Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Free Speech and Aid

Andy Thewlis, both in the JEP and on the St John's Church website, comments that:

"I write to inform you that I have resigned, with immediate effect, as Chair of Christian Aid in Jersey... The ongoing relationship of Christian Aid UK with the Tax Justice Network and Attack Jersey is, I believe, seriously misguided. ....Personally, I can no longer represent Christian Aid whose position seems irreconcilable when on the one hand they are inaccurately critical of Jersey on Tax issues, but on the other hand keen to continue to receive financial support from the States of Jersey Overseas Aid Committee and residents of this Island."(1)

This strikes me as extremely shortsighted. Writing in "The Tablet", last week, David Blair, Diplomatic Editor of the Daily Telegraph, noted that in developing countries where they work, "in return for being allowed to help, aid agencies have to keep quiet about suffering".

He notes the case of Sri Lanka as typical: "An array of international aid agencies work in Sri Lanka's war zone. While the journalists have been kept out, some aid workers have been allowed in and the International Committee of the Red Cross is permitted to evacuate the worst casualties from the 'safe area'. But a hard bargain has been struck. In return for being allowed to help the wounded and deliver essential relief, the aid agencies are expected to keep quiet about the suffering they witness. They are wary of going on the record about anything beyond the most basic information about the scale of the calamity. Tellingly, the doctor who provided the estimate of 430 dead in 48 hours has not been named. If this person's identity were to be revealed, he or she would probably be deported on the next plane, along with the organisation they represent. The suffering of the innocent would only increase."(2)

Now I know that Christian Aid is not speaking out about this kind of casualty in Jersey. Nevertheless, they believe, whether mistakenly or not, that the culture of concealment in global tax matters, and in tax havens in particular, adds to the misery and poverty of developing countries. Should they not speak out, in conscience, in an Island which prides itself on free speech, on this matter? Should they not be allowed to debate the issue? To say that they will not be allowed to criticise Jersey or they can expect their local funding to be cut off is surely to apply the same kind of standards as in Sri Lanka - as long as you don't "rock the boat", you are welcome here.

I have myself criticised the methodology of their "Death and taxes" (3) over their statistics, but I do not doubt that there are problems over taxation, but not just with so-called tax havens. The recent OECD lists regarding TIEAs is a start, because it did on the whole treat all countries fairly, including those who have managed to slip the net, such as Belgium, Luxembourg and Austria, which seems to be blind spot for critics of tax havens (4). While TIEAs may not, as yet, have teeth, they show the principle of getting legislation passed in different countries that everyone must sign up to, not just places designed as "tax havens". That - rather than the TIEAs - was the important result for the OECD (5)

Nevertheless, what matters at the end of the day, is not a non-violent protest by an aid organisation, but what that organisation does. I would happily support an organisation called "Atheist Aid" which was critical of religion in Jersey if it helped. I would support "Druid Aid" if it existed and had robed druids coming round collecting.

The bottom line has to be - will this agency help reduce the suffering of people in developing countries, and will the money go to that cause. If it does, and if it can reduce the mortality, prevent needless suffering, provide much needed education and help, then it can say what it likes.

(2) The Tablet,  16 May 2009

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