The Rough Guide to a Better World
by Rajith Dissanayake, Harrow, UK
The Department for International Aid and Development in Britain, DFID has released a booklet free of charge through UK postoffices called "The Rough Guide to a Better World" in the same style as the Rough Guide series of books, which is popular and well known, particularly in dealing with travel. The book has been composed by Rough Guide authors.
The DFID supports a number of NGO's helping to "develop" the world including Christian Aid, and World Vision to the tune of millions of pounds annually. Many Western governments today, channel aid through NGOs rather than making direct donations, including through religious bodies which have multiple agendas.
Of these World Vision has in the past, incontrovertibly been associated with Christian missionary activities (any of their website will reveal this side), particularly in Buddhist countries like Sri Lanka, often using covert, manipulative means trading resources for conversion, often starting with children.
The booklet is food for thought for Buddhists.
Broadly what the book says is true - about the necessity to deal with world poverty, and problem of inequality in the developing world as well as over consumption in developed countries. The three richest people in the world apparently have more money than the 48 poorest countries put together.
Under "Faith-based advocacy" the book states:
'Faith-based communities, ... are key players on the road to creating a better world. ... At one time faith groups were criticized for being more interested in converting people than helping them to find ways to overcome poverty. ... Today many of the major religions recognize that their spiritual vocation includes fighting for political change.'
At the end of the book are a list of organisations including some that describe themselves as Evangelical. The faith groups represented are mostly Christian: Pax Christi, CAFOD, Tear Fund, World Vision. There is also Hindu Aid, Muslim Aid, Network of Sikh Organisations, Jewish Aid but no Buddhist organisation represented (and this in not an omission of the authors).
Some religions describe Buddhism as being cold and analytical and seem to hold a high hand when it comes to real compassion and care. Perhaps Buddhists should think about aid without necessarily dressing up in the clothes of "democracy, human rights" and the pretence that everyone should potentially have a rational, educated, western type mindset.
Throughout western history there are certain movements including "development" that can be seen as continuations of the colonial "civilising mission". In this I would also include communism and globalisation to a greater or lesser extent. Sometimes it has done a lot of good, but it has also got things seriously wrong. Interestingly, the Chinese, Indians, Japanese and indeed most Asian civilisations have never shown a keen urge to influence the rest of the world and "improve" it compared to the Western sphere of influence. Why? Is it that the Chinese have lacked compassion? I think not.
One problem of certain kinds of development aid is that it sustains NGOs as arbiters of world influence, undercuts local solutions and ultimately serve the countries that provide aid economically and politically rather than the recipient bodies. NGOs are not regulated. The Western mindset generally assumes that we only have one life, and it often tends to ignore the existence of beings other than human beings - e.g., animals.
It is not surprising that most policies are driven with these assumptions or notions in mind, and of course it produces a lot of good.
Many Buddhists cultivate metta to all living beings regardless of any category to which they belong including "enemies". Is there room for Buddhist aid organisations that advocate compassion towards all living beings actively, human and animal, and try and eradicate ignorace? I think so. The above book is broadly, very informative. We do live in a small world, but cannot afford to lose sight of indigenous religions, cultures, ways of living rather than setting up a-priori definitions of what poverty is, what education everyone should receive, and what religion/creed/set of dogmas the poor should practice and what privileges they should enjoy. There is strength in diversity.