What scares you? What wakes you up in a cold sweat? In the United States a Gallup poll in 2005 showed that the thing teenagers are most afraid of are terrorist attacks. Other surveys by the pollsters show similar figures amongst adults fearing pandemics affecting them or their families. Other international issues like war and nuclear war rated highly in the same surveys. What I’m seeing here is that we are petrified of things we can’t predict or gain control of. In a globalised world we’re afraid of things that are triggered far away but at some point are going to hurt us in our own homes. The things that keep us up at night are also beyond the control of our governments and outside the reach of our armed forces.
No matter how much money we plough into fighter jets and spooks there will always be terrorists. Increasingly they don’t come from some far away country on the news, they were born in the local hospital. They sat with us in a lecture theatre at University. No amount of tanks and aircraft carriers are going to stop a disturbed person putting a bomb on a rush hour London bus.
We can buy billions of pounds of vaccines. We can put a surgical mask on every person in the world but a sneeze on the tube carrying a virus from an animal on a farm in a poor country can kill millions. What we have to understand is this: that trying to stop disasters once they have started is futile. But in the past futility has never convinced our governments, and the electorate pressuring them, not to try.
To articulate it in terms prime ministers and presidents understand: it’s very expensive. For every $60 spent on resolving wars it has cost $1 to prevent them (Oxpeace). It’s indisputable in fields from medicine to crime that prevention is not only cheaper but can be easier than resolution.
We don’t need to start a glossy government programme to prevent wars. We don’t need an initiative to prevent people from becoming terrorists or an NGO to work with developing countries to improve the terrible living and farming conditions that will breed next pandemic. We already have them. They are just chronically underfunded, they are sidelined and ridiculed and targeted in state spending cuts.
Sceptics will cry deficit reduction or ‘solving our problems at home before we give away money to the third world’. What these sorts of people need to realise is that countries and communities and individuals do not exist in a vacuum. Our homes and cities are vulnerable to both problems that originated far away or in a community centre 5 minutes drive from here. Prevention is the only answer.
Imagine this: instead of spending $1 trillion on the War on Terror (USA Today) we’d spent it on foreign aid. Countries that have decent schools and hospitals and better social equality don’ descend into violence. India doesn’t resent the UK for centuries of brutal oppression and strap bombs to its young people. Countries with clean, safe farming and a government food safety agency aren’t about to generate the next Swine Flu.
We need to stop seeing foreign aid as charity. We need to stop our governments portraying it as ‘the moral thing to do’. It’s neither. It’s a more pragmatic, effective and cheaper way of ensuring a world where we aren’t afraid to leave our homes. In the face of overwhelming evidence that prevention is better than cure you can’t help but look for another reason why people dislike foreign aid. It’s a sad state of affairs but even though it will make them safer, cost them less money and generally improve humanity’s lot people don’t care. If we can’t convince them with cold hard facts they’re unlikely to ever change their minds.