The urgency of Official Development Assistance
Richard Parncutt

Richard Parrncutt ICMPC 2012
"According to UNICEF, 22,000 children die each day due to poverty. And they 'die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world. Being meek and weak in life makes these dying multitudes even more invisible in death.' (source)

I have the luxury of dual citizenship: Austria and Australia. Citizens of these two  countries enjoy an extraordinarily high level of freedom of speech, which enables me to make the following political statement.

First a word of warning. My statement has a very negative feel about it. That's because there are some very negative things going on in the world that most people are ignoring. If people continue to ignore these things, they can only get worse. We tend to forget that the happy, luxurious life that we in the middle class in the rich countries are (still) enjoying was made possible by past people who had the courage to talk openly about very negative things. Things like suffering and dying factory workers, slavery, sexism (including suffering and dying women), dictatorship, genocide, the threat of nuclear war and so on. We can be grateful that people talked about these things, because that is how the problems were solved or reduced to a tolerable level, or that any progress at all was made, however small. All of which is a very positive thing. This political statement has similarly positive goals, which makes it a very positive statement, from beginning to end.

So if you care, get ready for some very negative stuff. If you don't care, just keep surfing. Reassure yourself that life is too short to care about other people, and that most well-off people like us are equally callous.

Some negative stuff

Every day, on average, some 20 000 children die in connection with poverty. They die of hunger, preventable disease or curable disease in developing countries. That's about 7 million per year. If you include adults, we are talking 10 million per year.

This shocking death toll has been falling steadily in recent years and decades, which is proof (if ever proof was needed) that developmental assistance and collaboration actually works, which in turn implies that it should be properly financed. But in spite of the progress, child mortality is still by far the most serious problem of our generation, and hardly anyone is talking about it. It is consistently worse than death tolls due to violence. The global death rate due to hunger, preventable disease and curable disease is still far greater than the global death rate due to violence in places like Congo, West Papua, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Take the Rwandan genocide for example. In three horrendous months in 1994, almost a million people were brutally murdered. In the same year, ten million children died from preventable causes in developing countries. The killing in Rwanda stopped, but the child mortality continued, day after gruesome day, year after gruesome year. 9/11 was trivial by comparison, but people are still talking about 9/11 as if it was the worst event in living memory.


The problem of violence, incidentally, could be largely solved if just one country, the US, stopped its decades-old policy of indiscriminately bombing innocent people whenever it seems to serve short-term US interests. Violence just breeds more violence, and most violence in today's world (e.g. the Middle East) is evidently an indirect response to the US global militarism of recent decades. The "Islamic state" is an obvious example. The problem includes selling weapons to allied countries, a crime of which many countries are guilty. If this appalling practice was brought under control, and the US stopped playing the role of global cowboy for a decade or two, things would gradually calm down.

The even bigger problem of hunger could similarly be solved in about two decades by (i) improving regulation of global markets (e.g. closing tax havens) and (ii) financing official development assistance (ODA) at the globally agreed level of 0.7% GDP. Of course there are many other problems and strategies, but these are probably the main ones (source).

There are countless experts out there who know how to do these things. If the politicians decide to do them, they will be done. It is basically just a matter of making that decision. A revolution is not necessary. Our task is not to overturn capitalism, but to save it from self-destruction. In the end, this whole massive problem of global poverty and hunger boils down to getting global financial players to obey existing laws and adjusting some figures on some official spreadsheets. It is about making small changes to existing structures.

If a decision were made to finance ODA properly, as universally promised over two decades ago and confirmed in 2002, hardly anyone would notice the difference in the rich countries. We are talking about letting go a tiny fraction of our wealth. At the same time, the benefit for the poor countries would be enormous. From a utilitarian perspective (greatest happiness for the greatest number), the question of whether we should do this or not is trivial.

To finance more ODA, the 1% global wealth tax that I have proposed here could be implemented using existing mechanisms. Several countries already have a similar tax, so it should not be presented as a big deal, and it is certainly not impossible. All that is standing in the way of such a stunningly positive achievement is a bit of political will and smidgeon of vision, courage and generosity.

Financing official development assistance (ODA)

Australia, Austria and Sweden have about the same GDP per capita ($46 000; source). The Swedish ODA budget is currently 1.0% GDP. Australia: 0.34%. Austria: 0.28%. USA: even less (source).

One may well ask: why the difference? And what happened to the old 0.7% target? Why are only a few countries upholding this agreement? Do the others care about agreements at all, or are they merely in the habit of lying?

For me, these figures represent the greatest imaginable scandal. Nothing can be more shameful than allowing millions of children to die who could reasonably have been saved. Not only that - hardly anyone is talking about this problem, as if we didn't care. Do we? Evidently not. Meanwhile I am embarrassed to show either of my two passports. I don't know which of the two is worse.

Why are we ignoring this horrendous death toll? We would be deeply shocked if just one child died of hunger in Austria or Australia. Perhaps it is because those dying children are mainly black? Everyone knows that black lives have no value, right?

Racism and death

That is an idea with a long history. To take one of innumerable examples: In 19th-century Australia, if a black (Aboriginal) man killed a white (European) shepherd in retaliation for the loss of tribal lands (and with it his people's food supply, cultural identity, and reason for living), whites felt it was justified to massacre at least 10 blacks, which they often did (more). Today, the state of Israel has a similar attitude toward the Palestinians (more).

Today in the US, people are wearing T-shirts saying Black Lives Matter. This message is mainly directed at police who shoot black people. I would also like to direct it at anyone who is ignoring global hunger, which is just about everyone it seems.

Consider the global hunger death toll from an Australian perspective. We are trading with countries in which children are dying of hunger. We are making money out of buying their food. What kind of a "fair go" is that? Whatever happened to the "lucky country"? The "classless society"? The solidarity of "mateship"? Supporting the "battlers" and "underdogs"? What about Simpson and his donkey rescuing injured soldiers at Gallipoli? Whatever happened to good old Aussie heroism and bravery? How much courage does it take to talk about global poverty and ODA at election or budget time?

In Austria, we may well ask: What does "Nie wieder" mean, exactly? What, exactly, did we decide "never again" to do? Have we still not learned the lesson of the Holocaust, history's worst crime? Of course we learned that racism is very dangerous, especially when it becomes national policy within an authoritarian dictatorship. But there is more to it than that. Have we still not learned that the Holocaust could have happened in any country? That the racism that is publicly promoted by the far-right parties in Europe is remarkably similar to the antisemitism publicly promoted by the Nazis in the 1930s? That racism is part of human nature and everyone (black, white, or in between) can be racist at some level, which means that anti-racist campaigns, institutions, measures and strategies will always be necessary to keep racism down to a tolerable level? 

Those who are surprised by these claims may not have heard about the empirical psychological literature on implicit racism and symbolic racism, or about evolutionary theories of the origin of racism. This research suggests that deep down we are all racists. Racism may be based on a probably universal human and primate tendency to favor members of one's group over outsiders. The implication is the battle against racism is never ending. It is one of those things that we have to continue to do throughout our lives.

It bears repeating that the number of people murdered by the Nazis over several years is comparable with the number of children dying of hunger every year in developing countries - right now, while we in the rich countries live in luxury. It bears repeating that in the rich countries, we would not tolerate a single child dying of hunger. Of course every unnecessary death is a tragedy, but that also means that a million deaths are a million times worse. If we go crazy about one white death and ignore a million black deaths, we are extremely racist.

The hidden role of sexism

Our suppression of the issue of global child mortality, and our failure to act to solve the problem, is not only racist, it is also sexist. That seems like a surprising claim, so allow me to explain. 

In our unconscious heteronormative sexist mindsets, women have two main purposes: (i) providing sexual pleasure for men and (ii) producing and raising children, of which boys are more important than girls. Again, psychological experiments on implicit sexism (in both men and women!) confirm that even the most missionary antisexists (such as yours truly) still exhibit unconscious or spontaneous sexist reactions. So we have to be permanently self-critical.

In a sexist perspective, child mortality is a women's problem, because women are responsible for raising children. And women don't matter, unless they are serving one of the above two functions. Apart from the children themselves, those who suffer the most from child mortality are the mothers, and they don't count.

When trying to understand this kind of sexism, we should remember that mothers care more about their children than fathers do, on average, and children care more about their mothers than their fathers. This is not just a stereotype - it seems that it really is like that, on average. That is not only because of the unique maternal-infant bond that begins before birth and is reinforced after birth by motherese, breast feeding and so on; males also have a long evolutionary history of infanticide: killing children to gain sexual access to their mothers. "Masculinity" is a complex mixture of positive and negative attributes that is based in part on the ancient tradition of infanticide.

Given this background, it is perhaps no wonder that patriarchal societies are surprisingly unconcerned when millions of children die who could reasonably have been saved, while at the same time everyone can be deeply shocked by just one adult death. Perhaps if the connection between modern child mortality and infanticide were made, people might at last sit up and listen? It is also instructive to compare child mortality with paedophilia. Paedophilia is really, really bad; allowing millions of children to die is much, much worse.

All of this suggests that it is futile to suppose that we men are innocent or that sexism can be completely unlearned. Instead, permanent vigilance and a self-criticism is necessary to keep our innate sexism under control. That includes properly financing ODA.

Global warming and hunger

And that is not all. Global warming will significantly exacerbate the hunger-disease death toll, and it will continue to do so every decade for the next century, even if emissions are steadily reduced. If you don't understand or believe that, just read the latest report summary by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Right now, global emissions are still rising. If that is not horrifying, please tell me what is.

Austrian and Australian scientists are leading a global scientific effort to solve this, the mother of all problems. On the whole, the politicians are ignoring them. Which raises another fundamental question: Why finance research and then ignore the results?

Australia has one of the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions in the world. Every year, Australian coal indirectly kills a hundred thousand future people (more). Yet the government is still in denial, and half the population is confused.

How to react to this text

Perfectly normal, friendly, loving people will read this text and laugh like evil baddies in a stereotypical Hollywood movie. "What a load of ridiculous, emotionalised alarmism!" they will say. But to the best of my knowledge, I have not exaggerated anything. Every statement in this text is either obvious or based on accepted research findings. If anyone can find an exception to this, please let me know and I will solve the problem.

As for alarmism, if your house is burning down, you will be grateful to hear the alarm. I for one am proud to be an alarmist. I am even thinking of writing it on my business card;-)

Wake up, world. Either we want to save innocent people from dying or we do not. Either we want to stop extreme racism and sexism or we do not. Either we love our children or we do not. Which is it going to be? Can we start talking openly about these things before it is too late?

The bottom line

Our grandchildren will accuse us of having caused these problems by ignoring them. They will point out that we could not have been better informed. They will accuse us of having ignored those countless alarmists who had the courage to take these problems seriously. They will accuse of hypocrisy.

If the children of the 22nd century still go to school, in a world that has been fundamentally changed by chronic inequality combined with rising temperatures, their history textbooks will include a chapter entitled "Racism and indifference" that deals with both the Holocaust and global warming. But temperatures will continue to rise, given the practical impossibility of removing such vast amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere, and the time that the ocean-atmosphere system takes to reach a new equilibrium. 

In the 23rd century, comparisons between Global Warming and the Holocaust will be taboo, because they trivialise Global Warming. I am fully aware that this is a shocking statement, but the way global poverty and global warming are developing, it seems necessary to shock.

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