OPINION

Solidarity with the poor as an industry

We tend to be mostly moved by distant poverty, not that which exists closer to home. And so, while many of us may donate money to help an African in his country, we would not consider even approaching an African in our own neighborhood. By maintaining this stance – the consequence of xenophobia and new techniques of instilling social sensitivity – we often end up perpetuating an invisible industry. What happens to all the money gathered in telemarathons and charity campaigns? It goes to well-paid charity networks which undertake to feed and clothe the poor. But the final destination of these donations is unclear (one may recall the example of the oranges that never reached their destination because they were made into juice in some other country en route). A large proportion of these donations goes toward funding the assignments of charity delegations (in this respect it is worth noting that a 10-day stay by two high-ranking officials in a Third World country may cost the same as the construction of a school in that region). A large portion of donations also goes toward conducting studies and planning rescue programs in these countries. Basically we are talking about a colossal «machine» that runs on state funds and the charity of citizens. In the year 2000, there were 10 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Greece; in 2001, when the European Union obliged member states to give 0.21 percent of their gross domestic product to humanitarian causes, Greek NGOs suddenly multiplied to number 320. Evidently then, a large portion of the cash is spent «on the way» while another sizable amount is snapped up by authoritarian governments or local mafia organizations who «help» to redistribute the aid, which is not only paltry in the context of the actual needs of the poor but also ends up returning to the rich North. We may remember, for example, that some 4 billion euros had been collected for the victims of the Southeast Asian tsunami, but the public debt of the five poorest countries affected by the tragedy exceeds 300 billion euros. And each year these countries pay some 32 billion euros to the West to service their debts – this is 10 times the size of the aid they receive. Why doesn’t the West demonstrate its generosity by writing off all the debt of the world’s poor countries? If it wanted to, it could put an end to world hunger. According to the United Nations, only 80 billion euros are necessary to provide everyone in the world with shelter, drinking water, food, a basic education and medical care. One solution would be to impose an international solidarity tax on – for example – foreign exchange markets, the sale of arms and the use of non-renewable energy sources. This has been proposed in the past by European and Latin American leaders. And many had enthused over the idea at the time. So why has nothing been done? Because combating poverty is a matter of politics, not charity.