Charity Begins at Home but....
‘Charity begins at home’. That’s a mantra I sometimes hear when chatting to neighbours about a public appeal in response to the latest humanitarian disaster or listening to talking heads on TV. The line of argument continues in various directions. For example, we have plenty of people in our own country who are more in need of our generosity – witness food banks, child poverty, warm refuges in cold weather, flagging NHS services and so on.
Another familiar refrain is that you cannot be at all sure that our generous gifts are going to end up in the right pockets. It’s the leaders in these disaster-stricken places who cream off the benefits for themselves. A small elite grows wealthier. The aid does not always reach those most in need.
This soon leads on to the idea that if people in distant places learnt how to organise their world properly, the scale of such human disasters would be reduced. The earthquake in Turkey would not have produced quite so many fatalities if building regulations had been rigorously adhered to and more resilient construction taken place. Instead, developers cut corners to reduce costs, bribes were paid to planners, builders used inferior materials, and the result was that the proper precautions necessary in an area of known earthquake activity were not followed and the result is today’s figure of 44,000 dead and counting.
In the case of the Syrian dimension of the disaster, the argument is starker still. Why would we give money to sustain a country whose regime has so recently been at war with the UK? Why give a penny to get ISIS or Assad out of a hole? Why support a regime which was reluctant to open its borders to allow foreign aid access to the most ravages areas?
I suppose the answer is simple. We are not supporting tyrants but people like Faten Al Yousifi who was 39 weeks pregnant when the disaster struck. She gave birth to a baby girl ten hours after being pulled from the rubble. She had fled war in her native Yemen and her husband, a chemical engineering student, did not survive the earthquake. A devastated life gilded with the hope brought by this new young life.
As of last Sunday, the Disasters and Emergency Committee in the UK had received £60 million in donations from a generous public which always seems ready to respond to such desperate human tragedy. A figure of £60 million may seem like a large amount but it is not enough. The sort of money needed to fix such a situation is very much larger.
In 2020 the UK government cut foreign aid spending from 0.7% of Gross National Income - the UN recommended target – to 0.5%. In percentage terms it may not sound like much but it amounts to £4.5 billion annually. The current Prime Minister, then Chancellor, reckoned that the British public wished to be 30% less generous with its aid than before. In his defence it should be said that the reduction in aid was a response to the devastating effect of the pandemic on the UK economy. This government calculates that the very earliest that the original levels of aid will be restored is 2027-28.
The restoration of such a level of aid sooner would not only be an act of generosity but of self-interest. It is in our long-term interests to share a little of our undoubted national wealth with other countries poorer than ours. Such a move would create a little more social stability in our world. It would increase a little the UK’s ability to influence developments which may seem distant but which actually come close, as the war in Ukraine has so powerfully demonstrated.
Charity may begin at home but it cannot and must not end there.