There’s an advert for Oxfam running on UK TV at the moment that caught our attention. It is most odd.
The little old lady and her friends seem to be vomiting at injustice, thereby making the world a better place. In a way, this almost represents the depths to which Oxfam have sunk in this campaign. It is as if they were marketing a product that would solve injustice in the same way that certain products soothe the effects of excess stomach acid after overindulgence. In other words it seems as though they want you to engage with the concept of injustice as though it is something which affects you personally. It makes you vomit. Hand over your cash, and we’ll get rid of it for you.
Here is another Oxfam film, where they appear to have persuaded passers-by to confess their carbon-sins. Again, a remedy for overindulgence.
As we have reported before, Oxfam presents itself as an agency through which problems in the world can be defeated, yet often they take a curiously anti-development line. A recent Oxfam report recommended that developing countries promote ‘traditional lifestyles’ as a means to combating climate change. In recent years, and in the light of the climate crisis, Oxfam has redefined ‘poverty’ and ‘injustice’ in environmental terms.
For example, Oxfam have their own campaign to stop the new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth, the site of this years Climate Camp.
Coal or renewable? The old way, or the new. We head right back to dirty energy with E.ON’s Kingsnorth. We destroy our chances of avoiding a climate catastrophe and let climate change push poor people deeper into poverty. Or we innovate and start a clean energy revolution. Now is the time to choose.
You’d have thought, wouldn’t you, that a development agency would be in favour of power stations, both here, and in the developing world. But it seems they are more interested in ‘traditional lifestyles’.
Another Oxfam video shows what kind of lifestyle this is, in the context of climate change. After telling us that every year a third of Bangladesh’s land is flooded, and that ‘climate change is making the situation worse’, we hear Sahena’s story.
On you tube, the film’s blurb tells us that
The annual monsoon rains in Bangladesh are getting heavier and more unpredictable — last year’s floods were the worst in decades, affecting nine million people…
We were wondering how true is was that climate conditions in Bangladesh were getting worse, and less predictable. Here in the UK, the weather has never been ‘predictable’. Why should it have ever been any more predictable in Bangladesh?
The data relating to the extent of flooding in Bangladesh is very sparse. In fact, we spent nearly two days searching for it. If you know of such data, we’d be grateful if you could direct us to it. There also didn’t seem to be much long term data relating to the effect of floods on mortality, nor of damage done in terms of cash value.
There have been some tragic events in Bangladesh, which is, after all, the region most prone to flooding than any other. But there doesn’t seem to be any basis for the claim that floods are getting heavier because of climate change, nor that conditions are less predictable. It appears that the dictum ‘climate change will be worse for the poor’ has been used without regard for facts. It looks as though Oxfam have done little more than to look for people who are particularly vulnerable to climate (climate which, as it happens, has always been hostile and highly variable) to make their claim. It must be true that if ‘climate change will be worse for the poor’, and ‘climate change is happening’ then the poorest people in the poorest region must make the best case for Oxfam’s climate campaign. The image of the poor farmer, struggling to help her community defend itself against the conditions it suffers as a consequence of Western profligacy is second to none.
But just how bad are things getting because of climate change, in Bangladesh? There must be some data which shows just how terrible the conditions that we are inflicting upon them have become. It should be easy to show just how bad life for farmers already experiencing climate change has become.
Except it isn’t.
[All data: United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, except GDP ($US per capita, constant prices): IMF]
This graph shows various trends in Bangladesh, relative to their levels in 1961, (and 1980, in the case of GDP). The amount of arable land has indeed slightly diminished (8% between 1961 and 2007), yet rice production and yield has increased substantially. Meanwhile, the population has increased nearly three-fold.
So, yes, clearly there is an extent to which climate conditions have affected life in Bangladesh. But we cannot say, as Oxfam has, that climate change has pushed people further into poverty. We might be able to attribute an 8% of the loss of agricultural land to flooding. And it may even be because of climate change. But this does not seem to have made life worse for Bangladeshi rice farmers (who account for 75% of agricultural production), who have meanwhile been able to realise a three-fold increase in production from a 30% increase in land area.
We can think of two ways to explain this. Firstly, the increase in population itself. In spite of claims that ‘overpopulation’ risks tipping the world into catastrophe, many hands make lighter work of big projects, such as farming, and recovery from disaster, even in Bangladesh – one of the most densely populated countries. Secondly, contrary to Oxfam’s desire to see poor people locked into traditional ways of life, industrial methods of production increase crop yields.
The worst possible strategy for Bangladeshi farmers would be to return to ‘traditional lifestyles’, and reduce their population. Oxfam’s campaign would likely cause far more problems than it can attribute to climate, let alone climate change.
This graph is by no means the whole picture. We’re not statisticians, so we may have made fundamental errors interpreting and presenting the data. What we were interested in was the claims endlessly repeated by the likes of Oxfam that things are getting worse, and worse, and worse in the developing world because of climate change, because of us. Nor are we saying things are rosy in Bangladesh, and that we should not be concerned about it, and the problems it faces.
But there is a difference between being concerned about a place and milking a developing region for the kind of capital Oxfam wants to extract from it. It’s shallow campaigns reduce the understanding of development problems to a kind of us-and-them, victims-and-perpetrators morality tale, where we inflict acts of violence on the Bangladeshi poor through the ‘environment’. While there is a good argument that the West has in many respects, failed poorer regions, often in its own interests, it is not the case that this issue can be understood in such black and white terms. It also forgets that Banglashis have made their own progress, but wants you to forget about it, so that it can capitalise on the images of victimhood that it creates, in order to elevate itself as their saviour, with your cash. It wants you to think that Bangladesh is a basket-case, and that you are responsible for it, and for sorting it out.
Oxfam have resorted to environmental language because they simply cannot conceive of development in any other terms. It is their intellectual vacuity which takes them here. Understanding development –real development – is impossible for Oxfam, because it doesn’t give them a role. It celebrates ‘traditional lifestyles’ because lifestyles in industrial society lead to the kind of politics that leaves Oxfam voiceless. It needs victims. And it needs culprits. Without them, it is cashless.
It is Oxfam which is the poverty stricken basket case.