Category Archives: Social Exclusion

The control of social goods so as to marginalise.

Playing Fair: “Horizontality” and the Future of Aid

The arrival of US Aid, “from the American people”.

In his book, Playing Fair, the self-confessed Whig, Ken Binore argued for the redistribution of the “social cake”.

For progress to be made, it is necessary for the affluent to understand that their freedom to enjoy what their “property rights” supposedly secure is actually contingent on the willingness of the less affluent to recognize such “rights”. It is not ordained that things must be the way they are. The common understandings that govern current behavior are constructs and what has been constructed can be reconstructed. If the affluent are willing to surrender some of their relative advantages in return for a more secure environment in which to enjoy those which remain, or in order to generate a larger social cake for division, then everybody can gain. (p.7)

In other words, if we do not share the cake, “they” might burn down the bakery.

I am more idealistic. I have a sense that we should share the social-cake because it is the right thing to do, or maybe it is less the case that redistribution is right than it is wrong to leave people in states of significant disadvantage, particularly when one can do something about it. I am also sufficiently pragmatic not to care what motivates people to extend a hand to others.

Do it because it is right. Do it because it serves your own interests. Do it as a romantic, random act of kindness. I don’t care. The capacity of a dollar to make a difference is not altered. DO IT!

Let me extend this discussion to support offered by more affluent countries to less affluent countries. A couple of days ago I attended a virtual dialogue at Wilton Park as part of their “Future of Aid” series. “Aid” in this context is the (usually financial) assistance provided by one country to another.

Definition; Aid: Late Middle English from Old French aide (noun), aidier (verb), based on Latin adjuvare, from ad- ‘towards’ + juvare ‘to help’.

At least in conceptual origin, country-level aid is about one country doing something towards helping another country. And I would argue that what is really meant (or should be meant) by one country helping another country is that they are helping to improve the lives of the people who live in that country and, in particular, the less affluent and less powerful people.

An important idea emerged in the discussions about aid and that was “horizontality”. Horizontality is the idea that the donor and the recipient countries are equal partners. It is an attempt to move aid beyond neocolonial domination. I applaud this idea, at least I applaud the idea that we should not use aid as a vehicle for exchanging one kind of colonialism for another.

What I hope we are saying when we talk about horizontality is that aid is not about the exercise of power, it is about the redistribution of power. To achieve horizontality, aid can be neither handout, loan nor gift. Aid must be part of a just, redistributive process to improve lives and reduce suffering that recognises we all share one planet, and appreciates that donor and recipient governments are imperfect, though necessary, vehicles for realising these goals.

Horizontality does not mean that aid should be without conditions or accountability. In fact, it means the very opposite. Aid should have strong accountability mechanisms because the purpose of aid is to help people, and governments (and other involved commercial or civil society organisations) are simply vehicles for achieving that goal. The aid is from my people to yours.

If I give money to a homeless person, I am not asking for them to account for how they spend it. I am giving it to them because they need it. Maybe it goes on food or shelter, or maybe some momentary pleasure or relief from misery. If I give money, however, to a charity, I absolutely want them to account for how they spend it, because they are the means to the end and not the end in itself.

COVID-19 has brought the “future of aid” question into stark relief. We need better, more respectful mechanisms for delivering even more aid from more affluent countries to less affluent countries. The aid needs to come with strong accountability mechanisms to ensure that benefits are distributed according to an inverse power-law: the least powerful and the least affluent first. Aid, of all things, should not trickle down. When it does, governments on both sides of the aid-exchange should be held to account, by your people and mine.

How do you make a grown man cry?

Answer: Give him £20.

You look baffled — like you missed the punchline to a joke. There was no joke and you didn’t miss anything. Although I have a perniciously dark sense of humour, this is not an example of it.

Outside a supermarket, in South London, there was a man begging. I had a £5 note amongst a couple of twenties and I fished it out and gave it to him. He looked grateful for this small windfall and tucked it away in one of the many folds in his layers of clothes.

COVID-19 has pushed people out of their jobs and out of their homes. The lockdown has reduced pedestrian traffic on the streets, closed public toilets, and made life even harder for the homeless than it was before.

He and I did not catch up on the state of business, but I imagine there were not many people giving him £5 notes. By the time I’d finished my shopping, he had already bundled his belongings together and headed off — I surmised, for food — and in his place was a new face.

I saw the new guy and my immediate thought was, “Yeah, Nah”. I did what anyone would do in these circumstances. I ignored him. I made no eye contact. I pretended I had not heard his polite request for help, and I headed down the street.

Before you judge me, let me remind you, I had already given away my £5 note and all I had left were the twenties. There were also other prospective givers, who felt no compulsion. If they weren’t giving, maybe they knew something about him that I didn’t — some mark or taint that made him less deserving of charity. I felt OK about the decision. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “because there are many in necessity, and they cannot all be helped from the same source, it is left to the initiative of individuals to make provision from their own wealth, for the assistance of those who are in need.” And I had already done my provisioning for the day.

Two hundred meters down the road, I thought to myself, “you arsehole”. And I walked back. I retrieved a £20 note from my wallet and I folded it so it could be passed to him more discreetly. As I got closer I was struck by how lifeless he looked. Huddled, still, and head bowed. He was not looking about anymore. He was not begging. He was spent.

I put my hand out with the money and he reached for it mechanically. Head up to say, thank you. Looked at his hand. Looked again. Started to say, thank you, and burst into tears. There is something profoundly wrong with a grown man being that grateful for £20 — a breach of protocol — so I joined him.

Covid Economics

“Governments will not be able to minimise both deaths from coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) and the economic impact of viral spread.” [Anderson et al.]

A soup kitchen during the Great Depression. Apparently it was only men who were hungry

It is easy to see that the economies of the world are being affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Share-markets have tumbled. Airlines are flying empty. Except for bizarre panic buying of toilet paper, malls and shops are more deserted. And if you have an employer with a large cash reserve and a bit of heart, you will be OK. There are many companies, however, that are at the margins and they are already failing because of the impact of COVID-19. Households are hunkering down: not spending, not going out.

These are the consequences of containment.

Now think about the daily wagers and piece workers, the sex workers, couriers, garbage pickers, rickshaw drivers and maids. Who will pay their bills, put food on their tables and ensure the same for their children?

Workplaces are instituting attendance rules based on health guidelines. Fevers, coughs, headaches and myalgia? Stay home! Recently been with someone who tested positive. Stay home! Etcetera.  That’s fine for me. I will apply for sick leave. In all countries, but disproportionately in Low- and Middle-Income Countries, large numbers of people in the workforce are in the informal sector. They are vulnerable. Even in the formal sector, many workers have no financial protection.

Think again about the daily wagers and piece workers, the sex workers and couriers. Their capacity to pay the bills and keep food on the table is proportional to their capacity to keep working. No matter what.

Death is not everything.

The obligation of countries who have committed to sustainable development goals is to “leave no one behind”. Governments should implement their public health measures to limit the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the poor should not have to carry an unfair burden.

A street sweeper in Mokhali

The “underserved” are “undeserved”

I hate the phrase, “the underserved”. I would love to remove it from the lexicon of public health. But it appears to be here to stay, particularly in North America where there is even a journal devoted to them.

A girl with kwashiorkor during the Nigerian-Biafran War (Public Domain; Wikipedia).

On a number of occasions in public lectures I have played with the phrase using a comparison of the “undeserved” and the “underserved”. It usually takes listeners a few minutes to work out that I am not repeating myself over and over again. And if you thought I had typed the same thing twice, look again. “underserved”≠”undeserved”.

My spell-checker knows the difference. It tells me that “underserved” is a spelling error and I almost certainly mean “undeserved”, and herein lies the problem. It is not simply that these two words look and sound similar, it is that there is an unpleasant semantic connection between them. It seems to depend where you lie on the political spectrum which term you use to refer to the same group of people.

On the left, the powerless and the left-behind, those with poor access to services and care would be characterised as the underserved. On the right of politics (or a nationalist left where refugees and migrants are vilified) anyone in need, the powerless and the left-behind, those with poor access to services and care are more typically characterised as the undeserved. The same people, the same need, and the same suffering, but a more or less generous view of our social obligations.