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A tidal wave of hypocrisy

Simon Jenkins

If government wants to aid the Third World, they must confront the lobbies that block free trade

Is that it, then? So asked the singer, Bob Geldof, when his Ethiopian famine hullabaloo was over. What had really happened, he wondered. Who had really benefited and would “it” be different next time?

Geldof's self-aware question is no less pressing today. A generosity tsunami has followed a real one in South-East Asia. Almost $1,000 dollars a head for the roughly five million people most affected must be a world record for such a disaster. It dwarfs responses to Bangladeshi floods, Iranian earthquakes and African Aids. Only so-called “humanitarian wars” claim more spending by Western states on poor countries — and much good it usually does them.

So is that it? On past record, perhaps a half of what has been pledged by governments will be delivered. Perhaps half of that will reach the intended needy, the rest going on Western suppliers, middlemen and corruption. The tide will subside. The world will congratulate itself on its generosity. Left behind will be a landscape of lessons covered in mud.

At a certain point this week I was gripped by a cloying despair. The media, bereft of other news, was interviewing the same distressed Asians for the umpteenth time. Governments were feuding with governments. Gossip columns were pitting celebrity against celebrity in the “giving stakes”, Bill Gates against Leonardo DiCaprio against Madonna. Business pages were listing the profit to generosity ratio of top FTSE companies, as if charity were a corporate supertax levied by the media.

A new medal table is updated daily. Is Australia edging ahead of Canada, or America ahead of France? I can see the point in governments rushing helicopters and landing craft to move survivors and supplies. I can see the point in sending doctors, engineers and materials to help to rebuild communities. I can see the point in donating hospitals, schools, libraries and fishing boats. Most of these things private charities do best because they are on the ground and are less bureaucratic than governments. It was much to the credit of Médecins sans Frontières this week when it declined further gifts because it could handle no more. At a time of megaphone compassion, it was a small voice of order.

What I cannot see is the point of grand gestures such as Britain’s offer to write off sovereign debts in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia or Sri Lanka, countries that have never asked for such a write-off. These debts were incurred partly through economic mismanagement, partly as a normal element in economic development. Writing off debt implies bankruptcy and would handicap new funding. Nor is there any way to compel debtor states to redirect cancelled payments to the needs of their poor.

Most afflicted parts of Indonesia and Sri Lanka have suffered government neglect through civil war. Such people are most unlikely to benefit from a surge in central wealth. For a Treasury obsessed with ring-fencing to offer the least ring-fenced form of relief is bizarre.

This week’s donor conference in Jakarta will doubtless draw back from Gordon Brown’s headline-grabbing offer. A debt repayment moratorium is more likely than cancellation. More to the point, debt relief should be a coherent global policy, not one pushed this way and that by the incidence of earthquakes or tidal waves. Nor should it depend on whether a country has been invaded by America, as with the proposed debt relief for Iraq. That country, properly run, should be able to service its own debts.

The argument for relieving Third World debts built up in the 1980s and 1990s is overwhelming. Mr Brown is right that far. Many loans were offered at cynically high rates of interest, designed to enrich not the debtor countries, let alone their poor, but the donors and their corporations. That 40 per cent of the domestic product of many African states should go on debt service is plainly obscene. Whether these states will tolerate being told how to spend their repatriated cash is moot. What is clear is that such reckless lending should never have started and should stop. Yet Mr Brown seems to want it resumed.

In its place should come trade. Trade is what links the tsunami rescue to Third World debt. The West will do most to help the disaster-plagued and debt-burdened countries of Africa and Asia by buying their produce, from textiles and food to holidays, and not dumping surpluses on their markets. The great hypocrisy is for America, Europe and the Far East to offer aid yet continue de facto economic sanctions on trade. There was no mention this week of the 20 per cent tariff on South-East Asian textiles or the refusal to end food subsidies and import controls. There was no mention of what would do most for the world's poor, a revival of imperial preference in the form of Third World preference. This does not happen because spending taxes on aid is cheap but confronting domestic trade lobbies is politically painful.

The tsunami response has given us a glimpse of the wider, poorer world as it really is, selfish, short-term and chaotic. No amount of aid will end Indonesia's misrule of Aceh province or Sri Lanka’s wretched civil war against the Tamils. No fine words can justify Britain spending more on “humanitarian” war in Iraq (some £6 billion) than the entire world is offering to tsunami victims. Even as private citizens we flood South-East Asia with relief, but neglect the millions oppressed in North Korea, Burma, Sudan and the Congo. They are not in the news and their regimes are not to our liking. We are kind to some for the misfortune of enduring a tidal wave, but ignore others for the misfortune of enduring a tyranny.

There is no rhyme or reason to any of this. Global charity is drawn by television cameras to the magnet of disaster. It follows them in and it follows them out. So do governments. We can handle only so much compassion before “that is it, then”. When “that” is over, as Geldof would say, it is unlikely the world is any closer to Mr Brown’s naive goal, “to eradicate world poverty”.