For a fortnight or more after the disaster in the Indian Ocean it became almost impossible to move - either physically or in cyberspace - without bumping into a request to contribute to a fund to help the victims of the Tsunami. Even the Google front page had a direct link to Ways to help with tsunami relief , and many newspapers, shops, restaurants and websites did their fashionable bit for the cause. In a world riddled with violence, disaster and tragedy it takes a physically momentous, pictorially dramatic, politically uncontentious natural disaster to engage the public's interest and enthusiasm at the levels we have seen. This is the first "designer tragedy" of the 21st century - simple, clear-cut, impacting on fashionable, westernised resorts. Unlike famine and war it carries no collective guilt. There is no one to blame.
In truth, however, both the disaster and the response to it say a great deal about the rich world and its poor relations. Nothing fundamental will change: the amount of wealth that will be transferred from rich to poor as a result of all the fund-raising is infinitessimally small. While well-developed areas such as the Thai resorts will recover quickly and may even benefit in the long run from the required reconstruction, poorer regions will take years to regain even the precarious level of their pre-tsunami existence. The motivation of well-meaning westerners as they dig into their pockets or reach for their credit cards may be innocent enough, but that innocence comes from a lack of thought or understanding as to the true experience of the many millions of the world's people forced by poverty, war, exploitation or neglect to eke out their lives at the margins of existence.
In this context, the tsunami disaster is a much less seismic event than its scoring on the Richter scale would seem to indicate. In a world in which millions die annually from a lack of clean water, or the most basic of drugs, or as the victims of terror or starvation, the loss of some hundreds of thousands in a freak event not likely to be soon repeated is little more than a blip on the graph. It attracts attention rather as rail accidents attract attention, because a relatively large number are killed rather suddenly, whereas unremarked road accidents kill a far larger number, only fewer at a time. The parallel goes further than that, because one reason that people get less heated about road accidents is because they know, when they think about it, that it is ordinary people like themselves that cause accidents to happen. Similarly, it is ordinary, well-off, people who cause - indirectly - many of the problems experienced by the world's most marginal communities. They do this by their patterns of consumption and the expectations they place upon their own societies. Thus are world trade, the armaments industry, the pharmaceutical business, controlled by rich western nations in whatever way will most benefit their own. There is no desire to harm others, even as drivers have no desire to cause accidents. It is just better not to think about it.
If this is the starting point, the desire of the rich West to help the world's poor or unfortunate is misplaced and certain to fail. Blair and Bush wanted to help the Iraqis, but sadly the only way they could think of to do so entailed the killing of a hundred thousand or so Iraqi people. They did this because they wanted the experience to be risk-free for their own people. The coalition troops on the ground may not regard their environment as “risk-free” on an individualised basis, but their huge superiority in technology and fire-power means that every one of their few casualties is noteworthy. Meanwhile, the Iraqis they are fighting lie dead and uncounted in their dozens or hundreds. It is significant that much of particularly the U.S. effort in Iraq is aimed at attacking a terrorist threat that the U.S. fears in relation to its own security. This fundamental self-interest has poisoned its relationship with Iraq while exposing as a fallacy the notion that the Americans are in Iraq for reasons of selfless benevolence.
Similarly, most western efforts to help the poor are rooted in the desire of the West to make its own patterns of consumption sustainable. There is a mixture, here, of guilt and economics. Giving money to Oxfam makes people feel more at ease with their comfortable lifestyles. But western consumption is also dependent on cheap labour in the poor world, so a degree of investment is needed if the river of cheap consumer goods is to continue to flow. The fair trade movement is a new and sophisticated twist in this story. The idea is to pay people fairly for their produce while also improving the conditions in which they work. Much of the attraction for consumers, however, lies in the quality of the goods that are produced in this way. So the success of the formula has as much to do with the desire for exclusive, craft-made goods, as with the interests of the producers. Do people buy Green and Black's chocolate because it is fair-traded, or because it is delicious? To put it another way, would they pay a fair trade premium for a product no better than its cheap, mass-produced equivalent? In the case of bananas, possibly. But in the case of electronic goods sold on price and mass-produced in vast Asian factories the answer is far less certain.
In short, any impetus to address the fundamental inequalities in the world that starts from the premise that the rich world needn't change is a perverse indulgence likely merely to deepen the harm. The idea that we can all be wealthy – that the rich can drag the poor out of poverty without loss to itself, that the “trickle-down” effect means that the rich getting richer is necessarily good new for the poor over whom they climb – is to misunderstand the nature of material wealth. To be rich necessarily requires that you are able to consume more than you produce. That means other people consuming less.
Wealth has less to do with the ownership or consumption of abstract goods than with the ownership or consumption of the labour of others. In nineteenth century Britain, as elsewhere, people considered only moderately wealthy maintained households full of servants, the services of whom they consumed in precisely the same way that their contemporary successors consume cheap food, washing machines and DVD players. The very rich had small armies of retainers to attend to their wishes. The wages and conditions of workers were generally poor. In effect, a small proportion of the population kept wealthy on the productive work of a large proportion who did not.
This picture is replicated in the relationship of the less heavily populated developed world and its highly populated, under-developed or developing counterpart. And what is important to notice is that the relative redistribution of wealth that occurred in Britain in the 20th century did not come about because of the charity of the rich, but because of the demands of the poor. In the long run the poor producers, when they organised themselves, had the whip hand. Lady Bountiful did her best for the deserving poor but required of them that they knew their place. When they started to move out of their place the process of social and economic change was unstoppable.
Similarly, the developing world is already shifting the balance of its relationship with the rich consumer nations. China has come a long way by supplying rich-nation demand for consumer goods, but what will really make its economy take off is when its own vast population can afford to consume. With countries such as China, India and Brazil in full consumer mode the global competition for goods will increase. Prices will rise and the availability to the West of cheap goods will diminish.
How soon such a process can help the world's most disadvantaged, particularly in parts of Africa, is hard to say. But the essential point is that change of this nature occurs not because of what is given by the rich, but because of what is taken by the poor. When nations such as the U.S. consistently consume more than they produce they place themselves at the mercy of this transfer of power.
Europeans have experience of this; after 1945 they were heavily in debt and could not attempt to compete with American patterns of consumption. Almost in reaction to it, some began to consider whether in some way more might possibly be less. In obscure corners there can now be discerned the feeble shoots of this post-consumer movement. There is a degree of do-goodery about it, of course, but also a hard-nosed realisation than when the new producer countries have their share there will simply be less available to the anciens riches.
The best way to help the poor peoples of the world, therefore, is to allow this process to happen and not to get in the way. Preaching the benefits of globalisation while subsidising failing agriculture and industry is a classic example of this sort of obstruction. It represents an attempt to slow down wealth transfer to poorer nations, an attempt that is bound to fail in the end because the subsidies themselves are a form of borrowing. A country that pays money to its producers in excess of the value of the goods they have produced is introducing money into the country's economy that the economy itself has not generated. Initially this eats into the country's savings, but when they run out the money has to be borrowed from abroad.
Even if the historical legacy of exploitation is discounted, there is a good case for saying that the sum of the West's intervention in the developing world is a negative, and that all the charity collection boxes and fair trade initiatives in the world cannot compensate for the damage done by a rich world trying to slow down an inexorable process of wealth transfer away from itself. And the problem with the collection boxes is that they provide a comfort blanket that smothers this reality. They make people feel good, but they do nothing to stop the damaging rear-guard action that the rich nations are fighting futilely to preserve a status quo. That subterranean battle is damaging to everyone it touches, in the long run. But, like the battle in Iraq, it is worst and most immediately damaging to the weakest and most vulnerable. It is not aid these people need. They just need the battle to go away.