Faith & Reason: Real giving is altruistic - it expects nothing in return

The Commission for Africa's report asks us to focus on the nature of giving. In the case of Africa we have been not so much giving as receiving

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Africa is the home of resilient grandmothers. I've met some of them, and they have my deepest admiration. Left to bring up the next generation when their own adult children have fallen victim to Aids, these women bear the full brunt of Africa's problems today. Waking up every day with a dozen small mouths to feed on virtually no income is not an easy prospect. Far too many of them face acute poverty, poor sanitation, malaria, insufficient access to safe water, and limited provisions for educating the young. And there is no evidence that the daily task of caring for toddlers and children grows easier with old age. "How do you manage?" I asked Esther, aged 70. "I pray," she replied.

Africa is the home of resilient grandmothers. I've met some of them, and they have my deepest admiration. Left to bring up the next generation when their own adult children have fallen victim to Aids, these women bear the full brunt of Africa's problems today. Waking up every day with a dozen small mouths to feed on virtually no income is not an easy prospect. Far too many of them face acute poverty, poor sanitation, malaria, insufficient access to safe water, and limited provisions for educating the young. And there is no evidence that the daily task of caring for toddlers and children grows easier with old age. "How do you manage?" I asked Esther, aged 70. "I pray," she replied.

Africa is the only continent to have become poorer over the last 30 years. The 10 per cent of the world's poor who lived in Sub-Saharan Africa in 1970 had multiplied to 50 per cent by 2000. And, in spite of the decisive commitment of the "millennium goals" to eradicate extreme poverty, reduce child mortality, achieve universal education and combat Aids by 2015, the reality is that here there has been almost no progress. International debt, corruption in high places, inadequate communications and nagging issues of trade justice have compounded the problems.

What is very clear is that Africa needs more money. And, as the Commission on Africa's report says, that money needs to come from aid and the release of debt, promised by the G7 finance ministers last month. If Africa's grandmothers are to have even a fighting chance of nurturing their grandchildren into adulthood, it must be the sort of aid and debt relief which filters down to them, addressing their needs and building up the kinds of infrastructures that they can begin to rely on.

The problem is that, in the past, despite our many promises, rich countries have not been very good at giving to Africa. What we have called "giving" has in fact been a product of varied motives. Aid in the 1970s and 1980s, for example, was mixed up in the politics of the Cold War. It provided an effective way for the West to gain strategic allies and counter Russian influence in the Third World. Aid was also tied up with prestigious but not very useful projects: expensive equipment often sat idle because local electricity generators could not supply the power needed. Aid has been linked with the sale of arms, often with disastrous consequences. It was used to support corrupt regimes. Money meant for Africa came back to the West in private bank accounts. (As recently as 2002 corruption was estimated to cost Africa $150bn.) Because our giving was often compromised, so were the results, doing harm as well as good.

Crippling debt repayment has also meant that the net flow of money travelled from Africa to the West rather than the other way round. For every $1 given in aid, $3 came back to rich countries in interest repayments. Giving was really receiving. Currency devaluations made matters worse. Whereas the devaluation of the American dollar reduced US debts to the rest of the world, the devaluation of African currencies increased their debt, making the burden of repayment impossible. And much aid never arrived; little of the 0.7 per cent of GDPs promised 30 years has been given.

In all these cases Western giving has been compromised or illusory. We have often given to the powerful rather than to the poor and our motives have been at best ambiguous and at worst self-serving. It may be that, in order to be serious about the aid detailed by the Africa Commission, we need to reflect on what it really means to give.

There can be few places which make the demands of giving so explicit as Christ's Sermon on the Mount. For he strips away anything which smacks of self-interest, or future gains. Instead, real giving is an outworking of neighbour love. It is just and impartial; it does not discriminate between people or show favours. Real giving is altruistic; it operates on the principle of not wanting anything back, expecting nothing in return. It is abundant and generous: "a good measure, pressed down". Real giving is not ostentatious or patronising, but flows quietly from those with resources to those in need. In fact it is only God who fully recognises the depth of what is given and reciprocates.

This may be the kind of giving we need if we are to dismantle trade barriers with Africa and the subsidies which undercut the wages of African farmers. It is this sort of giving which could fund new roads, power grids and higher education. In fact, only this kind of giving will allow us to double our aid budget, and cancel debts. Yet even to give like this is well within our capacity and barely dents our wealth. The bigger givers by far are Africa's grandmothers, for they give all they have.

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