TCS Daily

NGO Nonsense

By Helen Szamuely - September 24, 2004 12:00 AM

The egregious Christian Aid, which still claims to be a charity, having long ago become an NGO (though, naturally, with charitable status) has launched a new campaign against free trade. In a way that raises questions about the supposed non-political nature of a charity, they have commissioned advertisements and leaflets to proclaim the evil results of free trade in the developing world.

They are, as it happens, at odds with some of their colleagues. Oxfam, for instance, for all its faults, has long ago adopted the slogan: Trade not Aid, recognizing that anyone who genuinely cares about the welfare of the poorer countries would like them to develop economically rather that subsist on hand-outs, that serve to prop up corrupt governments indefinitely. Logically enough, Oxfam has also been campaigning against the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), that all-pervasive protectionist structure that causes a good deal of misery in the Third World. This is not to say that Oxfam is, in some ways an organization that supports free trade or sees all its benefits, but, at least, it is moving in the right direction.

So what is it Christian Aid does not like about free trade? Apparently, it is a mugger's charter. Most of us would say that endless state control is a mugger's charter, particularly in some of the more unsavoury political systems, where corrupt and oppressive rulers can prevent their people from having any kind of economic development (they might demand political rights then, and we cannot have that, can we) with the help of endless foreign aid.

I quote from the campaign leaflet:

"It is the cruellest rip-off in history. Millions of farmers in poorer nations are being gradually ruined by free trade. Take the case of the onion farmers of Senegal. With Free Trade forced on them, they're unable to sell their produce because their local markets are flooded with onions imported from Europe. The farmers are helpless to do anything but stand by and watch their crops rot and their livelihoods disappear."

I don't know much about the onion farmers of Senegal, but I imagine their government forces a great many things on them. The only way they could stand up to their government is by making somewhat more than just a living. The only way they could make more than a living would be to sell their onions well beyond their local markets and they may be able to do so in other African countries. Christian Aid prefers to remain silent on the subject. They cannot sell those onions to European countries because there is no free trade in agricultural goods and European farmers are protected from competition.

In the same way, European onions appear on African markets at below the market price because those self-same farmers are heavily subsidized by the European taxpayer, who then subsidizes the Senegalese onion growers or, at least, the politicians in Senegal.

Now, the obvious answer to this is more free trade and less subsidy. But Christian Aid remains muddled in its thinking (if that is what they call it). Having come up with that rather unimpressive and poorly argued sob story, it calls on all readers to write to Tony Blair to protest against free trade. (This, alone, should raise eyebrows with the Charity Commission. We shall see what its reaction will be.)

Those who write are encouraged to call for the UK government to do three things (as if the UK government could do anything about international trade, which has been EU competence since the Treaty of Amsterdam).

Firstly, Blair must

"fight for policies that will allow poor countries to choose the best solutions to end poverty. These will not always be free trade policies."

Or, in other words, often they will be free trade policies; particularly if it is genuine free trade the countries are offered. Of course, the governments of those countries might not choose them but that ought not to be Christian Aid's concern.

Then comes the killer point:

"Stop the flood of cheap, subsidised exports to developing countries."

Ahem. I thought it was free trade they were against. Cheap, subsidised exports are the very antithesis of free trade. Is Christian Aid than in favour of free trade? Do they know what they are talking about?

The third point is even dafter:

"Make laws to stop big business profiting at the expense of people and the environment."

Sigh. How do these people think big business profits? Mostly by producing goods that people want to buy. What do they think big business does with profits? Among other things, employs people, builds houses and factories for people to live and work in, invests money that will help economic development.

Ah, but will those people want Christian Aid, if their economy develops? What will all these NGOs and their otherwise unemployable employees do? They can, to be sure, go on having meetings with other NGOs in pleasant places at the taxpayer's expense, but that, too, might come to an end, if their usefulness is no longer taken for granted.

One is forced to ask the obvious question: is this economic illiteracy, the desperate struggle of old-fashioned socialism to retain power or simple vested interest?


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