Foreign aid, ethical obligations and the morality of giving


Julian Baggini
Julian Baggini edits and publishes the quarterly The Philosopher’s Magazine

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This article originally appeared in The Skeptic, Volume 22, Issue 4, from 2011

I’d love to be a full-blown foreign aid sceptic. Nothing spoils an evening in a nice restaurant like a good dose of western middle-class guilt about poverty in the developing world. Wouldn’t it be great if we could dissolve it, and get on with enjoying our good fortune?

There is an argument that many find compelling for why we should do just that. As Immanuel Kant argued, ought implies can: you are only obliged to do things which you can actually do. You may well be obliged to look after your own children, for example, but you’re not obliged to find a cure for cancer by Monday. Armed with this rock-solid moral maxim, the argument then runs that there is nothing we ought to do to help the developing world, because there is nothing we can do. Indeed, well-intentioned help more often than not ends up causing more harm than good.

As private citizens we have good reason to feel helpless in the face of seemingly intractable problems. Most aid comes from government anyway, so our direct debits are just drops in the ocean by comparison. What’s more we know the root causes have more to do with international trade laws, war, and governance in developing countries than they do western generosity.

Worse, there is the law of unintended consequences. For example, a report a few years back by the Commission for Global Road Safety claimed that roads built with international aid were causing unnecessary deaths, particularly among children, because they are not being made safe enough. The saying that the road to hell needs to be paved with more than good intentions has never been more apt.

There is truth in all these sceptical doubts, but they do not let us off the moral hook for the simple reason that the case that we have a duty of assistance is just too strong, whether or not we are responsible for the suffering we seek to alleviate.

Moral philosophers have used a number of analogies to pinpoint the source of this duty. Onora O’Neill asked us to imagine a lifeboat which had room and supplies for drowning people, yet refused to change course even a little bit to pick them up. We would rightly deplore the people in charge of the boat. But by the same logic, we should be prepared to make a relatively small effort to save our fellow human beings, even if we did not cause them to be in the desperate plight they are.

Most of us recognise that there is something obscene about enjoying the incredible wealth and prosperity we do while others die for lack of a few pence per week. The moral imperative to do something about it is so strong that it is no wonder we seek to forget about it, or try to deny it.

That’s where the idea that we do not need to help because we are not responsible and cannot change anything comes in. It’s the ultimate ‘get out of jail free’ card for the tortured western conscience.

But our duty is so not easily removed. Our moral obligation to help is not predicated on us having caused the problems we seek to solve, merely on the fact that we have found ourselves with so much while others have so little. It’s no good saying you shouldn’t have pulled a drowning child from a pond because you didn’t push her in: when the stakes are so high, the mere fact that you can save her at so little cost means that you must.

Nor is the fact that much aid doesn’t work an excuse not to give any. If it could be shown that aid causes more harm than good in the long run, then we should stop giving straight away. But that is far too pessimistic a diagnosis. Take the road deaths, for example. If you put roads where previously there were none, you are always going to have an increase in road deaths. We could eliminate road deaths in this country overnight by banning motor vehicles. We don’t because the benefits are judged to outweigh the costs. In the developing world, good infrastructure can greatly help distribution of essential supplies.

Seeing the limits of aid can even make you more disposed to give it. For example, one of the most compelling reasons to give to emergency appeals is that it is not about the long-term: it is emergency intervention to save lives now that would otherwise be lost. The fact that we are powerless to stop the famines, floods and earthquakes is all the more reason to do something to ameliorate the suffering they cause.

Even if aid is not the answer, that does not mean our responsibilities are discharged. If trade matters more, we should make sure we trade fairly, campaigning to change unjust rules if necessary.

Scepticism about the efficacy of foreign aid should be taken seriously, and we should consider modifying our behaviour accordingly. But it does not remove our moral responsibilities, it simply forces us to think harder about how to meet them.

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