"Solidarity is not a business"
Interview Thomas Gebauer says: private charity is the result of neoliberalism. Real services of general interest need global solutions
[This article published in Freitag 2019 is translated from the German on the Internet, www.freitag.de.]
Anyone who organizes campaigns to enforce human rights must take on the powerful. Thomas Gebauer has been in this struggle for decades. He works for medico international - one of the most important and controversial NGOs. In an interview with Freitag, Gebauer explains how radical aid must be in order for major changes to be possible.
der Freitag: Mr. Gebauer, if we look at the world as it is, we see war and poverty everywhere. To alleviate the need, there are newer and newer forms of help. Especially dazzling is the so-called "Effective Altruism", which is about supporting initiatives that are particularly effective in helping people. Will this make the world a better place?
Thomas Gebauer: Hardly! And certainly not if the goal is to realize universal human rights. In "Effective Altruism", a bizarre mixture of philosophy and financial economics, depoliticization is elevated to dogma. The masterminds assume that misery can only be cushioned by aid, but not its structural causes. These are simply ignored in all considerations.
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In what way?
This becomes clear with the example of the "Charity Evaluator", which was developed by two New York hedge fund analysts. Using relevant cost-benefit analyses, they calculate how help can be provided most effectively. For example, they relate the funds used to the extended life span of a person and come to the conclusion that the most effective aid organization is the "Against Malaria Foundation", which spends around ,300 on saving a human life. But what do you do with people whose lives may require more money to save? What do you do with all forms of prevention to help people avoid getting into threatening situations in the first place? None of this can be captured with such calculations and this form of impact monitoring.
At what point is something considered effective?
I once asked representatives of "effective altruism" whether they would be prepared to support us in the fight against anti-personnel mines. They simply refused.
On what grounds?
Because such a campaign could not achieve its goal, so it would remain ineffective. Because it might not be possible to demonstrate rapid and measurable success. After all, it took us years to enforce the ban on anti-personnel mines. The alternative would have been to leave it at that, to give the victims prostheses. With this kind of help, which we have also provided, the possibility of actually intervening in the structures to change them disappears.
But the concept seems to work. Many are participating in "Effective Altruism".
Many people have the feeling that they are doing good in this way. People think about how to spend their income without asking how it is generated. It becomes quite abstruse when it comes to earning as much money as possible. One variety of "effective altruism" is earning to give. According to this, one should earn as much money as possible in order to be able to do as much good as possible. The heroes of modern help are then stock exchange speculators.
But what's wrong with people spending a lot of money on mosquito nets so that fewer people die?
It is always a question of what one wants to achieve. When it comes to overcoming need and immaturity in a sustainable way, pure charity does not help. If we want to hold on to the goal of creating social justice, political intervention is also needed. For those who abandon this goal and want to cushion the injustice at best a little, "Effective Altruism" might be reasonable.
Besides "Effective Altruism", crowdfunding campaigns such as GoFundMe from the USA are popular. People place calls on the Internet in the hope of receiving enough money to pay for medical bills, school fees or the cost of a relative's funeral. Why is private charity so widespread in the USA?
Donation platforms such as GoFundMe are so important in the USA because there are no systematic and reliable social services of general interest. Where people have no access to health insurance or publicly funded educational institutions, for example, they have no other choice. In the meantime, however, such donation platforms are also increasing in Germany.
They promise proximity and immediate solidarity. However, this overlooks the fact that there are people who are not even able to formulate an appeal, or who are suffering from a need that they do not want to show publicly. The anonymity of social security systems as we know them is something very valuable. It ensures a right to support without having to expose oneself. It protects against discrimination and also guarantees individual freedoms. Such principles are lost when hardship and help are negotiated in the Internet marketplace.
So even if social crowdfunding appears to be something new, is it more of a relapse behind institutionalized solidarity?
It is even a regression to the time of the French Revolution, to the idea of human rights. The social reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, a contemporary of the French Revolution, is said to have once said the wonderful sentence: "Charity is the drowning of the law in the manure of grace." We are well on the way to making precisely this form of the drowning of fundamental rights once again socially acceptable. Right is always something abstract. Even those we do not know and do not see have rights. We sacrifice this form of legal entitlement when we remove solidarity-based action from its protection by social institutions.
Structural causes, however, are more difficult to eliminate. Is the desire for concrete help not understandable there?
Of course it is important to get involved and to ensure the immediate elimination of individual grievances. But it must always be clear that more is needed for sustainable solutions. I would like to explain this using the example of a project from South Africa. In the Limpopo Province, the toilets of a primary school were in such a poor condition that children died in them. The parents, together with the teachers, had to and wanted to change this. Section 27, a partner organization of medico, intervened. The name refers to Article 27 of the South African Constitution, which lays down the right to health. Section 27 did not do what many aid organisations might have done, which was to provide money to enable people to repair toilets on their own responsibility. Instead, they have supported parents and teachers to speak up as political actors to put pressure on school administrations to finally do their duty and repair public buildings.
Has that worked?
Not immediately. Because the campaign made public the inactivity of the provincial government and also raised the issue of corruption, some of the activists were even threatened with death. But in the end, the people won out. And not only the toilets in one school were repaired, but in all schools in the province.
What is the difference between Section 27 and an NGO that would have given money directly to the affected people to repair the toilets?
This is a different approach. It is an aid that assists the local people in their disputes with the socially powerful, in this case the administrative power, and insists on social responsibility. Ensuring that school buildings and education are intact is not a private responsibility, but a public one. It would be a mistake not to always insist on this public responsibility. Only in this way can human rights be realized.
In this context you speak of the ambivalence of aid. What do you mean by that?
Aid is always a double-edged issue. There is no doubt that it is necessary to provide food aid to people who are suffering from hunger. But at the same time, such aid also helps to stabilize existing inequalities. Aid that merely cushions social injustice does not yet create a change in the structural conditions of need and lack of freedom.
You are active in the aid organization medico. Does this also help to stabilize the situation? But is it easier to organize concrete solidarity in the local area?
The global stands in relation to the local. For example, in order to be able to carry out meaningful health prevention, local contexts need not only their own decision-making powers, but also the appropriate resources. These can certainly be collected centrally. Through institutions that collect taxes and ensure that the necessary legal foundations are created. On the other hand, the question of what should be done with the funds must be answered as far down the line as possible in smaller contexts. In Scandinavia, it is the municipalities that decide on the priorities in health prevention. Should the money go into the construction of a new sports hall, a new exercise trail or nutritional advice in schools? But without an overarching solidarity-based financial equalization system, there will be little to decide on locally.
What does that mean in global terms?
For years I have been campaigning for a global citizens' insurance. From a global perspective, there are enough funds available to enable all the people of the world to have access to adequate health care. It does not fail because of a lack of resources, not because of knowledge, but only because of the willingness to realize the balance. It is a matter of politics, but also a matter of public opinion, to be prepared to stand up for the health needs of people in South Asia or in Africa. We are still a long way from understanding the need for such global exchange. The idea of international solidarity, which we used to talk about so often in the past, must now be redefined in terms of content.
Can the state play a central role?
I am deliberately not talking about state institutions, but about social ones. I am not talking about nation states, but about a social responsibility that is materialized in social institutions. These do not necessarily have to be state institutions.
Exchange and participation can also be made possible through legally regulated self-organizations. In our health insurance system, despite all its shortcomings, this is a principle. It would be a task for left-wing politics, instead of just criticizing the bureaucratic encrustation of such institutions, to ensure their democratization, to socialize them, so to speak. Only in this way can the influence of powerful actors such as the pharmaceutical industry be curbed and the needs and legal claims of patients be placed at the center.
Is another economic form needed for the actual realization of solidarity?
That is probably the prerequisite for solidarity. Services of general interest are only partially compatible with profit-oriented and growth-oriented business interests. Public goods economies only work if the available resources are neither underused nor overused. What this means cannot be left to the opportunity considerations of private investors. In a balance of solidarity, people relate to each other and support each other. The principle of solidarity means meeting the legal claims of even those who cannot afford access to education or health on their own. However, the privatization of services of general interest, which has progressed much further in the countries of the South than here, excludes precisely those who need services of general interest most urgently: the poor and destitute. Common goods can only be realized outside the sphere of capitalist economics.
If the end of capitalism is a prerequisite for real solidarity, the question arises of how this end can be brought about. At the moment, many are talking about class and class struggle. Is class solidarity, which is explicitly directed against capitalism and the capital side, a means to overcome capitalism?
I am not sure whether the terms "class" and "class struggle" are helpful. It is rather a question of the revolutionary subject. Where are the forces that can stop the socio-ecological devastation of the world? This is certainly not the traditionally thought proletariat, and it is not only the marginalized and excluded, but also the middle classes and intellectuals. What is necessary for the upheaval of social relations is very complex. Revolution today must be seen more as a bundle of initiatives that drive necessary changes in their environment. It is about the relationship between the sexes, our relationship to nature, the examination of our own way of life and production, questions of power.
Based on such basic considerations, we have developed a critical concept of aid that both defends and attempts to overcome aid. In times of social de-solidarization, it is necessary to insist on direct help, for example for people who have fled to us. But it must also be about eliminating the causes of flight and forced migration. Ultimately, it is a matter of making charitable aid superfluous through reliable forms of institutionalized solidarity.
What distinguishes aid from solidarity?
Aid is a special form of solidarity, people support each other in situations of need. But solidarity is more than that: it is not only manifested in the common struggle for fair conditions, but is itself a goal. Solidarity requires social institutions that provide for balance and participation and thus for a dignified human coexistence. The French Revolution knew the importance of solidarity. As well as freedom and equality, it also demanded what the revolutionaries of the time called brotherhood. If we translate "Fraternité" in a contemporary sense with "sociality", the immense significance of this demand becomes clear. It is not about social fuss, as neoliberal politicians like to be understood, but about something that has been almost completely destroyed by neoliberalism - the realization that social institutions are needed to ensure freedom and equality. Solidarity is much more than a feeling of inner solidarity. Solidarity stands for the obligation of all to stand up for the whole.
Solidarity is a dazzling concept. Leftists use it just as much as right-wingers and neo-liberals - and everyone understands it differently. Is it therefore at all meaningful to refer to a term that has such an unclear meaning?
Precisely because the concept of solidarity is sometimes misused, it is necessary to develop a critical understanding. One that shows how problematic the neoliberal exaggeration of freedom is. For many people, the denunciation of sociality has not brought more freedom, but only a kind of bird-like freedom. In the meantime, the social insecurity - we could also say de-insecurity - of people has become the number one global risk.
The right-wing forces are currently trying to capitalize on this and are appealing for exclusive solidarity. What distinguishes exclusive solidarity from left-wing solidarity?
Take the example of Poland, where the PiS party won another election in October. The political right was approved not least because it campaigned for public services of general interest. It did so, however, in a way that set it apart from others and thus served to fuel backward-looking resentment. In the ideas of the right, solidarity is only possible in communities that are as homogeneous as possible and in which the foreign plays no role. What the political left would have to counter this is a cosmopolitan idea of solidarity. One that knows that the great problems of our time, climate change, the increase in conflicts, worldwide poverty, can only be solved in a global context. Anyone who thinks that such problems can be solved by isolation is mistaken.
The Fraternité, the fraternity in the French Revolution, can also be interpreted as a union of brothers against the King. Does solidarity require an outside against which one shows solidarity?
That argument never made sense to me. Solidarity has something to do with the realization of human rights, and its principle is universality. It may be that feudal structures stand in the way of this principle, but an outside as such explicitly does not need solidarity. The outside only comes into play when the idea of universal rights is reduced to the quest for security. This is currently the case. Security is something that can also be realized in a particular way, for example through isolation. The right, on the other hand, is always universal in its claim.
International class solidarity also lives from exchange with workers in the Global South. It is easier for me to express solidarity with a textile worker from Bangladesh when I have a concrete person in mind. Are exchange and proximity prerequisites for solidarity?
Meetings between people help to find out and recognize what they have in common. There is a lot of strength in town twinning or in the exchange that churches organize. But once again: the principle is that in the end we are also in solidarity with people we don't know. To realize human dignity for all requires a capacity for abstraction that is beyond concrete and immediate experience.
The problem is that today many of the initiatives committed to socio-ecological transformation work in isolation rather than in relation to each other. There is still a lack of a common strategy that takes account of global interrelationships.
This is precisely one of the initial considerations of class politics at the cutting edge. Connected with this is the hope of leaving the particularization of left-wing politics behind, of returning to something universal.
For this, above all, agreement on basic principles is needed. Here anti-capitalism certainly plays an important role. Take the UN's sustainable development agenda with its 17 goals and 169 sub-goals. A wonderful sounding agenda that leaves nothing out. Many NGOs were very happy that they were able to accommodate their respective goals - in the joy, the real problem was lost sight of: The implementing regulations state that the countries themselves are responsible for achieving the goals and that growth must therefore be the first priority. However, there is no mention of a fair distribution of existing resources. Ultimately, this agenda attempts to square the circle. But how can a destructive mode of production save the environment and how can a system that systematically produces poverty eradicate poverty? Sustainable change can only succeed if we keep the whole picture in mind.
Does this require a utopia?
It is about developing ideas that we can counteract the destruction. We have to make it clear that things can be done differently. This also requires a vision of sociality in a global context. One that is no longer driven by competition and the pursuit of private profit, but by mutual concern and shared responsibility for the whole, by solidarity.
Thomas Gebauer, 64, is a sociologist, psychologist and human rights activist. He has been working in the field of international aid for a good 40 years, and was for many years managing director of the aid organization medico international. Today he is spokesman for the Medico Foundation. In the early 1990s he initiated the "International Campaign to Ban Landmines", which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997.