Yesterday the Financial Times reported that many wealthy countries have failed to fulfil their aid pledges, given only a few years back at the G8 summit atGleneagles (‘Wealthy countries fail to hit aid target’, FT 17/02/10).

‘The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development … publishes a report on Wednesday predicting that its rich member countries will collectively give a net $107bn in aid this year… But promises made in 2005 … implied a pledge of almost $130bn by this time.’

No one familiar with the sorry history of aid can be much surprised at this outcome: we practically never do do what we promise, we take back most of what we give, and people die as a result. In fact it is more surprising that we got so close to our targets, and that so many countries are likely to fulfil their individual commitments.

More interesting was the reaction of Max Lawson of campaign Oxfam, who is quoted as saying that: ‘This is a damning indictment of rich nations, who can find plenty of money to save banks but precious little to save lives’.

Obvious enough, of course. But in what sense is this really a ‘damning indictment’? Why have governments found it so easy (relatively speaking) to save the bankers and not the poor? Is it because they are so callow that their priorities are utterly wrong-headed? Quite possibly, and we should not doubt the extent to which the largesse to bankers was the product of very deliberate political manipulation (on which, see Matt Taibbi’s excellent articles here and here).

But that does not explain why the response was quite so immediate and unqualified. That takes us to the question of the relative roles played in our own societies of aid and the banks. Aid is still perceived as a matter of charity, whereas the banking system is the very core of the global economy. If we disregard the interests of the global poor and of under-developed countries, the results are likely to be seen as ‘regrettable’; but if our banking system falls, that takes the economy with it, and the economy is the system through which we produce, distribution, exchange and consume pretty much everything we need to do anything at all – from our daily bread to all that aid, of course.

Yet it is by no means obvious that this is the full answer. In particular:

  1. Why is it that the centre of ‘the system’ lies in finance, which produces only money, and not the ‘real’ economy, which produces the goods and services needed to actually do anything for real people?
  2. The phrase ‘the system’ implies a neutral mechanism that somehow serves us all – as does the way I described it above. But is the economy really neutral, even at that level? Or does it in fact serve on be special set of interests, even when apparently just going about its day-to-day operations?



Answer these questions and a completely different picture emerges – a picture that makes it clear not only that we will never address the problems of developing countries with any sincerity but also that that very economic system will worsen the economic and environmental plight not only of the global poor and of under-developed countries but, in quite short order, the rest of us too.

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