear a little more human. As if!

Mortality in childbirth (mothers and babies) in the World’s poorest nations was the subject of this programme. Lara and I watched with interest (and a little commentary!) and dutifully followed the emotional rollercoaster that the presenter intended – starting off with despair, moving towards hope, only to fall back into utter despondency. Basically, the programme revealed that in Chad, as just one example, mothers and babies are dying during and shortly after childbirth for want of such basic drugs and medical facilities as you and I would find in any half decent chemist and the poor midwives and gynecologists can only watch. Heart rending stuff, without a doubt.

What’s that got to do with Bob, I hear a couple of you ask. Well that’s where it gets interesting. You see they go on to tell us that in Honduras, a little bit of good political lobbying, clever funding and organisation and appropriate training has led to a massive reduction mortality rates despite being a very poor country. The inference is of course that Africa is a special case and that Sir Bob and his merry band of publicity seeking flunkies will ride to the rescue, force billions in aid out of the richest nations and Africa will be healed. Sadly I am not convinced.

You see I have left out the crucial bit. What follows is part politics and part sociology but it is interesting. Late on in the programme, Chad’s lady health minister dared to be interviewed at the featured hospital. Now instead of simply confronting her with the problem, and urging her to come to the rescue with some cash from their newly found oil reserves, the tactless presenter took it upon himself to berate her, lecture her, insult her, and accuse her of corruption and laziness. Now women are women the world over and I am sure you can predict what her reaction was. But in her response came some truly revealing statements:

Firstly she rightly said that there was no machine into which you could put the culture of Chad and transform it into a Western one. Her point is beautifully made. We will never solve the problems of Africa, whilst we determine their problems with modern, developed, western attitudes and presumptions. Africa must be encouraged and urged to develop but at a pace they can handle and assimilate the new world requirements.

Second, she rather curtly said – “Are you finished? Thank you for your ideas. Very kind of you!” – which in any language means “you can be thankful we have developed this far or you would be waist deep in vegetable stock and new potatoes by now”. Apart from the fact that the BBC has now single-handedly set progress on this issue back a decade, her response was typical of any young political establishment. a) She’s probably got a dozen other health priorities to deal with, b) quite enough healthy babies are being born to keep the population buoyant and compound those other health priorities I just mentioned, and c) whether its true or not, if all we ever do is accuse these people of political corruption and incompetence, they might as well get on and live up to it.

So dear Bob can force as much money out of Bliar and Sploosh as he likes, but the astonishingly patronising and tactless approach we take towards Africa simply means the money would be poured into the pockets of soon-to-be, if-not-already corrupt politicians. Your effort is commendable, Bob, and I do admire your energy and drive, but it is to no avail.

We must understand and accept that Africa is not Europe, Asia or America and that it cannot become so overnight. Their traditions and cultures, however distasteful to us, exist for perfectly valid sociological and anthropological reasons (I regret that they have since been perverted by that most awful of confidence tricks – religion) and I know that it is painful to watch.

For Africa to be helped, it has want to be helped. So what can we do? I think that we can do three things:

We can make the trade system work better and more fairly, so that they can see for themselves the benefits of hard work, enterprise and innovation and so that economic growth has as real and stable foundation to grow on;

We can focus our efforts and aid and support on education, through which we can start to break through some of the cultural barriers to reform and give the people more understanding of their own environment and the wider world;

We can encourage and support our kindest charitable souls to load up containers with materials and expertise and go to Africa and work with small communities to make their life a little better.

How many thousands of other Lara’s watching that programme said at the end “I’d go and help if I got the chance.”

Bob, pssst. Stop pissing about with your sanctimonious, smug, do-gooding pop stars and start looking for Laras.


victoria said...

I fear I may step over the perilous line here, but feel I have to comment:
We all sleep in our comfortable beds at night, our bellies full and our expectation high. We all watch our worlds disasters and feel emotion for those suffering through them but not that many of us actually get up off our arses and do anything about it. Should we not commend dear Bob for giving a shit?
In our vulgar society where there aren't enough hours in the day, there should indeed be more Laras who would go if given the chance to make a difference...but that doesn't provide the much needed medications either.
Bob isn't trying to patronise the African nation, however he may feel differently about their government...and like you and I Richard, he's not afraid to say what he thinks!
My greatest sadness is that so many people are attending/watching/listening to this weekends concert because it will be a great gig, not for the reasons it's being staged.
I don't disagree that Bob's efforts may be to no avail, but who else is making that effort? What change would there be if no effort were made?
No offence intended, but I take my hat off to anyone who stands up to be counted! He may be a scruffy Irish hippy, and I'm sure he doesn't vote conservative but hey... he's making something happen!
:-) X

Anonymous said...

er...no comment

Archimedes Trajano said...

Personally, I don't really mind that there are people willing to help out other countries.

Though it is true that a lot of the developed countries live as victoria would say "vulgar" lifestyles, it is our lifestyle and we are accustomed to it. And by "we" I also mean the poorest among us in our own respective developed countries.

I think governments should stop assisting any charitable organizations and just raise the standard of living and reduce the cost of living within their own countries until poverty is stricken for their own people first.

If people want to donate to other countries through aid and such, we should do it from our own selflessness, without the need for tax breaks.

Ian Bradley said...

I'm with Victoria on most of her points (Hello, Victoria) and with Richard on some of his points about trade and education.

Between Sir Bob, Gordon Brown and the BBC, we have ended up with an effort to push Africa and third world poverty up into public consciousness. I didn't see the Panorama piece, but I'm not suprised that it looked for an outraged and emotive 'close' the way it did - it's the kind of journalism we the public have come to demand through our viewing habits. I don't think it's a great result, but I don't think the harm done is a grave as your fear, Richard.

Secondly, without all of this effort to bring Africa into our thoughts, life would have continued on as before, at least until a famine or civil war came along with enough horrific imagery to find its way to the front of the news media. As it is, we have poverty being explored alongside economic and cultural issues, reasonably dispassionately, but helping us to foster a sense of proper urgency about the problems. Good step forward, I think.