The UK is a world leader in development aid. It's also a leader in greenhouse gas emissions, tax haven networks, and taking corporate profits out of Africa – which cause far more poverty there than aid relieves. Yet, the continent is often portrayed as "needing our help" and the question we must answer is what role have international NGOs – including my own, Health Poverty Action – played in portraying Africa as a continent in need of help?
Last week, along with 12 other UK and African NGOs, we published research that attempts to challenge the dominant narrative around aid and development. Our report quantifies the total resource flows in and out of Africa. It shows that Africa is losing £192bn to the rest of the world each year, while only £134bn flows in. This means Africa suffers a net loss of £58bn a year.
And against the £192bn annual losses, aid puts back less than £30bn. It's a tiny part of the picture – and clearly no solution to the regular and systematic impoverishment of a continent. Yet raising money, whether as government aid or charity donations, is what most development NGOs bang on about more than anything else.
This distorted communication implies aid is the answer. But the true figures highlight the dishonesty of the aid narrative, which portrays Africa as the grateful beneficiary of the rich world's generosity, and its hope for the future resting on how charitable we choose to be. To reinforce this perception – or to fail to challenge it – is to perpetuate a lie, and one that causes profound damage to the cause of poverty eradication.
First, it undermines public solidarity. Is it any wonder that the public have become tired and disillusioned when for years they have been told their donations and taxes are alleviating poverty in Africa, yet an end to poverty is nowhere in sight?
Second, it re-enforces power imbalances between north and south – consolidating perceptions of the poor and unproductive Africans dependent on their northern 'saviours'.
Worst of all, it diverts attention from the real issue – that the UK plays a key role in the theft of Africa's resources. Through the actions of its inadequately regulated multinational companies, its contributions to climate change, giving parts of its aid as loans that contribute to the debt crisis, and its network of tax havens through which it facilitates the looting of billions from Africa each year.
As NGOs we have constantly reinforced and validated this narrative. There has been – and is – an overwhelming tendency in the sector to lead with a focus on aid: how much it should be and what it should be spent on. These debates came to a head in the run-up to the 2013 budget, when (despite the budget being condemned by UK poverty groups) the international NGO sector warmly applauded the Chancellor for committing to meet the 0.7 target – a target that did nothing to change the UK's role in creating that poverty in the first place.
By holding this tiny gesture up as a heroic victory, the sector reinforced the perception that aid is the key tool in the fight against poverty, and wrongly validated the UK government's self-proclaimed image as the heroic saviour of the poor.
We (and I repeat, I'm including myself and Health Poverty Action too) have become part of the problem. Speaking up about resources between Africa and the rich world is not just a call to action to government, but also to ourselves.
So what do we do about it?
To start with, we need to end our obsession with 0.7%. With little time and space to talk about global poverty, when we get the chance we need to focus on what can really make poverty history. And that's not aid.
We have to examine our communications with the public, and be honest about what £3 a month can and can't do. We have a duty to those we purport to work on behalf of, and to our own public, to tell the truth. And the truth is the UK takes far more from Africa than it gives in aid. Africa subsidises us, not the other way around. The solution is to stop those losses, that drain of resources, not divert attention away from it by demands for aid and charity appeals.
We need to look at our own internal structures, policies and practices – in our campaign collations, and inside our organisations. We can't expect to change the power imbalances that create mass poverty in the world while retaining similar imbalances within our own partnerships.
Finally, the sector needs to shift the development debate to holding our government to account for its role in the global poverty. There are already impressive campaigns on tax and climate change – the sector needs to unite behind these. Yet challenging the government on their actions, while simultaneously congratulating them for their aid just doesn't make sense. It is the paradox at the very heart of the sector that undermines all that we are trying to achieve. Justice for Africa requires action to stop the resources being taken out. Let's focus on that.
Martin Drewry is director of Health Poverty Action. Along with others he's set up the Progressive Development Forum. Follow @HealthPoverty on Twitter
Via Firoze Manji