Life-changing letters – An open letter to international development charities…

Dear Mercy Ships and Plan and the many others for whom this is relevant,

I know that you have the best of intentions. I know that really I should be writing to the corporate elite, the banks, the investors, the off-shorers, the mining multinationals, the Big Pharma, the fund managers…

But the letters I received through the door from you the other morning are dangerous. They’re dehumanising, they’re ‘othering’, they’re disempowering, they’re telling people in the UK stories that aren’t true; making them believe that the world’s problems, and their guilt, can be alleviated ‘for less than the price of a packet of crisps’. And you need to take responsibility for that.

Let’s examine the stories you’re telling…


“You could change a life for less than the price of a packet of crisps”

“Children like Rosa are waiting for a sponsor – a sponsor like you”

“One in five children born in the poorest countries won’t live to see their fifth birthday. The lack of something simple as clean water to drink, leads to the appalling loss of so many promising young lives. Millions of children go without education or opportunities, and live without hope of things ever changing… But if you become a child sponsor with Plan, you could make a better life possible for a child, their family and their community.”

Mercy Ships

“Without urgent medical care, children like Memuma will die. Will you help us reach them before it’s too late?”

“I had to warn you. I had to let you know that the picture of Memuna that you can see above is upsetting.”

“…without Mercy Ships, children like Memuna, in the remotest, poorest parts of our world, don’t have a chance. Without medical care, they’ll never be able to see, walk or be free of deformity again.”

“If it [Memuna’s tumour] had gone untreated it would have killed her in the most agonising way imaginable. But thanks to kind supporters just like you, I was able to remove her tumour.”

“Thank you on behalf of every child we can save together.”

NB: I also completely take issue with the name of your charity. Mercy = “compassion or forgiveness shown towards someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.” With this choice of name you have immediately elevated yourselves to a position of power over those you want to ‘help’, disempowering them and reducing their ‘salvation’ to an act of mercy, rather than a matter of social justice, equality and humanity.

Your words and images reduce people to a spectacle. You remove their agency and their power. You make them ‘different’. You reduce them to graphic photographs, to heart-wrenching descriptions, to painful voyeurism, to their problems. You take away their history and their experiences, their feelings and the full spectrum of their being. You make the impossible seem possible. You make them a salve for a consciousness that ignores that fact that in the world today people are poor, because ‘we’ are rich. You put value on ‘promising young lives’ and not lives; You reduce lives to the value of a packet of crisps.

Most dangerous of all, is that you allow people to think that we’re separate from all of ‘this’. That we’re different. That the actions we take here, the system we’re complicit in, the things we buy, the choices we make, don’t affect people around the world. You’re not telling the truth. You’re telling stories. And that’s why things aren’t changing.

All I keep playing over and over in my head are the words of Nick Dearden, Managing Director of Global Justice Now, who recently wrote in an article in Red Pepper:

But over the past two decades, the war on global poverty has been subverted and co-opted. In an age when obscene wealth became once again something to boast about, those big campaign groups and politicians concerned about poverty moved with the times. To keep ‘poverty’ relevant to Thatcher’s children, they gutted it of political content. Through the new concept of ‘extreme poverty’, it became possible both to believe in me-first individualism and free market economics, and to care about the very poor.’

Not possible. The two are mutually exclusive.

I really appreciate what you’re trying to do, and I’m sure a lot of people will diasgree with me, but, it’s time to tell different stories, and campaign for real change. Honestly, we all know that Ali from Finsbury Park’s 50p a week isn’t going to change the fate of developing countries and those living in them, when the West is taking billions of pounds resources out of Africa every year, when the World Bank is run by a handful of powerful countries, when John in New York’s congratulating himself on moving another $50m into his offshore account. It’s a big task I know, but you’re in the position to educate people about what’s going on and call for real, lasting, earth-trembling change. I know it’s not going to happen overnight, but telling the truth is a good start…

Yes Memuna has a tumour, and she’s unlikely to have access to medical care. But why not talk about the fact that “The World Trade Organization (WTO) enforced the privatisation of health care and opened the developing countries health markets to Western Health Care industries. In 1995 the WTO-GATS agreement (on trade and services) prevented signatory governments from providing subsidised goods and services in the health sector for which there is market demand.” This is just ONE tiny example of how Western neoliberalism isn’t playing fair in healthcare, you can read plenty more here.

Yes Rosa lives in a “tiny one room shack with her mother, sister and another young family…She was forced to leave school, as her mother could no longer afford the fees.” But, before you get me started on the effect of neoliberalism on education; Rosa’s life isn’t going to improve with a daily donation of 50p from a Western saviour. What we need is an international political and economic system that’s equal. Where all countries have a say in making the rules, where trade is actually fair, where countries have autonomy over their choice of leadership and over their economies, their politics and their cultures. Where we talk about how much Europe benefited from colonialism and slavery and continues to do so. Where leaders who challenge Western models of capitalism and neoliberalism aren’t assassinated. Also, don’t tell people that Rosa’s sat in (insert African country here), waiting for a sponsor like them, as if that’s all she knows and all she has to live for. You know that’s not true, although you probably haven’t asked. You haven’t given her a voice.

I know it’s a tough position to be in, but you’re in a position of serious responsibility. Real justice isn’t going to come from a place of guilt. It’s not going to come from a place that perpetuates damaging stereotypes or misinformation. I don’t have the answers, but:

  • Why not stop writing to the public asking them for money, and instead write to them (because I agree that we should all take more responsibility for what’s going on on this planet) to let them know what’s really going on. Tell them what the UK government and the businesses we buy from are really responsible for, so people can make informed choices about who to vote for/buy from. You can also ask them to campaign/educate/raise awareness and demand change.
  • Ramp up campaigns targeting those who lead global inequality and that we blindly follow.
  • And finally, if you insist on continuing with donor-supported fundraising requests. PLEASE please PLEASE sort your messaging out. For many people living in the UK, their only experience of ‘developing’ countries comes via you lot, or the media, and we know how representative that really is… You have a responsibility to tell the TRUTH about what’s really going on in these countries and for the people living in them.
  • And why not actually AMPLIFY the voices of those you speak of. Instead of searching for stories of woe and projecting your own stories to suit your aims, why not ask people in developing countries what they want the UK to know? Why not speak to the hundreds of thousands of vocal, mobile, passionate people living in ‘developing countries’ or ex-pats who are angry and active on these issues and give them more air time here.

Do you really think things in the world are going to change if everyone in the UK thinks that everyone in the global south needs ‘saving’ and that it’s something that we’re capable of giving with a fleeting moment of guilt and a monthly financial donation. That it’s possible without giving anything up or standing up, without learning and listening and taking responsibility for the lives we live, the systems we create and the world we make every day?


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