What's humanitarian about this aid?

The US has imposed on Russia an aid package that will leave the country poorer but American farmers

Here we are at the end of 1998. More than ten years has passed since Russia began experimenting with economic and political reform. During those ten years, we have had much experience of this reform and can now state with some certainty that there are at least three things Russia does not need. First, more loans to add to those that already cannot be paid back. Second, more financial resources placed in the hands of corrupt bureaucrats. Third, more economic measures that will harm any of the already fragile Russian domestic manufacturing industries.

What is the west doing to help Russia at the end of 1998? You don't need three guesses to work out that it is engaging in the one form of "aid" activity guaranteed to achieve all three of these negative goals: selling large quantities of cheap food to Russia. This is what is generally called "humanitarian aid". It is a farce.

Which is not to say that there aren't hungry people in Russia, or that hungry people shouldn't be helped. Even in Moscow, the richest city in the country, the metro stations are now tightly encircled by old ladies holding up single packs of cigarettes and bits of dried fish, the sale of which will finance the potato they will eat for supper. Even in Moscow everyone has a story: a cousin in Siberia, perhaps a PhD in physics, who hasn't received his salary for a year, or a friend whose child reports that schoolmates pass out in class through lack of food. The newspapers are full of such stories, too, and, although Russians generally seem to find ways to survive without starving, one doesn't have to look hard to see poverty that is far worse than in recent years.

There are good ways to help people and bad ways. There are also terrible ways, and the west, most notably the United States, appears to have chosen the most terrible way of all. At least the European Union has the decency to give its $500 million worth of surplus subsidised food to Russia for free. The United States, on the other hand, has graciously offered to lend the Russian government money to buy its $600 million worth of surplus subsidised food - thereby adding to the Russian government's vast and unrepayable debts.

More to the point, everything is being done to ensure that the money will not go directly to the people who need it. If the words "humanitarian aid" conjure up a heart-warming image of a little man in a shiny lorry giving out hot cross buns to beggars, forget it. According to the current plan, the aid will be distributed by private companies, which in Russia means fat, sluggish, semi-private companies stuffed with former Agriculture Ministry bureaucrats. Inevitably these companies have close links to the politicians who selected them to carry out said aid distribution.

At least one of these companies, Roskhleboprodukt, has done this sort of thing before: it distributed grain three times in 1991 and 1992. That is, it took the grain, sold the grain, accepted money for the grain and somehow appeared not to notice when large quantities of grain and money disappeared in the process. The president of Roskhleboprodukt has admitted that the last time around, food distribution wasn't entirely above board although, naturally, he denied that his company was involved.

Yet it isn't as if the aid is intended to help the Russian domestic food industry either. When a few semi-private companies sell free food below cost, what happens to Russian food producers in the meantime? Well, first they have trouble competing; then they go out of business. Cheap chicken legs from America mean that producers of Russian pork might as well go home. Ditto cheap wheat, rye, rice, beef, whatever.

Although there are conflicting reports about how good the Russian grain harvest was this past year, the view of the Russian grain market in the future is fairly uniform: the flood of foreign food will create a surplus, and that surplus can only, in the end, hurt domestic producers.

Unless, of course, those domestic producers simply start selling their products abroad, which they almost certainly will. Already Russia has exported 1.5 million tonnes of wheat this year, according to the Institute for Agrarian Market Research here. Hundreds of thousands more tonnes go abroad every month, and nobody has any intention of stopping them. True, Russia has agreed not to re-export American aid, but even if it keeps to this promise, which seems unlikely, Gennady Kulik, the deputy prime minister, whose pet project this is, insisted last week that "no, we are not going to stop exporting". And that is that.

Yes, Kulik is a cynic. But he does deserve some credit: he is not as cynical as the American secretary of agriculture who has openly described the aid deal as "good news for America's farmers and ranchers". He is right: if anyone other than the employees of Roskhleboprodukt stands to gain from this exercise, it is they.

And if anyone loses, it will be the Russians, and not only the hungry Russians. When, once again, a western effort to "help" Russia collapses into chaos and corruption, the appetite for doing something - anything - on Russia's behalf will sink further.

Yet it is not as if there aren't intelligent ways to spend aid money here: with $100 carefully invested, one could probably do a lot more than with $100 million handed over to Roskhleboprodukt. There are provincial reformers who need support, local charities to advise, schools to help with western books and funding. There is a whole generation to educate, a generation that is genuinely interested in, and open to, western ideas and culture. If that sounds like too big a job, other problems could be addressed. Russia is facing shortages of insulin, for example, without which diabetics die; and the newspapers are full of stories about tuberculosis, especially in prisons but among the poor as well.

A few foundations and the odd charity have worked out that there are ways to spend money intelligently. But, to date, almost no one in the official "help Russia" business has been interested in spending money intelligently. They have been interested in other things: shoring up Boris Yeltsin, or making the Russian money markets safe for American banks, or helping American and European farmers. No wonder our aid efforts have failed in the past, and no wonder they will fail again.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A prejudice as American as apple pie

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood