<image courtesy of the legendary Polyp>
Triggered by Jason Hickel’s recent piece in the Guardian, Enough of aid – let’s talk reparations, it reminded me how long this conversation has been going on, and how little progress has been made towards a progressive framing of poverty.

In the early noughties, I remember discussions about the MDGs with other grassroots activists who were part of or close to the NGO movement where the importance of this more honest framing was discussed at length. Since then those activists (including myself) have gone on to high level roles at major NGOs, and even some of the international financial institutions whose mandate includes working on this area, but the framing still hasn’t changed.

In fact, I’ve seen little evidence of it being taken up by any big international NGO.

Watching the below video from earlier this year, of Dr Shashi Tharoor’s speech at Oxford University about Britain’s colonisation of India, a couple of phrases that stand out include, “We literally paid for our own oppression”.


We are not talking about reparations as a tool to empower anybody, they’re a tool for you to atone for the wrongs that have been done.

But even then, he’s only really talking about redressing the historical exploitation that built the wealth of many families and companies in the UK.

To my mind, an even more pressing issue is the neo-colonialism and extraordinary license granted to corporations who extract resources, and then also dodge their taxes. Tax dodging and the clandestine tactics required to pull it off and work around the law make it difficult to accurately assess and to counter, but the latest conservative OECD estimate is that for all the aid money from governments and donors (like you if you have ever donated to an aid charity) going to ‘developing countries’, three times that amount leaves the country in unpaid corporate taxes.

This combines to largely undermine the best efforts of ‘goodwill’, and demonstrates that legislation is urgently required to tackle this, and that the framing of goodwill is effectively a get out clause.

And yet, the majority of big international NGOs (especially those with roots in the West) working in the Global South remain focused on the formal processes of the MDGs, rebranded SDGs, that purport to ameliorate the result of these different forms of exploitation, but neither acknowledge the responsibility or guilt, nor even suggest they will tackle the ongoing issue.

The best re-conception of the SDGs I’ve heard has sadly not come from an NGO, but a pop band (and before you guess Bob or Bono, their language is about as relevant as their music, which is a shame given Bono’s lead role within the One Campaign that has the financial wherewithal to have a major impact on this reframing agenda). Swedish band, The Knife, suggested last year that the SDGs actually tackle the most serious financial problem for our modern global society. Not extreme poverty viewed through our comfortable paternalistic lens, but extreme wealth generated via the aforementioned immoral mechanisms. This is the actual root cause of these issues.

If we address the phenomenal burden of keeping the richest 1% in the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed, and challenging the status quo language that talks of ‘aid’, implying goodwill and assistance, rather than a compelling requirement to stop daylight robbery, and return some of our ill-gotten gains, we stand a chance of redressing the global balance.

Which leads me to think the most pragmatic solution we should all be working towards is a combination of reparations, with both governments and corporations immediately held to account, and a maximum wage written in plain terms that preempts the smartest of corporate accountants flouncing it for their paymasters.

The Knife aren’t the only ones to espouse this more progressive agenda either, the sadly disbanded Warsawpack capture quite a bit of the above in this track, We Conquer.

Whole nations, regions and continents, is just bleeding under the European dominance, it’s no longer tanks and guns, it’s the age of banks and multinational corporations.