While we bemoaned the arctic conditions and crumbled under a few feet of snow in January, the twelth day of the new decade saw the small and impoverished Caribbean island of Haiti quite literally crumble. The earthquake, which measured at 7.0 on the Richter scale, and the subsequent after-shocks were catastrophic for the people of Haiti. Moreover, the stories, photographs and video recordings relayed back from the plethora of journalists who managed to fly into the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince were certainly saddening and sobering.
To put this into context, approximately 80% of Haitian’s live below the poverty line and GDP per capita is at $1,300, according to the CIA. Compare this to 14% of our population living below the poverty line and a healthy GDP of $35,400 per capita for the United Kingdom and it is not hard to see how much of an effect such a destructive natural disaster has had on Haiti, a country which is rife with poverty and political corruption. Surely, as a comparatively rich country, helping those countries less fortunate than ourselves is something we should do without a seconds thought? When I asked my friends the very same question the immediate and resounding answer was “yes” Two months on from the disaster and in the knowledge that Britain is dangerously close to slipping back into a recession, is this still the case?
As much as a positive and selfless response is encouraging to hear, when probed further most of us begin to think differently. The real crux of this argument is over the issue of international responsibility and the donation of aid to foreign countries in need. In short, should Britain really help Haiti? Now, before being accused of being heartless and lacking in compassion, it is important to explain why this issue has been brought to the fore. A quick search on the Internet throws up many different results on the matter of giving public money as aid to Haiti in its time of need. Forum pages are awash with a wide variety of thoughts and opinions as are comment sections of online newspaper articles.
Considering our own economic situation, can we really afford £6m of aid? Some may say it is a somewhat insignificant sum for a country such as ours. Moreover, we should not forget that this sum of £6 million is in fact taxpayers’ money. This £6 million could easily be spent on improving our public services or on recovering bank’s debt. At the very least, we can say that we should have been consulted as a country before giving our hard earned money as foreign aid. As a country, we are generous to a fault when it comes to raising and giving money to help charities and causes, Children In Need and Comic Relief are points in case.
Official figures have not been released and public donations are still being given, but Alan Simpson MP, Labour MP for Nottingham South, informed me that the government contribution has already been left chasing after the public response. However, this issue of Britain being able to afford such a sum of money is one we come back to again and again. Undoubtedly, there is a case to say ‘no’ but when speaking to Alan Simpson MP. he made a very fair and interesting point, “set alongside a public sector debt of £180 billion, giving £6 million to a country in desperate need is not something we should worry about. When faced with helping the banks or the bankrupted, in this case Haiti, who should we help?” It was also reassuring to discover that our government donation went straight to the International Red Cross, so we know our money is in good hands.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, Labour MEP for the East Midlands and Leader of the Labour MEPs in the European Parliament, Glenis Willmott takes a similar line. She tells me that despite our current situation and working towards bringing Britain and Europe out of the financial crisis, we simply cannot abandon our commitment to humanitarian aid and international development.
However, as always, there is a conflicting view which, if the opinions of the BBC Five Live listeners are anything to go by, is fairly representative of the current popular opinion. This view is also held by Conservative MEP Roger Helmer, but interestingly, is not held by his Conservative counter-part Emma McClarkin MEP. Despite going against the general party view of Britain maintaining levels of international aid as a percentage of national GDP, Roger tells me that he and many of his constituents believe that in hard times, charity begins at home. And he’ll perhaps be glad to know that he is not alone in his opinion. Giving me a very manifesto-esque run down of policies on international aid, Mr. Helmer essentially believes that Britain should be tackling its own problems, poverty and deprivation before going “overboard” on foreign aid. As hard-lined as this may sound, this is an opinion that resonates with many.
Lastly, a point to consider that has been brought up is the consequences of this disaster in Haiti. As Bill Newton-Dunn, Liberal Democrat MEP for Nottingham, pointed out, there is an international threat if Haiti is not given aid and helped on the road to reconstruction. Already political unstable, neglecting Haiti runs the risk of it becoming a failed state and this would have global repercussions that would become more of a challenge to solve.
So, whilst we should be proud of how generous our aid donations are and generally international responsibility is something many of us agree with, is it realistic to expect the public to feel compassion for the Haitians and their circumstances and therefore donate money when we have our own problems to solve? In the case of Haiti, the earthquake is particularly devastating, but essentially international responsibility and aid regularly falls on Britain’s shoulders. Despite this humanitarian stance from MPs, one wonders just how many of us have taken a more inward looking, ‘realpolitik’ stance as Britain struggles to recover from her own financial woes in the months preceding the General Election.
If you wish to donate to the Haiti Earthquake Appeal you can still do so at www.dec.org.uk