The Ethics Of… International Aid

You know the deal. You’re sitting on the couch, relaxing after a long hard day at work and watching some TV, when all of a sudden they start laying on the guilt trip; ‘These poor kids in Africa are starving! You must help them! This will cost you lots of money and if you don’t smile when you hand it over, everyone will think you’re a bastard!‘.

God damn it. Can you not just sit here after working all day and relax for two seconds before someone wants something from you? Isn’t it enough that you provide for your own family and pay your taxes like the law requires? Sure, it’s really sad that terrible things are happening around the world, but they’re ALWAYS happening and I don’t see how my tax deductible $9.95 a month is going to make a difference to that.

It’s not my problem.

If you haven’t felt like this at least a few times in your life then please report to the Vatican for benediction. Whether it’s TV ads bombarding you with horrific pictures, the government diverting Australian tax money for projects that don’t help Australians, or getting ambushed by a backpacker with a clipboard on the street who ‘only wants 5 minutes of your time’, international aid can be extremely irritating.

Let’s get this straight; you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who thinks helping out those in need is a bad thing to do. Sure there’s always Ayn Rand, but Ayn Rand is to ethics what ‘intelligent design’ is to science; pseudo-intellectual fluff designed purely to justify an unjustifiable opinion – but that’s a debate for another day. Certainly, international aid can serve as a convenient cover for governments looking to increasing their influence overseas, and it can be rather galling to when the Australian government gives the Chinese $18.1 million in aid, despite turning a blind eye to serious, well known and ongoing human rights abuses. But when we’re talking about legitimate aid, intended to uphold human rights, alleviate serious long-term poverty, and assist recovery from disasters such as the 2004 Pacific Tsunami, the west African famine earlier this year, or the Chilean Earthquakes of 2010, you’re not going to get a lot of argument that these are good things to be helping with.

Where you really start to get debate is when you go from saying international aid is a good thing, to saying international aid is a duty. Why? Because the former is a positive call to help out if you so wish. It’s a voluntary chance to show how wonderful you are, to gain a few theological brownie points and feel good about yourself – and rightly so.

The latter just presents you with a grim decision; fulfil your duty or fail in it. There’s not much in the way of uplifting feeling here, just the implication that you are a selfish bastard until you prove otherwise.

John Rawls was a major commentator on international relations in his day, and while he believes it is our duty as help others living “under unfavourable conditions that prevent their having a just or decent political and social regime”, this isn’t a very serious duty because it’s clear that the problems facing that country are caused by that country;

The problem is commonly the nature of the public political culture and the religious and philosophical traditions that underlie its institutions. The great social evils in poorer societies are likely to be oppressive government and corrupt elites.” – Rawls, J 1971, ‘A Theory of Justice’

What’s the point in giving aid to countries when it’s just going to line the pockets of some dictator or corrupt official? Throwing cash around isn’t going to solve anything when the country’s system is fundamentally broken. If the money ends up n the wrong hands then you may actually be propping up the bad system by accident! Giving aid is still a good thing for you to do from a personal perspective, but in practice this aid can be pointless or even negative.

It’s like handing out change to a beggar in the street. Are you going to give it someone who reeks of booze? You know he’s just going to spend it on more booze. It’s still a nice thing to do and could keep him safer than if he has to find money another way, but ultimately it’s not going to change anything and might just encourage his drinking.

Peter Singer, the no-holds-barred utilitarian that he is, takes a harder line than this. He still considers International Aid a positive duty to help out those in a bad situation, but considers this duty absolute. If you can help others without a unreasonable cost to yourself, you must help them. There is no ‘maybe’, no question of whether you want to help – just an ethical line the sand. If you accept Singer’s brand of Utilitarianism, then this is a hard argument to counter. You’re reading this article on a device that costs more than most people in developing countries make in a year. The USA alone spends over three times each year on cosmetics what it would cost to provide clean water and basic sanitation to everyone on the planet, while Australians spend more than twice the required amount on booze. If you can look at figures like that and say we shouldn’t have to help people who literally cannot eat enough food to survive, then please keep browsing around this website until you learn what ethics are.

But this still doesn’t answer the problems pointed out before; even if we do begrudgingly agree that we have a rock solid duty to give Aid to those in bad situations, what’s the point if the money is just going to support a corrupt system and never reach the people who need it? There are endless examples of Aid projects that didn’t work or actually made things worse; contaminated emergency rations, “systemic criminal behaviour” within AusAid’s programs, good old fashioned ‘cash cropping’ programs, the list goes on. These are the projects that get pointed to every time someone doesn’t want to fork out the cash, and regardless of the wretchedness of these particular people it’s hard to debate that they have a point.

Hard that is, unless you’re Thomas Pogge.

Pogge attacks the issue from a broader perspective in his book The Ethics of Assistance: Morality and the Distant Needy, and challenges the idea that the problems these countries are suffering are their fault. Certainly corruption exists, but what causes it? Poverty may be the result of a broken system, but who broke the system? The answers he unearths are pretty grim for us tired Aussie workers on the couch.

First off, there’s that tired old left-wing hobby horse, Colonialism. Turns out our ancestors messed up the developing world pretty badly. Pogge estimates that even if we had completely compensated developing countries in the 1960s for the destruction caused by colonisation, the enduring cultural and economic instability would still leave developing nations at a 30:1 disadvantage against developed nations. At that rate it would take until the early 2300’s for them to catch up to us, and given we never did hand over this compensation, in reality it will take considerably longer.

But so what, right? We can’t be held accountable for what our ancestors did! We might choose to help out to make up for those old injustices, but responsibility for those crimes died with those who perpetrated them.

What can be laid out our feet however, is the fact that we never actually stopped screwing these countries over thanks to the international economic system, broadly administered by the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The institutions of international resource privilege‘ and ‘international borrowing privilege‘, whereby the ruling government of a nation may sell that nations resources and procure loans in its name, come under particular fire by Pogge. What’s so unreasonable about selling resources and getting loans? Well it turns out that the government can do this regardless of how they came into power – in other words, anyone with enough guns to hold the capital can sell that nations resources and procure loans in its name, and not only will the WTO consider these transactions legitimate, it will protect said transactions with the full weight of the international economy. This is the equivalent of someone stealing your car, selling it on eBay and the police not only saying there’s no problem with that, but arresting you for trying to get your car back.

Such rules fly in the face of justice and actively encourage corruption by deeming all sales legitimate, regardless of how the product is procured. So why do these rules exist? Who could possibly benefit from huge volumes of precious resources sold at discount rates, no questions asked? I wonder.

The same goes for labor laws. The UN Charter of Human Rights demands reasonable pay and working conditions for all people, but the WTO certainly doesn’t. By refusing to regulate against trade from sweatshops, exploitative businesses and the occasional slave labour camp, the developed world world can buy products that cost a tenth of what they would if manufactured in Australia where workers (like you and me) demand a decent wage and frivolities such as 8 hour days, holidays and safe work environments. The profits flow back to the developing nation’s business owning elites and everyone is happy – except for the other 80% of the populace.

So what are we to make of International Aid in light of these facts? Is it still pointless? Well it certainly looks that way, but not for the reasons we originally had. What’s the point in developed countries giving with one hand while pushing down as hard as they can with the other? What’s the point of empowering grass-roots development initiatives when the system they have to function within rewards corruption and actively threatens proper governance?

International aid is a virtuous thing, and as Peter Singer argues, unless the costs are unreasonable to us it’s an outright duty. But by far the greater duty – a duty that should have us all looking to our government with considerable anger – is not to exploit developing nations in the name of a cheap electronics, coffee and clothes.

Seems to me that the next time we sit down on the couch and see some ad asking us to help the poor starving African children, we should try sending them a fair go rather than some pocket change.

Further reading:

  • Thomas Pogge 2003, ‘“Assisting” the Global Poor’, in The Ethics of Assistance: Morality and the Distant Needy, Cambridge University Press.

  • John Rawls 1971, A Theory of Justice, President and Fellows of Harvard College, USA.

  • Peter Singer 1972, ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’, in Philosophy and Public Affairs, Blackwell Publishing.

  • Thomas Pogge 2005, ‘Severe Poverty as a Violation of Negative Duties’, in Ethics and International Affairs, Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

3 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… International Aid

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