Faith & Reason: Could the Vicar of Dibley be wrong about world poverty?

Overseas aid and debt relief go some way towards alleviating poverty, but there are other factors to take into account

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Last week 600 women clergy, led by the Vicar of Dibley, besieged Downing Street in support of the Make Poverty History campaign. The formal launch takes place today. This could be an enormously important initiative. It calls for the forgiveness of unpayable debt; fair trade with poor countries; and the doubling of overseas aid. The campaign is primarily aimed at the powerful G8 group of countries, and the European Union, in the year when the UK has the presidency of both.

Last week 600 women clergy, led by the Vicar of Dibley, besieged Downing Street in support of the Make Poverty History campaign. The formal launch takes place today. This could be an enormously important initiative. It calls for the forgiveness of unpayable debt; fair trade with poor countries; and the doubling of overseas aid. The campaign is primarily aimed at the powerful G8 group of countries, and the European Union, in the year when the UK has the presidency of both.

This is a tremendous opportunity. It could create a new moral commitment to global justice, and it could make practical help much more effective. And it is good to see Britain, and the British churches, taking a determined and imaginative lead. And it is wonderful to see Tony Blair and Gordon Brown competing to smile upon the process.

But there is a danger that other important issues may be ignored. I want to look at two of them, from the standpoint of one poor country - Sri Lanka. I once worked there in a joint Methodist-Jesuit project on the remote east coast, offering technical training and job creation. One scheme was to make industrial starch out of cassava and sell it to the local state-owned paper factory. Our product was terrific, but the factory would buy only from well-connected members of the Colombo élite. So we railed tons of the stuff 200 miles to Muslim textile manufacturers in the back streets of Colombo. That was fun. But the project depended on raw materials drawn from a vast area. It collapsed when the countryside became too dangerous.

That danger arose from ethnic politics. The Tamil minority had been privileged under British rule, and were naturally displaced by the Sinhalese majority. However, as the economy nose-dived, and with nothing else to offer, politicians began to compete to threaten the Tamils. After one election, the new government unleashed a pogrom on the minority. State-sponsored mass murder continued fitfully for a decade, until the Tamils launched an independence campaign unprecedented in its ruthless violence, and which continues today.

These are two of the many factors that make poverty so intractable. Fairer trade, debt relief and more aid don't change them. The first is that antipathy to commercial activity. In much of the poor world, business is the possession of the political élite, who use it to their own ends. It is futile to invite them to join a competitive world market when they have suppressed and pillaged their own markets. Sri Lanka is slowly abandoning these attitudes. Most of Africa is not. Things will not change until millions more poor business people are allowed to get rich - providing the jobs that support families and the taxes that pay for services.

Similarly with ethnic diversity. Many conflicts in the developing world have their roots in the colonial past. So deep humility is essential here. But a new phenomenon has arisen, which turns smouldering resentment into an inferno of conflict. It's democracy. Much modern poverty is generated by bad economic policy. Democratic politics then become a competition to blame the outcome on some minority. Democracy is a sham without a real concern for human rights.

The east coast of Sri Lanka, of course, has just been devastated by the tsunami. Massive aid is needed. But it will work only where there is a flourishing business culture and a minimum level of social cohesion. Entrepreneurs know what they've lost, and they know how to do it better next time. They can be helped much more easily than a mob of state dependants. And rebuilding is easier when the government deals fairly with its peoples.

It is good that the campaign is targeting the European Union, home of the world's worst protectionism, from which flows deprivation and death. Our past, of course, is even worse - we have our own terrible history of barmy economics and vengeful politics. But the EU also has something to teach. After the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the Union created a bold and effective plan. Applicant states were compelled to adopt three measures of reform - to develop market economies, to create democratic institutions and to imbue them with respect for human rights. The prize of membership provided a huge incentive to make the wrenching changes that were needed.

That European experience should be heeded. Fair trade won't work where local trading is suppressed. Aid and debt relief work well only where democracy includes a genuine respect for difference. Behind the cheesy smiles, Blair and Brown know this, so their efforts to make poverty history do not run the risk of making it permanent. So if the Churches ignore these factors, they won't do any harm. They will just look silly - a bit like the Vicar of Dibley.

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