I've been aware of this dreadful story for a few years now - how aid projects dug (literally) millions of deep wells for Bangladeshi villagers - protecting them from the diseases associated with surface water, but exposing them to deadly levels of arsenic in what the World Health Organisation called "the largest mass poisoning of a population in history". (They went on to say "... the scale of this environmental disaster is greater than any seen before ...beyond the accidents at Bhopal ...and Chernobyl").
Dalrymple as usual makes some valid points.
Let us suppose that a commercial mining company had, in the course of its operations, poisoned the water supply of 70,000,000 people in this quite specific way. Would that have been regarded as "a sad irony", an unintended consequence of its search for profit, or perhaps as something rather more sinister and indeed typical of the way such companies operate? Would there not have been large demonstrations, probably turning soon to violence, against that company by those in the developed world who habitually express their solidarity with the impoverished victims of exploitation by their own nations' multinationals? It is unlikely that we would ever hear the end of the matter - in such a case, quite rightly.
When people buy their UNICEF Christmas cards, how many of them know what the organisation, and others like it, have wrought in Bangladesh?
I have a few friends who are aid workers - brave, adventurous types - just the kind of people who would have made terrific District Officers in the days of Empire. It's an interesting irony that they're nearly all left wing.
As I quickly discovered in Tanzania and elsewhere, foreign aid offers a lucrative career in good working conditions to middle class people of the developed world who want a little adventure in their lives, and who would once have been colonial officers; and it offers tempting opportunities for malversation of funds to their bureaucratic counterparts in the Third World. This symbiosis is the natural consequence of asking precisely the wrong question: not where wealth comes from, but where poverty comes from.
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