Just enough net for a man to trap himself: To give wisely is difficult, so charity begins with harsh self-assessment. Yet to criticise publicly the work of aid agencies is, it seems, unacceptable

Click to follow
I WAS astonished to find that what I wrote about aid last week drew protests from representatives of five agencies - astonished because, while I was writing the piece, I was thinking: 'The charity people will say, oh, this is only basic; this is the first week of our training course.' Instead, I seem to have stubbed my toe against a taboo. One is not allowed to take a critical attitude to charity work in public, or to say precisely the things that charity workers say to each other.

Well, that makes me only keener to return to the point, which was an ethical one. When we give we are interfering in other people's lives, and we should judge our own charitable actions in the harshest light. If we, as it were, employ an expert agency to act on our behalf in the matter of giving, we should judge their efforts in the harshest light as well. It is difficult to give wisely. And it is no use saying, 'Well, at least I'm doing something,' if the world is going to turn around and say, 'What you are doing is the wrong thing.'

I took as an example of misleading simplicity in advertising the idea that if you give a man a net, you give him a livelihood. I'll give you a real example of a case of giving a man a net.

A man comes to me and says: 'In your warehouse you have a net which isn't being used. Could you give it to me? That way I can have a livelihood.'

Now the man in question has been ill, and indeed, the last time I saw him I thought he was going to die. He's a friend of mine, and I'm delighted he's still alive. The net in question is very long. It is of a type that is used along the shore. You need a small boat and about two families to work it - the net is paid out from the boat and the two ends pulled in, from the shore, by the two families, while someone in the boat rows along making sure that the net is not being snagged.

And I can see immediately that this net would help my friend towards a livelihood, because he wouldn't have to exert himself pulling it in. He would be, as it were, the manager of the net. If he were a good manager, if he found the right people to work with, if he maintained the net well, and if the shoreline has not been overfished, he would certainly have something to subsist on. But only to subsist, because the type of fish you catch are small and cheap and go no further than the local market.

A little further questioning reveals that the net as it is cannot be used. It needs a complete refit with the right kind of cords and floats and so forth, and this is going to be quite expensive. My friend didn't mention any of this at first, because he didn't want to seem to be asking for too much. Maybe he thought he could borrow the money for the refurbishment, but if he thought that he was being optimistic.

Considering the interest rates of the village usurers, I am quite certain that before long he would have lost control of the net. Which reminds me, all of a sudden, why it is that I come to possess the net in the first place. Someone else who had fallen into debt persuaded me to do him a favour by buying it off him. You could say that the net in question was already a failed project.

In all of this, I am an individual agent. But if I were an agency employee obliged to write an assessment of this little give- a-man-a-net scheme, I would be at a loss to compute the chances of its success. I know that the project as originally described by my friend was doomed. As revised by me (that my friend gets the net and the materials; and I see to it that the man who is to repair the net is paid directly, so that the money does not get sidetracked into some debt), it has . . . well, it's still a big gamble.

I note that those who protested on behalf of Christian Aid, Actionaid, the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development, Oxfam and Intermediate Technology against my last column make grand play of the fact that their projects are often 'devised and run by poor communities themselves', that they are 'working with local people who themselves set the agenda'. How healthy] But this of itself does not guarantee success. There are villages I know where, if you asked the menfolk what they really needed for their fishing, they would say: more dynamite. That's the agenda they would set. The poor are not always as picturesquely wise as this line of argument might imply.

In the 'homely example' (as John Major would say) that I have given, the initiative comes precisely from the 'poor community', but it has to be interpreted (am I being told the whole story?) and assessed. If successful, the giving of the net would perhaps transform the poor, sick man into an object of envy in his community. Is this wise? How would I feel when told that the acquisition of the net had made him enviable to the extent that somebody knifed him? All this comes into the individual calculation. How much more so, as I said last week, in the case of a charity?

As far as Barbara Bryant is concerned (she wrote on behalf of Intermediate Technology), I would say she should have engraved above her desk the slogan 'Think Hard Before You Give a Man a Net'. As far as the other joint correspondents are concerned, to be frank, I couldn't care less about the religious charities, who have their own unpredictable beliefs. I do care about the response from Marcus Thompson, of Oxfam, who put his name to this: 'It is true that development sometimes creates tensions, as much in the developed countries as in the Third World, because it raises fundamental questions about political, economic and social structures. Raising such questions can and does 'alarm the local politicians' and, of course, we must listen to them. But, ultimately, we are led by the needs of ordinary people. If this is what Mr Fenton meant by interference, let the poor be judge.'

Yes. Yes. Yes. This is precisely what I mean by interference. You go into someone else's country and you set up a gigantic agency to meet the needs of the poor. Whether you have been invited by the government, or have barged in not taking no for an answer, you have to know what you are up to. You must know that you are committing a grave interference. You must not think that you can just 'listen to' the local politicians, or the national politicians for that matter.

The poor will not be judge if you get all this wrong, because the poor will be dead. You must know that you are working in sovereign states, and that your presence is going to cause disruption.

To judge yourself harshly is the beginning of charity. Oddly enough, I thought I learnt this from Oxfam.