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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in