Aid fatigue?

It seems that the prospect of over five million people being threatened with death by starvation, in one area in a fairly short space of time, is no longer headline news unless attached to a famous name. That is a very real possibility in parts of Ethiopia now, after the latest droughts and further harvest failures. And yet this time the first headlines to appear were “Geldof flies to Ethiopia as starvation threatens” (Guardian, 30 November/1 December 1987).

Whatever his good intentions, Bob Geldof must know that the recurrence of the problem itself proves the utter futility of charity as even a partial solution to the obscene contradictions of present-day society. Indeed, he said he found it distressing that over the past three years “nothing serious has been done”. Perhaps he thinks we’re not trying hard enough to redistribute our poverty. In fact, some commentators this time have invented the phrase “aid fatigue”, to suggest that workers scraping by in countries like Britain and Ireland may have genuine compassion for those who are even worse off than we are, but can only take so much sermonising and scolding from public figures who preach to us that if only we were a bit more caring, we really could humanise the global slaughter-house we live in . . .

In fact, the anger of Saint Bob has now found a new object. On flying out from Heathrow on a “fact-finding” mission to Ethiopia, he said that he laid the blame for the famine at the door of the “Marxist” government, and that he would be requesting a meeting with the Ethiopian leader, Colonel Mengistu, to ask him about his arms purchasing policy. He failed to say whether he would be popping in to the Pope on his way, to sort out a few problems there, or perhaps a few of the other heads of governments who could tell him a thing or two about arms purchases. After all, the governments of the world as a whole spend, between them, over one million dollars on weapons every minute of the day and night. They do not do this because they are evil (however suitable that description may be); they do it as a necessary aspect of the world capitalist system which a majority have been persuaded to accept or support. Rather than confusing the issue by isolating one leader or government in particular to “blame”, it might in fact prove far more “compassionate” in the long run for Geldof to focus publicity on the practical answer. Only a global overthrow of property relationships across the world will rescue the world’s dispossessed from the trap of poverty and hunger. It might make better publicity to demand chats with the Colonel about what arms he buys, but if Geldof is going to join the fools’ chorus which scoffs at the possibility of the socialist solution, then he should have stuck to singing songs.

We are now told, however, that the colonel is a marxist revolutionary. Of course, Ethiopia has no more relation to Marx’s ideas of human liberation that do Russia, China, America or Britain. Socialists have good reason to be bitterly opposed to every one of these regimes. In fact Marx and his collaborator Engels understood very well how capitalism (whether state-controlled or “private”) starves people. In 1865, Engels wrote to Marx:

    Too little is produced . . . But why is too little produced? Not because the limits of production are exhausted. No, but because the limits of production are determined not by the number of hungry bellies, but by the number of purses able to buy and pay.

The military conflict in Ethiopia between separatist guerrillas and government forces, which has made the situation even worse, is itself a product of the international power struggles of the capitalist world order, based ultimately on the pursuit of profit and power by a minority. Neither can nature be held responsible: it is poverty which has made people increasingly vulnerable to any problems of rainfall and harvests, and the poor condition of the soil in much of Africa is also largely caused by social and economic factors. The world as a whole is crying out for social transformation, and if you start talking about the change to a system of production of use, wherever you may be, then you are part of that process of change, rather than remaining one of those who would put it off forever, with a collection of leaky sticking plasters.

Clifford Slapper