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There is a character in the works of Charles Dickens who is increasingly coming to symbolize the spirit of the age in which we now live.

Readers of Dickens will recall the figure of Mrs. Jellyby in “Bleak House,” a lady who was full of good intentions and advice about the welfare and standards of distant peoples in Africa and elsewhere, but unfortunately overlooked and neglected the conditions in her own family and her own home. Dickens depicts her as a “telescopic philanthropist,” fixated on distant causes at the expense of her own family and home values.

Are today’s campaigning do-gooders in the richer countries, who fill the air with demands for more help to the poorer world (which we now call development aid) and deliver more lectures on standards of governance (which we now call human rights), pushing too far in their zeal to do good and make the world a better place, to the neglect of their own societies?

Two voices of wisdom and caution have recently emerged to suggest that some pause for rethinking is desirable.

Step forward first Dambisa Moyo, a Zambian and former investment banker, whose critique of conventional aid and development policy is spreading like wildfire among informed African opinion. Moyo’s penetrating analysis is a timely warning for all those engaged in the aid and development business that merely calling for more aid as the answer to world poverty — a theme much embraced by celebrities and pop stars in the West — may actually be damping economic progress in the poor countries rather than assisting it.

Limitless official aid to African countries, Moyo believes, stifles enterprise, increases corruption and de-incentivizes populations. There is an analogy here with the Arab oil producers and others, who have found that the easy flows of oil and gas revenues undermine the need to create wealth or indeed to work at all. Moyo is in effect aligning the curse of aid with the curse of oil.

Moyo is not of course the first voice to cast doubt on the effectiveness of overseas aid, but as she speaks to Africans from the heart of Africa, there can be no doubt that her message carries considerable weight and should cause all aid lobbyists and officials to examine their objectives.

The difference between her views and those of conventional anti-aid critics is that she offers constructive and realistic ways forward toward prosperity that billions of aid packages over the last 50 years have notably failed to deliver.

Her solution is to cut off aid funds and to replace them with a mixture of commercial debt, microfinance, fairer trade and foreign investment. She should be listened too rather than condemned by the aid lobby. The still appalling social conditions in which many people in America still live, as well as in the squalid suburbs of many European cities, makes one wonder whether, like Mrs. Jellyby, the do-gooders have their priorities right.

A similar manifestation of the dangers of Mrs. Jellyby’s type of overzealous impulses comes from the vast human rights lobby that now dominates informed opinion both in advanced countries and at the United Nations. Lectures and demands cascade from these sources, directed at the developing world, about the standards of governance and respect for rights they should be observing.

It is all meant well, but those who are so ready with this advice should perhaps divert more of their energies to their own home scenes. Certainly it looks strange for Washington to be instructing the world on good governance after the abuses of Guantanamo, the admission of torture practices and other brutalities.

And it looks equally strange for the European Union authorities to be telling Africans, or Sri Lankans or Turks or Russians or Chinese how to behave when their own standards of behavior and performance at home could do with so much improvement — as the current political scandals at Westminster and the excesses in the banking world testify. Perhaps some of these corrective messages should be flowing the other way as well.

Listen on this theme to the voice of Judge Clarence Thomas, one of the wisest voices on the U.S. Supreme Court. Thomas calls for a manifesto or a bill not of rights but of obligations, so as to bring home the point that rights need to be balanced with responsibilities and duties in human society if both are to be preserved and strengthened, and that this applies as much in his own America as in the wider world.

These are just two voices amid the clatter of fashionable international opinion. But they reflect a bigger and much deeper shift that is coming. The Western world can no longer assume that it holds automatic moral superiority and therefore the automatic right to lecture the rest of the globe on how to behave, how to develop and prosper, how to govern or how to democratize.

Instead of focusing on human rights, Western versions of democracy and development aid, the buzz words of the future in Western circles might more appropriately — and effectively — be respect, humility, example and restraint. All four words were used by U.S. President Barack Obama in his inaugural address, which gives grounds for hope.

If Mrs. Jellyby had been guided by them, she might have been a better mother and carer on her own family ground, and consequently have been more respected and better placed to help and work with others round the world.

David Howell is a former British Cabinet minister and former chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. He is now a member of the House of Lords. (www.lordhowell.com)

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