Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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Tuesday, April 12, 2005
The new established church: GCSE Religious Studies and the Christian Aid worldview. In December last year I promised to look over some RE textbooks, and, assuming I passed repeated SAN rolls, tell you about them. As it happens this ties in well with the the topic currently keeping me awake at night and blogging in the day: anger at Christian Aid.

So here is a religious studies textbook: Letts Revise GCSE: Religious Studies. Boys and girls, let us turn to page 130. Extracts from the book are in italics.

Reasons for inequality

Throughout what follows poverty and inequality are treated as synonymous. This is odd as there was a discussion of relative versus absolute poverty a few paragraphs ago.

The reasons for this divide are complex

Says you. Personally I think the biggest reason is simple, socialism, and most of the complexity comes from efforts to avoid admitting it.

and any discussion of ways in which the parts of the world might be made more equal generates great controversy.

I'll say. Pity not one whisper of one side of the controversy reaches your pages.

Several causes of poverty in the developing world are generally acknowledged:

No, widely acknowledged, but not generally. Certainly not by me, but I accept that my libertarian opinions are shared by few. More to the point is that the opinions listed below are also not held by vast numbers of conservatives. And it's a subtle issue, but that word "acknowledged" smuggles in the assumption that the possible causes listed are true. One supposes fancies but acknowledges facts.

- Expenditure on armaments (warplanes, guns and tanks/armoured vehicles) using money which is borrowed from the large banks of developed countries.

Weird. Expenditure on armaments by Third World countries is undoubtedly too high, but as a significant factor in us being rich and them being poor? Not even close. We spend plenty on arms too.

- very large populations of very young children who cannot contribute to the economy.

And who do not die in infancy in the vast numbers of yore, thanks to increasing wealth and modern medicine. It's true that the population bulge contributes to poverty while it lasts, but it is sign of success not failure. And it is temporary: when people adjust to the idea that nearly all their children live they stop having so many.

Now the destruction and disruption caused by war, that is a big factor. But that would not be quite so easy to blame on "large banks of developed countries."

- world trade, which forces developing countries to sell their goods for very low prices.

You heard right. World trade cited in itself as a cause of inequality/poverty. Sure, that's why Taiwan starves and North Korea flourishes. In actual fact the correlation between a country's foreign trade and rising wealth is so clear that practically no democratic government, right or left, supports this view. Even Kofi Annan doesn't believe this. As he said in 2000, "The main losers in today's very unequal world are not those who are too much exposed to globalization. They are those who have been left out."

- high rates of interest on loans.
I don't know enough to comment. [LATER: see next post.]

- reduced level of aid from developed countries.
If the level of aid is reduced, which I doubt, it's probably done them a world of good. As the late Peter Bauer said, aid is a transfer from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries.

Then the book lists a few factoids about current affairs that are true, but are far from proven as causes of inequality, such as easier travel, involvement of first world countries in Third World politics, aid programmes demanding contracts in return and so on. We finish with pure Michael Moore:

The countries of the developed world increasingly act as police (in the form of Nato forces) in disputes in the developing world. This might be to protect their own sources of valuable raw materials such as oil.

Got that? World inequality is the fault of Nato acting as world police. Is it OK for the United Nations to act as police, I wonder, or does the inequality gas only seep out when NATO does it? What about NATO forces under a UN mandate... oh, never mind.

The most depressing thing about all this? The study guide boasts that it is "written by GCSE examiners." These guys aren't eccentric text-book writers, then: they sit in judgement. One of them might be marking your kid's GCSE this summer.

But before anyone gets too angry with Letts for publishing or the authors for writing Revise GCSE: Religious Studies, consider the following.

This link to an OCR Religious Studies specimen paper suggests that the Letts book does little more than teach to the test. The extract that follows is from the official advice to examiners on how to mark a public examination sat by tens of thousands of sixteen year olds.

Describe the main causes of hunger in the world.
Candidates might discuss a variety of causes of hunger. These could include the greed of developed countries such as the USA and the UK, with inadequate distribution of resources; changes in climate resulting in poor harvests in the Third World; the effect of the arms trade in reducing the amount that poor countries have to spend on food; world debt etc.

It's all there. The special wickedness of the USA and the UK, the assumption that resources are distributed rather than produced, global warming (snuck in very smoothly, did you catch it?), the arms trade and world debt. Just be thankful we don't have the Caspian pipeline.

Obviously, candidates have every right to argue thus and writers of mark schemes have every right to mention these possible answers. But where have they been for the last thirty years? If you try talking about foreign aid to people off the street, or schoolchildren when authority figures are not present, you will not have to wait long before the charming phrase "they will only piss it away" comes to your ears. The idea that corruption and tyranny might have some role in Third World poverty is not restricted to neocons. (And what if it were? Given the list of left wing ideas in the specimen answer, couldn't the neocons be granted just one?) The idea that command economies have some role in Third World poverty no longer suprises anyone who has the slightest dealings with development studies.

The only place untouched by that thought is the ghetto of the Christian Left.

(This post slightly edited for clarity on April 13.)