This important book is a hard one to read. Not just because the subject matter is global poverty or that it reveals the complicity the western world and the aid business have had in making the two-thirds world poorer, but because it is unremitting in its style and content.
Ken Gibson is the Executive Director of The Leprosy Mission Ireland. It might seem surprising that the leader of a development agency is daring to write a book that encourages less aid to be given to the poor. But Gibson is writing predominantly about intergovernmental aid (otherwise known as multilater aid) which represents 96 per cent of all aid that is given. Gibson is careful to distinguish between good aid – he cites the Expanded Programme of Immunisation which saw a radical decrease in the number of children dying from preventable diseases and save around three million lives a year. Gibson’s main concern is to challenge the way that western aid – especially that of the US and to a lesser extent the UK – have been using aid payments to their own advantage.
Gibson gives a lot of space to a critique of the Official Development Assistance (p.76), which confusingly is listed as Overseas Development Aid (p. 160) in the glossary which cites the 51 abbreviations used in this 160 page book. The ODA was established at the end of the second world war primarily to rehabilitate the devastated European theatre of war. In President Truman’s plans the ODA was to help “bring the underdeveloped majority of the world’s population to the point of being developed”. Perhaps President Nixon summed up the rationale behind the aid programme:
“Let us remember that the main point of development aid is not to help other nations but to help ourselves.” (p.87)
Gibson then systematically exposes almost every example of intergovernmental aid as serving the national interests of the donor rather than the best interests of the receivers. The World Bank, the IMF and ODA come in for heavy criticism. There appear to have been so many strings to the aid that it was a massive form of global manipulation and power politics. Gibson even sites occasions where countries were literally held to ransom as aid was withheld just as countries faced severe famine and more stringent conditions were placed on the receivers knowing they couldn’t refuse as people were literally starving to death.
The final chapter includes suggestions from Gibson on better ways forward. Suggestions include:
- redefining aid as “Compensatory Finance” which would involve the west repaying its debt to the rest.
- Encouraging protectionism in underdeveloped countries where trade tariffs were introduced to help infant industries.
- Protection of local food markets by stopping the dumping of food developing countries’ food surplus in under-developed countries.
- Prioritisation of debt relief.
- Devolution of IMF operations to regional blocks such as the African union.
This book is harrowing reading. It is hard work as there are lots and lots of figures and abbreviations. The book does not have a specifically Christian audience in mind despite being written from someone who works from a historically Christian development charity. There is no mention of God, scripture or any explicit theological analysis. You could argue that a Christian worldview is assumed but is this because of the latent borrowed intellectual capital of the legacy of Christendom or because of a deliberate application of Christian values on a global tragedy? It seems impossible to tell from the book itself.
There is no real call to action in the book either – the aim seems to be informing a wider group of people as to the flaws of the majority of intergovernmental aid which may inform the way we engage politically. But sadly I think the truth that this book exposes will remain read by a small minority as a result of its writing style, narrow focus and lack of application to most readers.