Ignorance and changing the world

Apr 15th, 2007 | By | Category: International

Ignorance is bliss – sometimes, I really think it is.

Remember Make Poverty History and the comments of Geldof and others when some debt was cancelled? The world could seem so simple, wave a few placards, march up and down a few streets, who would have thought that saving the world could be so much fun? Except the world has not been saved and the bubbly fun activities of 2005 seem to have made no more difference than those in 1985.

My friend Angelus in Tanzania would have warned me about such optimism. Angelus works with the poorest of the poor, he sees poverty that I find hard to imagine. In 1998 he said, “I do not like the Jubilee 2000 Campaign. 2000 will come and go and you will forget about the issue”.

I tried to say that this would not happen. I could not envisage any agency just dropping the campaign because the year had passed. Angelus was, of course, right. I was dismayed when the managerial types in one agency I know decided that they had done “debt” and now it was time to move on to something else.

Angelus is sceptical about campaigns because he he has a deep mistrust of people in power. I never thought it appropriate to disagree with a man who lived, ate and drank the battle against poverty, but have now realized that Angelus’ understanding of the frailty of human nature is far more developed than mine.

Angelus would not have been surprised by two statistics from yesterday’s Financial Times letters page.  Jeremiah Norris of the Hudson Institute in Washington writes, “In a forthcoming book The Bottom Billion, Professor Paul Collier, an Oxford economist, cites a recent survey that tracked a donor grant to Chad’s ministry of finance to fund rural health clinics. Just 1 per cent reached its intended destination.

“A 2006 OECD report on the cost of technical co-operation found that 740 foreign aid personnel working on the Millennium Development Goals in Cambodia cost the equivalent needed for the country’s entire civil service workforce of 166,000”

My friend Terry, who is quite mad and goes deep into Afghanistan trying to establish and support schools, would say, “But Ian, I told you that is what it was like. I told you that Kabul was full of expatriate staff eating into any money the country received”.

Angelus and Terry would both shrug and get on with engaging with the reality of the situation with whatever few quid they can get together – and those of us in Europe who really think that politicians can change the world? Well, ignorance is probably bliss.

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