In a Faraway Pond

David Runciman

  • Non-Governmental Politics edited by Michel Feher
    Zone, 693 pp, £24.95, May 2007, ISBN 978 1 890951 74 0

On 24 July, in a speech to the Rwandan parliament, David Cameron said that the old ideological divisions concerning aid and trade – aid is ‘wasteful’, trade is ‘unfair’ – needed to be abandoned in favour of a commitment to what works. He talked about the importance of transparency and accountability at both governmental and non-governmental levels to ensure that resources were used efficiently and money reached its targets. He committed a future Conservative government to spending $1 billion a year to fight malaria and insisted that rich countries should stop luring the brightest and best medical staff from poor countries to work in their hospitals. All in all, it was a sensible speech, but almost nothing Cameron said was reported in the British media or anywhere else. What received all the coverage was the fact that he was in Rwanda, talking about the problems of Africa, when his own parliamentary constituency was under three feet of water.

In his speech, Cameron made a brief, hopeless attempt to forestall the inevitable criticism. In a passage headed ‘Flooding’, he declared: ‘There are some people in Britain who told me not to come. They said I should stay at home and worry about domestic concerns. Well, let me tell them – let me tell you – that in the 21st century . . . there is no “domestic” and “foreign” any more.’ No one believed him. Even a Rwandan television journalist felt obliged to quiz him about his absence from flood-stricken Witney (the question, the British media were able to report, came ‘unprompted by the British media’). When Cameron returned home, he was assailed from all sides, by many in his own party, by the Tory press, and of course by his political opponents, who smelled blood. When he appeared in the Commons for Prime Minister’s Questions, the Labour benches jeered as though he had been caught with his trousers down. Imagine it – talking to the parliament of a country that was seeking to recover from genocide when some rivers in Oxfordshire had burst their banks. How we laughed.

This is governmental politics in action: poisonous, hypocritical, fatuous and absurd. It is hardly surprising that many of those with the most direct interest in helping countries like Rwanda would prefer it if politicians like Cameron kept away. He didn’t just make a laughing stock of himself, he also made a mockery of the case he was trying to put forward. ‘Warm words from rich countries won’t feed hungry children in Africa,’ Cameron said, in a classic example of the sort of warm words that won’t feed hungry children in Africa. The problem was Cameron himself, who craves power but for now has none, and whose preoccupation with presentation means that everything he says is suspected of being nothing more than posturing. But it is also worth remembering that the entire British political class – the government, the opposition, the BBC, the press – colluded in presenting Cameron’s Rwandan adventure as a mistake. Would Gordon Brown, who has some power to act and a track record of serious intent when it comes to Africa, have fared any better if he had been in Rwanda and Cameron had been in London, chairing emergency committees while waiting for the flood waters to subside? If anything, I suspect, he would have come off even worse – it would probably have marked the beginning of the end of his premiership, well before the self-inflicted wounds of the autumn. July now seems a long time ago, and Cameron will be hoping that his Rwandan tribulations are behind him. But the lesson that any rational politician would take from his experiences is that nothing about the interconnection between the domestic and the foreign in a globalised world makes it worth getting on the wrong side of a clash between them.

And yet what Cameron said is true: warm words won’t feed hungry children. The rich nations of the world have to be persuaded to act. Who is going to persuade them if their politicians can’t even make the attempt without risking ridicule? There is no shortage of people willing to try – rock stars, economists, philosophers. But while these people are less susceptible to ridicule (though by no means immune to it), they are also less well placed to turn their words into actions. They have to rely on the force of their arguments. Yet what are forceful arguments in the absence of political muscle? Take one of the best-known arguments in contemporary moral philosophy: Peter Singer’s attempt to prove that there is no ‘domestic’ and ‘foreign’ when it comes to suffering in a globalised world. Singer first made his case in 1971, in response to the humanitarian crisis in Bangladesh. The core of the argument is straightforward:

If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it . . . An application of this principle would be as follows: if I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.

For Singer, asking the citizens of the affluent world to donate a substantial part of their wealth to organisations that can direct it towards the world’s neediest children is like asking them to get their clothes muddy: it will be somewhat unpleasant but morally insignificant, since this is money they don’t fundamentally need – the loss will do them no real harm – but which could save lives elsewhere. In response to the claim that the world’s neediest children are not drowning in a pond nearby but far away, so that we cannot just wade in to help them, Singer states that distance is irrelevant.

It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbour’s child ten yards from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away . . . The fact that a person is physically near to us, so that we have personal contact with him, may make it more likely that we shall assist him, but this does not show that we ought to help him rather than another who happens to be further away.

It is a troubling argument. What Singer says is almost impossible to argue with, but also very difficult to accept. Moral philosophers, who don’t like the idea that something can be both unarguable and unacceptable, have tried to show that Singer has misrepresented important features of morality, including the moral significance of spatial ties. Some would also say that Singer trivialises the economic issues involved, and that getting help to those who need it is never so simple. Singer’s response is that this is not about making the best use of our money but about saving lives and preventing avoidable suffering: money does that, and there exist many professionally staffed and experienced organisations, such as Oxfam and Save the Children, that can say where the money is needed. It is true that the aid channelled through these organisations has not so far prevented the need for more aid, but that may be simply because we have never given enough. If, as Singer once suggested, everyone in the West donated to Oxfam or some equivalent organisation their entire income above what they need for a comfortable existence (Singer suggested a threshold of $30,000 in 1971, so let’s call it $100,000 today), the world would be a very different place. Yet we know that almost no one will do this, unless forced to do so at the point of a gun, and no government is going to apply that sort of pressure. So it would be simpler to say that Singer’s argument, even if morally true and practically feasible, turns out to be politically irrelevant. Moral strictures of this kind have no purchase on the facts of political existence. Morality can’t tell political actors what to do. Only politics can do that.

The difficulty this poses for anyone who wishes that politics might be done differently, and better, is a theme that unites many of the contributors to Non-Governmental Politics. In his excellent introduction, Michel Feher spells out some of the tensions inherent in the idea that politics is failing many of the world’s neediest inhabitants, and yet it is only politics that can rescue them. The failures of governmental politics to deal with preventable suffering can draw its critics into fantasies of a non-political or post-political world, which simply leaves the governments they criticise with an even freer hand. It can also play into the hands of neoliberal supporters of radical free-market solutions, who would like nothing better than to wish the state away. In their dealings with individual governments, NGOs face a series of equally tough choices. If they ignore what governments do, by claiming to be above politics, they risk becoming bystanders to catastrophe – like the Red Cross handing out parcels to those on their way to Auschwitz. But if they wish to confront the failures of government, then they have to confront governments too, and in a language politicians will understand – with threats, or bribes, or more bureaucratic entanglement. They also have to decide if it makes sense for NGOs to take on the jobs that governments have abdicated. Should NGOs step in where governments fail, or should they push governments not to fail in the first place? One alternative risks undermining what governmental politics is capable of, and the other risks overplaying it. It is relatively easy for NGOs to find themselves criticising government for doing too much and for doing too little. What is much harder is to find a way of doing politics differently themselves.

How could politics be different without ceasing to be politics? What distinguishes governments is their capacity to compel people to act. Moral philosophy can’t do this. We pull children out of nearby ponds but we don’t rescue them from disasters far away, regardless of how philosophers tell us we ought to behave. But NGOs can try to turn disasters far away into immediate tragedies, both with respect to how we experience them and how we understand our capacity to do something about them. Hence the importance, emphasised by so many contributors to this volume, of bearing witness, of letting the world know what is happening and telling that story through the lived experiences of actual human beings. Charities can bring us face to face with children in immediate need, and show us how our own actions can make a difference; aid organisations and foreign observers can identify otherwise hidden or obscure pockets of human misery and draw them to our attention. Yet when faced with all this evidence of avoidable suffering, the fact remains that we do not experience it as bystanders, even though we are in a position to do something about it. We remain aware that someone else has a closer connection to what is going on than we do, by dint of having caused it, or having acquiesced in it, or simply having ignored it, even though they were there at the time. We are not the ones who are standing beside the shallow pond: someone else is. Singer is probably right that this fact should be of no moral significance, but it is of political significance, because it means we lack that sense of connection that draws people together, and encourages them to believe that they are implicated in one another’s fate. Politics depends on individuals feeling they have some special connection with other individuals, even strangers, that marks them out from the rest of the world.

The representatives of NGOs often make this connection with the people they are trying to help. But it has no political impact. Almost by definition, the people they are trying to help lack the power to make a difference by themselves; meanwhile, the people back in the rich countries who can make a difference have little in common with those trying to help on the ground. Charities try to establish a connection between the givers and the recipients of aid, but they can do little to forge a connection between the givers and the handers-out of aid; without that link, the experience of charitable giving lacks a crucial political dimension, which is one of collective solidarity. It becomes a question of transient emotion, of guilt and of human sympathy. In politics, these will only ever take you so far. Simply conveying the suffering of other human beings, and the readiness and efficiency with which something can be done to relieve it, no matter how immediate the message, does not create the depth of connection that makes a sustainable political movement possible.

It is this that lies unspoken behind two of the disconcerting messages in this book. The first is that non-governmental politics is increasingly handicapped by the drive towards transparency. Many of the contributors complain about the difficulties NGOs face in having constantly to submit themselves to oversight of their activities. In part, they suffer this because both governments and donors want to ensure that money is being used effectively; but it is also because governments (less so private donors) want to ensure that NGOs are not straying too far into politics. The Belgian foreign minister Louis Michel, later EU commissioner for humanitarian aid and development, once accused NGOs of operating with totally opaque and unaccountable structures. Nowadays, NGOs that accept EU funding must be willing to undergo audits up to twenty times a year. But NGOs themselves have often embraced the ideal of transparency as the best way to communicate what they are doing and what still remains to be done. The impetus for regulation is frequently self-imposed, as in the case of the splendidly named Comité de la Charte de Déontologie des Organisations Sociales et Humanitaires Faisant Appel à la Générosité Publique, to which most such French organisations now belong. In order to gain the trust of those on whom they depend for financial backing, both public and private, humanitarian organisations feel obliged to ensure that everything is above board and subject to rigorous scrutiny. But by making themselves transparent, they make it much harder to achieve the depth of connection that politics requires.

It is easy to assume, as Louis Michel suggests, that accountability is impossible without transparency. But as anyone who has been Belgian foreign minister must know, governments manage it. Governments present themselves as accountable because they must put themselves up for election, but the electoral process is nothing if not opaque. Politicians seeking a popular mandate do not lay themselves bare and they make sure not to expose the inner workings of the political system for everyone to see. Instead, they tell the electorate a story about how we are all in this together, which is then put to the test against the stories being told by their opponents. These stories are what gives governmental politics its hold on us, despite the fact that they are just stories. It is true that governments too are increasingly subject to auditing and oversight, as various regulatory bodies seek to guarantee that our money is not being wasted and that self-declared objectives are being met. But no politician would mistake this process of increasing transparency as a source of increasing legitimacy. If anything, it makes it more difficult for governments to keep people’s attention, and persuade them that politics still matters. This is why neoliberal free-marketeers are so keen to reduce governmental accountability to the sort of accountability governments expect of NGOs: it is a way of diminishing their ability to take decisive political action.

There is, however, one type of humanitarian organisation that seems to have resisted this trend towards transparency: these are the NGOs that have established politically durable connections between donors, aid-workers and recipients via the medium of religion. As Alex de Waal writes,

The model for ‘solidarity’ NGOs in the 1980s was leftist: the best examples included the Sandinistas, the Eritreans, and the struggle against apartheid. These models were vanishing in the 1990s, to the regret of many on the left, who called nostalgically for a reinvention of solidarity. This has in fact happened, but in ways that were not anticipated. The most vigorous and powerful solidarity politics has come from religious constituencies within the right wing, which have mobilised around causes such as southern Sudan and HIV/Aids – in the latter case with a distinct moral agenda. Christian morals are a powerful influence on aid politics.

This is the other unsettling theme that lies behind a number of the contributions to this book: it is increasingly religion, not class or poverty or some secular conception of justice, that brings non-governmental politics to life. Religious affiliations allow NGOs to paint a picture of the aid process that is, in their own words, ‘holistic’, and in which the sacrifices required of the affluent West to aid human development in the neediest parts of the world are given a meaning that goes beyond simply doing the right thing. As Erica Bornstein puts it in her description of the work of World Vision, the world’s largest Christian non-governmental organisation dealing in humanitarian aid, ‘Motivated by Jesus Christ’s example of service to humanity, this NGO translates acts of relief and development into Christian acts of love.’ As a result, World Vision has a story to tell that resists the reductive claims of the audit culture. Bornstein again: ‘The meaning of World Vision’s work – the degree to which its presence is felt by those giving and receiving assistance – cannot be measured by project reports or fiscal assessments.’ The only other organisations that can define their own purposes in such confidently grandiose terms are governments themselves.

But it is not just Christianity that animates non-governmental politics. Muslim NGOs, too, have been deeply and increasingly politicised over the last twenty or more years. Indeed, the world’s most prominent non-governmental organisation emerged from this politicisation of Muslim humanitarianism: al-Qaida was the product of Osama bin Laden’s involvement in channelling Saudi aid to refugees in Afghanistan and his realisation that this was a perfect opportunity to make a connection between relief work on the ground and a wider tale of global injustice. Unsurprisingly, the thought that terrorists can hide behind the warm words of humanitarian organisations infuriates Western governments. As Jérôme Bellion-Jourdan writes in his account of the politics of Muslim humanitarianism, long before 9/11 the US government was busy trying to cut off financial support for Muslim NGOs believed to have terrorist affiliations. On 24 September 2001, announcing that he was going to freeze assets belonging to 27 of these organisations, including charities, George Bush declared: ‘Just to show you how insidious these terrorists are, they oftentimes use nice-sounding, non-governmental organisations as fronts for their activities.’ Bush’s complaint against these Muslim charities is of course just the same as the complaint those charities would make against the US government: that nice-sounding words (like ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’) are routinely being used as a cover for acts of violence. To say this is not to suggest that there is a moral equivalence between Bush and the terrorists. It is not to say anything about morality at all. It is simply to point out that the politicisation of religiously based NGOs mimics one of the distinguishing features of governmental politics, which is the absence of transparency.

Non-governmental politics needs to avoid the trap of seeing its job as being to expose the hypocrisy of government. Hypocrisy is what makes governmental politics possible – it is the glue that holds it together. Religious NGOs may not see themselves as aping the hypocrisy of government, but their appeal nonetheless clearly depends on their readiness to combine an all-embracing humanitarianism with a sense of mission that makes sense only in their own terms. World Vision works on behalf of those in need, but everyone employed by World Vision has to pledge themselves first of all to the service of Jesus Christ. Faith-based charitable organisations in the US are able to compete with and sometimes to supplant the work of government, not simply because they are willing to do what governments ought to do (in Bornstein’s words, ‘to mop up the wreckage of social relations left by neoliberal capitalism’), but also because they can talk the language of politics – liberty, equality and fraternity. Christian aid programmes in the US seek to connect the individual with a wider community of believers while emphasising the responsibility of each individual for their own destiny: in Charitable Choice, the Bush-sponsored programme for faith-based welfare provision, ‘the individual chooses his or her own saviour and social service provider. It has become the responsibility, or freedom, of American citizens to carry the burden of their own welfare.’ Religious organisations can give everyone involved the sense that they are standing beside a shallow pond, facing a choice as to whether to leap in. This is what NGOs that do not wish to tie their offers of help to the imperatives of salvation have to compete with.

It does not follow from this that all religion is sublimated politics, any more than all politics is sublimated religion. But it does mean that moral and economic arguments for helping those most in need of our help which focus on the rational claims of truth and justice but neglect the frequently irrational ties of fraternity are going to struggle to be heard. In a world in which so much of the noise is being made by the likes of George Bush and Osama bin Laden, it is tempting for those of a rational turn of mind to opt out of the battle of the hypocrisies and simply try to make a difference on the ground. That’s what many NGOs attempt to do, and they often make a huge difference. But in opting out of hypocrisy they are opting out of politics, and it is still only through politics that the significant, transformative differences can be achieved.

Is there any story that rationalist, secular, humanitarian organisations can tell that will allow them to compete with the claims of governments on the one hand and faith-based organisations on the other? One hope, voiced occasionally in this collection, is that global warming will make the difference. Climate change raises the prospect of bringing home to everyone, even those in the affluent parts of the world, that we really are in this together and that it is no longer possible to suppose that distance makes a difference. De Waal writes about the impact of the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina on American political consciousness:

For American political leaders, humanitarianism was now becoming not only a ‘hard’ issue but a domestic one . . . Foreign humanitarian failures were an embarrassment; domestic ones are a political disaster. The domestication of humanitarianism is still in its earliest days, and it is too early to predict what its trajectory will be. But the repercussions may be far-reaching.

It is true that if the waters start rising everywhere, David Cameron’s claim that there is no domestic and foreign any more might start to sound more convincing. But for now the rising waters have served only to reinforce the hold that governmental politics has on this issue too. Katrina domesticated humanitarianism, but only in the sense that it became another stick to hit the Bush government with. It folded into the story that the Democrats wanted to tell. But so far it’s done nothing to persuade the American electorate that more of their money should go to NGOs that are able to target it where it’s needed most.