You call it charity, I call it interference: International aid organisations not only oversimplify the problems they find in Third World countries, they can also destabilise the local political situation

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IT IS no good trying to make a distinction between intervention and interference, as in the sentence: 'Of course it is right to intervene on behalf of the starving in Somalia, but we should not interfere in African politics.' Intervention is simply interference seen in a good light. I intervene, you interfere - that is the way we tend to think. Much better to understand that one's interventions are interferences, and to assess them on that basis, to judge them in a harsh light.

The familiar dilemma begins with an act of charity on the street: if this man asks me for the price of a meal, how do I know he will spend it on a meal and not on glue? There are two exit routes from this dilemma. The first is perhaps the more spiritually attractive: you say to yourself, I will give with no regard for the consequences, give in good faith and there the matter ends; I will 'cast my bread upon the waters'.

The moral and rational self is repelled by this kind of irresponsibility. It prefers the other exit route which says: if I intend to give a considerable sum of money, I will make sure I give it through some agent whose job it is to see that the money is well spent. The charities, in this sense, are doing a job for the donor. They interfere on his behalf.

And how they interfere] A sudden burst of charitable activity can send shock-waves through an economy. In Somalia at the moment, so I am told, people are scouring the length and breadth of the country simply to find enough cash to service the new exchange market. Every day, banknotes have to be found for the big spenders, the charities, the soldiers, the CNN crew, to exchange for their dollars. The currency, the Somali, has doubled in value.

We ask of our charities that they should interfere wisely on our behalf, and much charity advertising dwells on this question of the wise deployment of small sums of money; give a man a fishing net and you give him a livelihood, that kind of argument. But such advertisements, though not intended to mislead, are wildly simplistic. They conjure up an image of a world in which there are all these clearly wise rural development projects that just need a little financial priming and off they will go, like some beautiful toy village, in which the women start weaving and the men will fish, and all will be well for ever.

But if you gave me a fishing net, you would not give me a livelihood thereby. You would have to give me water, and there would have to be fish in the water, edible ones, and you would have to teach me how to throw the flaming net and, in the unlikely event of your succeeding, you would still have to persuade me that I want to be a fisherman in a subsistence economy for the rest of my life. The more you go into detail, the more interference is involved.

And not always interference for the better - not at all. A charity (the case is fictional, but not entirely so) decides that in a certain area of Africa things would be much better if there were a few more wells: a nice, clearly defined, small-budget, rural development project. The wells are dug and they fill with water. The nomadic herdsmen take the water and are, indeed, grateful. More and more of them arrive, with more and more cattle, and soon the local vegetation has been exhausted. The wells have created a desert.

The 'developing world' is a tantalising place because it is so full of situations in which it looks as if a very small amount of money would make a very large amount of difference, but you soon learn, to your dismay, that a small amount of money is quite useless without infinite know-how and luck. People come to you with a specific problem. They do not want charity, but they do want capital. The breadwinner of the family is incapacitated by illness and they need an alternative income. If only they had . . . and then it begins, the description of the basic livelihood project, and you listen enthralled and in dread of the bill. If only we had a pig, if only we had a sewing-

machine, if only I had the capital for one load of roofing-thatch, which I would take over the mountain to sell where the price is best . . . And you find an old envelope and jot down the arithmetic and you stare hard at it and make a great display of asking the hard-nosed question.

It is difficult enough to tell, with people you know reasonably well, whether an individual livelihood project will succeed. How much harder to design such a thing for a whole village, or for a region. The larger the project, the more overtly political it becomes (although even at village level there is always the question: how does this project affect the esteem in which the headman is held?) and the more alert and alarmed the local politicians will be. I remember most vividly from a brief trip to Ethiopia the open hostility the government officials showed towards the charity workers. To accept food aid alone was a humiliation, but it was impossible for any such government as the Dergue to contemplate so much interference in their own affairs. And I think this would have been so even without the Tigrayan or Eritrean 'angle'.

For a large charity becomes a great dispenser of patronage and perks. Charities may speak of the corruptness of governments with which they have to deal, but a charity will itself attract and exacerbate corruption. It is a part of the problem - a wheeler-and-dealer, with an agenda decided in some distant country and with perhaps quite vast resources at its disposal. No wonder it may begin to be treated as a political rival.

As we go higher, reaching the level of the international aid agencies, of governmental action and of the United Nations, so the opportunity for interference grows in scale, until we reach such novel situations in war as a non-combatant force insisting on taking food through to a beleaguered people. Hey - stop that siege a moment. There seems to be starvation among the besieged. You just let us feed them up a bit, and then you can go on besieging them.

Between this anomalous level of interference and the next, in which America takes over Somalia for its own good, or the UN starts bombing the Serbs, there comes a point at which protests are raised to the effect that such actions are beyond the foreign policy remit, because they reach beyond the sphere of national self-interest.

But just as I employ a charitable agency, to however limited an extent, to hand out a bit of my moolah where it might be needed around the world, so it might be said that an electorate has the right to employ a government to act on its behalf in areas not covered by national self-interest, but where people feel that to do nothing is intolerable. In other words, it might be that the electorate is pleased to see its government acting disinterestedly. That may not be the classic Tory idea of foreign policy, but it may be a good idea in itself.

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