“It could be worse,” said the nurse as she shoved the needle in my arm. “Think of all those poor people in Kabul and Somerset.”
I’d just confessed that I was more nervous about my jabs for Afghanistan than I was about the trip itself. But yes, it could be worse. I could be in Kabul negotiating life in a poor and volatile context, or in Somerset, forced from my flooded house and grieving irrevocable damage to my worldly possessions.
Suddenly suffering is on our doorstep and the fact that the floods are still headline news demonstrates our ongoing surprise that the UK’s not immune to indiscriminate natural disasters.
You’d think this would lead to greater empathy for those who face similar situations in other countries. Surely our nation’s firsthand experiences of forced displacement, temporary accommodation, loss of possessions and property, political fallibility and wrangling over blame and responsibility, should give us insight into the pain, distress and sense of injustice experienced by those in similar, if not worse, situations around the world? Shouldn’t this increase our compassion, mercy and desire for justice?
Sadly not. Instead of creating common ground, the floods have pitted the suffering ‘them’ against the suffering ‘us’. Over 100,000 people have supported the Daily Mail’s campaign to divert money from the overseas aid budget to UK flood victims.
I enjoyed this call for Christians to boycott the Daily Mail because for me it’s a no-brainer that its campaign is disgraceful. And this ironic report is brilliant. However, I’m sure that some friends will express alternative opinions and, although they’ll be less dogmatic than Farage, there’ll be an implicit acceptance of the UK-centric logic which underpins his hyperbolic rhetoric.
How can we prepare ourselves for those conversations and take proactive steps to stem the tide of hostile opinion?
Well, for starters we can share alternative narratives. For all overseas aid’s imperfections, we can celebrate its impact – education for Syrian children, help for Typhoon Haiyan’s victims, landmine clearance in Mozambique, and so on – and draw attention to the scope of DFID’s work. When people say that aid neither reaches its intended beneficiaries nor makes a difference, these are the stories to tell.
Secondly, we can challenge simplistic dichotomies – after all, why should it be UK flood victims or overseas aid – and discuss why aid is such an easy target. I’m proud that we ring-fenced aid but it’s still only 0.7% of our GNI which leaves 99.3% to play with. Many articulate and thought-provoking articles have already grappled with the complexity of these questions. Let’s read them and equip ourselves to bring nuance and imagination into black-and-white debates.
Yes, resources are finite but, as the recent IF Campaign videos so beautifully demonstrate, there is enough to go round if we make certain choices. It takes courage to be generous and, as floods cut people off, it’s natural to be fearful and to stockpile for ourselves at a local and national level.
It’s also easy to critique policy-makers when we know there are no easy answers. That shouldn’t stop us challenging their decisions but nor should advocacy abnegate our personal responsibility to seek the good of others. I’ve just signed up to the 40Acts: do lent generously movement because I need community and inspiration to help me practice what I preach. That’s one way of being encouraged to love my neighbour as myself, whether that neighbour is in Somerset or Kabul or is a person whose political stance I disagree with.
How else can we read the archetypal story of being a good neighbour and respond, in this current climate, to its call to go and do likewise?
(A version of this blog post was originally published on Tearfund’s Rhythms blog. Click here to read it there.)