Clare Short is right - there is more to the Third World than famine

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The Independent Online
READING aloud a profile of the billionaire super-nerd Bill Gates the other day, I announced to anyone who was listening: "Did you know that Bill Gates is rich enough to give every man, woman and child in the whole world $9 each?" "So, why doesn't he?" asked my seven year-old daughter.

It was a good question and not one that I could easily answer. In fact, I find it difficult to explain to my children the vast inequalities they see all round them. "Why is that man sleeping outside?" "Where does he brush his teeth?" "Why is that old lady looking in dustbins?".

I can't explain it to them because I can't explain to myself, and when images of starving children appear on TV, I often turn away. This is not because I am so sensitive, or have seen too many to care any more, or suffer from that new complaint "compassion fatigue". I find them simply overwhelming, the misery so vast and yet so outside my own experience, that I feel powerless.

Something must be done, but what exactly? Putting a tenner in an envelope seems a futile gesture when famine comes around year after year. Obviously not everyone has the same reaction. Images of hunger spur on all kinds of ordinary people to get something done, to try to help, to reach out to those they will never meet, to feel a common human bond. This is laudable and is why Clare Short's remarks over the appeals for aid in the Sudan have been seen as controversial: callous even. She doesn't care about starving children, whereas others do. Now even caring is competitive: whose hearts bleed more? Clare Short's? Unicef's? The single mother's who pledges what she can ill afford?

Yet the points that Short has made are worth making. Her argument is a complicated one which is seen as somehow tricksy in the emotional context of starving babies.

She is concerned in general at the portrayal of developing countries as full of "constant suffering, failure and famine", as always in crisis. She has also been critical of the "mutual parasitism of the media and the fund-raiser" as this can lead to terrible pessimism about the possibility of progress.

None of these arguments are especially new. There has been for some time, especially among the more politicised non-governmental organisations in the development field a growing awareness that images of skeletal Africans feed into a stereotype of passivity and powerlessness. Victimhood may rule in the West, but isn't it better in this case to show how people might lift themselves out of it? Television itself devours such imagery, sometimes provoking a response such as Live Aid, sometimes provoking the cynical stories we hear of camera crews rejecting certain children because they are not thin enough to film.

As Short points out, we actually spend fewer TV hours than we did 10 years ago focusing on the developing world, so that the images we see tend to be ones of acute crisis. This is what Jonathan Dimbleby has called "the media's preoccupation with the horror of mass starvation".

Certainly, as someone who grew up with pictures of Biafra and Ethiopia, I did not recognise malnutrition when it was in front of my eyes because it did not look the way it was supposed to.

When I travelled around the mountains of Bolivia, the children never cried and were not that thin. Everyone always seemed to be eating, though the food had no goodness in it. Girls of 18 looked as though they were 35 and breast-fed their four-year-olds because it kept them quiet. It was only when I asked what the tiny clay pots were in every market that I began to realise something of what was going on. They were to bury alongside the babies so that would have enough food in the next life.

This wasn't "famine". Indeed, what is going on in Sudan is not classified as famine.

There are measures for this kind of thing, apparently. Basically, Short's message is that throwing money at the problem, however well intended, is not enough. The civil war has meant that the underlying difficulty is not one of resources but of access. This is debatable. Some will argue that not enough money has been promised in the first place. Short is taking a long- term view here and one that also makes it difficult for people to know how to respond.

If the problem is the civil war, then what are we, the citizens of Britain, to do about it? Leave it entirely in the hands of the Government to put political pressure on far-away regimes? This is so abstract compared to the short-term solution of giving money.

However, we need to understand Short's starting point, and again this is not a new one.

While it is easy to be overwhelmed by mass poverty we do in fact know how to reduce it. We know what works. Investment in health and education, particularly in the education of women, helps lift people out of abject poverty. We already know about fair trade, human rights and debt relief. We know that sustainability is not some ecological mumbo-jumbo, but the only way forward for economies of the South to grow. Yet we are dogged by pessimism, a sense that problems will always be there because they have always been there. Short's recent interventions have been a way of trying to inject some optimism into the whole process, of saying, "Let's generate the political will to do what needs doing".

Short is known for saying sometimes what she should not say and sometimes for saying what has to be said. To talk politics in the face of dying babies may have backfired, but surely her job as a politician is to look at the big picture, not just react to the horrific pictures in a tabloid newspaper?

The debate is really one about what can spur political change.

How do we create the political will to reduce absolute poverty? We can respond when it is already too late and pat ourselves on the back for our humanitarian efforts, or we can try to understand the causes of poverty.

Of course, people who work in the field do both. Reporters report, aid agencies run feeding centres, politicians make speeches, and the public remains bewildered even as it weeps over the six o'clock news at so much sorrow.

Short's appeal is simply that we focus a little more on the success stories of development, of those who with great dignity are able to change their lives.

Giving is often the easiest thing to do. Engaging our heads as well as our hearts may be too much to ask. After all, feeling is a lot more fashionable than thinking these days.

But we must ask ourselves some hard questions - otherwise we too become victims of incomprehensible political machinations, in danger of accepting the massive inequalities of the way in which the world is run.

And that truly is a hopeless situation.