Tuesday, June 29, 2010

This is why they should stick to acting

British actor Bill Nighy has a brain fart idea.

The G8 leaders meeting in Toronto managed to live down to my worst expectations.

I arrived at the G8 by a roundabout route. Just a day earlier, I was standing in Dandora, a toxic tip on the edge of Nairobi where little girls as young as five live on a mound composed of toxic and human waste. They survive by competing with wild pigs for scraps of rubbish, forced to sell their bodies to get access to the richest pickings.

I was there to bear witness to the good work aid does before traveling to the Toronto summit as Oxfam's Global Ambassador. Comic Relief, a British charity, rescues children from this dump and gives them schooling in a safe, almost fairytale environment.

At the G8, I have been lobbying for action, with TV and radio appearances to do what little I can to put pressure on leaders to live up to their aid promises first made in 2005 in Gleneagles, Scotland. G8 governments are $20 billion short on those promises due this year. It takes $220 to rescue a girl from Dandora. Just think what a difference that could make in Africa and elsewhere.

The summit did bring the promise of $7.3 billion to improve maternal and child health. Good news, you might think, when a shocking 1,000 women and girls every day die unnecessarily from complications in childbirth and an estimated $10 billion dollars a year is needed to solve the problem.

Sadly, the good news is limited. The money will come over five years. The G8 has promised only $5 billion, the rest will come from a combination of other countries and the Gates Foundation. I find it incredible that with a promise of $1.5 billion over five years, Bill and Melinda Gates are providing almost a third of the total of the world's richest economies.

Worse, the promise of "new" aid is a scandal of creative accounting. With no increase in overall G8 aid, their money will have to be taken from other pots, from the budgets for food, clean water, health or education. I wish someone would tell me how it can be right that a mother's health should be secured by sacrificing her child's schooling.

Now attention shifts to the G20, which has the opportunity to make good the G8's broken promises. Leaders will discuss a simple but brilliant idea for a tax on banks and hedge funds -- dubbed the Robin Hood Tax -- that could raise $400 billion for good causes every year. Oxfam are pressing for half this money to help poor people hit hardest by the economic slump, hunger and climate change.

Gambling by the financial sector was a big cause of the economic crisis but banks, bailed out to the tune of $17 trillion are now returning to bonuses as usual. Banking is the most profitable industry on earth but is taxed the least. With rich governments unwilling to make good on their own promises, surely they can ask bankers to spare some of their small change to help the girls from Dandora and millions more who need a little help from us to get to first base with a chance then to help themselves.

First of all let me say that my heart also goes out to the little girls of Dandora as well.

However I have a few questions I would ask of Mr. Nighy.

Since banks in the developed world are not the cause of poverty in Africa why should they be tasked with relieving it?

The profound poverty in Africa has several causes. Chief among them are socialism, tribalism and the kind of endemic corruption that comes with the absence of any tradition of the rule of law. While handing out food and medicine to the starving and sick is a good thing it does nothing to address the root causes of the suffering.

The truth is that if one wishes to "fix" Africa there is only one course of action that has any hope of being successful. It must be admitted that there is no possibility of any kind of positive reform from within and the only way to really change things for the better is for the whole place to be taken over by an outside agency and run by that agency until there is no one left alive who remembers the way things used to be.

Parenthetically this also the only way to "fix" Chicago. In Chicago's case the outside agency would be the federal government in in Africa's case it would be a coalition of free nations led by someone who knows that socialism has nothing good to offer anyone (think a NATO mission under the absolute command of Vaclav Klaus).

Another question I have for Mr. Nighy is this. Does he even understand the Robin Hood legend? The "rich" that Robin Hood robbed were government officials and the money he took from them was the tax money they had extorted from the productive citizens of the realm. The English people were being excessively taxed and Robin reclaimed that tax money and gave it back to the people who had actually earned it. At no time did Robin take money from someone who had earned it and give it to someone who had not earned it.

Finally I have to wonder if Mr. Nighy has any understanding of economics whatsoever. Doesn't he realize that if banks are taxed that they will simply pass that tax along to their customers by charging higher fees and interest rates on loans and paying smaller rates of return on savings accounts?

Mr. Nighy's resume indicates that he has a very good grasp of the acting trade. I would recommend that he stick with what he knows at least until he reads a few good books on economics. I would highly recommend he start with Human Action.

On, and one other thing. Why does it upset Mr. Nighy that a good sized chunk of the money to help the poor of Africa is coming from a private source?

Is it virtuous when government takes money from someone like Bill Gates and then gives it to the poor but somehow suspect when Mr. Gates gives the money to the poor directly? Doesn't Mr. Nighy realize that government's "administrative overhead" is as high as 90% while the average private charity manages to keep overhead at around 10%?