People are starving to death in eastern Africa – lots of them, and horribly. I awoke this morning to hear on the radio a report from a BBC man who had interviewed some of those streaming towards a UN-run camp. Thousands were waiting at the gates to get in and each had a tale of almost inconceivable woe – the malnourished child who had died on the march, the ill husband or wife left behind.
What awaits these poor souls once they gain admittance? The UN man told us that there quite simply wasn’t enough food.
So, strike up the band! Wheel out the ever-cranky Bob Geldof! Chuck Bono into the ring for good measure! Dig deep and feel good, because it’s famine time in eastern Africa again – which means it’s also time for those of us in the west to feel mighty proud of ourselves. We may have made poverty history a few years ago, but no one ever said that time stood still and now there’s more history available – and it comes with its own inbuilt poverty. Moreover, a quarter of a century ago, when Bob – with, I think, impeccably good intentions – rousted out the complacent pop stars to do their bit, there was about a third of the people in the perennially drought-prone areas of eastern Africa there are today.
That’s right, you can judge the success of Band Aid and all the other famine-relief charity campaigns by this alone: there are now three times as many people available to starve to death. Result, no? Am I alone in my Swiftian fastness in seeing something just a little bit crazy in this collective impulse to keep people alive at a bare subsistence level so that they can procreate without restraint – as people on the breadline so often do – with the end result that there are many more of them to receive handouts from the World Food Programme a decade or two down the line?
I entirely accept that if you’re of the “every sperm is sacred” school of religious yea-saying to mortification and death, then this is a very good result – but the last time I looked, this was a predominantly secular society; indeed, one in which the utilitarian basis for much policymaking was deeply ingrained.
Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal was that the victims of famine in Ireland be fed with their own babies, and while this remains, in my view, a perfectly reasonable solution, I venture to suggest that it won’t address the real pathology, which is our own. Only a people maddened by their own sense of entitlement to everything – whether material or spiritual – could carry on throwing good money after bad conscience. Despite all our travails, we remain, relatively speaking, high donors to the foreign needy, while Dave “Mrs Jellyby” Cameron is, unsurprisingly, fixated on telescopic philanthropy.
Hanging on to a good conscience while continuing to do bad things, however, is a deranging business, and just as the alcoholic needs ever more booze to achieve the same level of intoxication, so the charitable donor has to sign ever more direct debits in order to assuage that core feeling of emptiness. Deluded though the average Briton may well be, we are not completely psychotic, and we understand that a large chunk of the money we divvy up to charity goes to pay for more fundraisers and more chuggers, so that more money can be raised to keep more famine victims alive, so that the entire sickening go-round may be continued until the last farting trump.
My solution to this particular neurosis is perfectly straightforward: give the dosh to us.
Yes, that’s right, the £9m already divvied up privately to the Disasters Emergency Committee, the £36m given by the government – this money would’ve been better distributed to the British spiritually needy.
A bottle of Château Pétrus, a Longines watch – maybe the down payment on a winter break in the Caribbean: all of these things are guaranteed to make the averagely wealthy person feel rather better about herself than she does already. Hell, it probably works for Rupert Murdoch; why shouldn’t it for ordinary mortals?
I know, I know, you’re worried about the children, aren’t you, you silly sympathetic soul, but I think there’ll be enough for all those middle-class kids who go off to “give something back” during their gap year as well. You know, if I were a starving Somali, I’d see the wisdom in all this. I’d probably applaud it – if I had the strength, that is.