Friday, June 04, 2004

John Quiggin just can't leave Bjorn Lomborg alone.
How would you rank the following priorities for making the planet a better place?
  • A major improvement in health in poor countries, saving millions of lives each year
  • Substantial progress in reducing the rate of climate change, preventing large-scale species extinctions and other environmental damage
  • New and improved advertisements for consumer goods
You don�t have to be Bjorn Lomborg to agree that, given the choice, improvements in health should get top priority. And you don�t have to be Vance Packard to think that the benefits of advertising, if they are positive at all, are trivial in relation to the first two choices.

In fact, however, countries in the developed world currently allocate about 1 per cent of its income to the advertising industry (this excludes the cost of the TV programs and so on financed out of advertising revenue), far more than to either development aid or climate change. The US, for example, spends about 0.1 per cent of GDP in development aid, and almost nothing on programs to mitigate climate change. If we were all prepared to watch the same old ads, instead of getting new ones every year, we would have enough money to finance either the proposals of the Commission on Macroeconomics and Health or a climate change mitigation program substantially more ambitious than the Kyoto protocol.
Well, there is no surprise in any of this, is there? Advertising creates consumers which create profit. Health care might create consumers which create profit, but it might not. Particularly in Africa, how much money devoted to clean water would it take to create consumers of financial instruments, Paxil, and PDAs?

I don't mean to be flippant, but it is essential to recognize the difference between "development aid" and charity. Quiggin does not when he says
our priorities are seriously screwed. We should all be making more noise, more of the time, about the need to increase development aid, as well as personally giving more than we do to aid organisations.
In many instances our use of the term "development aid" is really just a euphemism for "charity". This is not a condemnation of the act by any means. It is to recognize, however, that most aid is directed to alleviating human suffering but not in any way to "develop" a people, i.e. close the gap between their standard of living and that of the Global North. We call it "development aid" to mystify it, to tell them and ourselves that through this money and technology and skill we are going to fundamentally transform their society and our world into one more bountiful, more equal, more peaceful, more free.

If we call it "charity," however, we admit that there is no intention of changing their society or our world, only that we aim to alleviate their suffering here and now. That is a good thing in and of itself -- but it is far from "development". Very far, indeed.

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