Monday, January 08, 2007

The Aid epidemic

Norman Geras quotes Peter Singer:

In the same world in which more than a billion people live at a level of affluence never before known, roughly a billion others struggle to survive on the purchasing-power equivalent of less than $US1 a day.
And he asks:
... what is owed by 'the rich' to the task of eliminating global poverty. There are two aspects to the question. First, is there a moral obligation, on the part of those who can, to contribute some of their wealth? Second, what are the economic practicalities? I don't say anything about the second aspect of the question here. But the ethical case is in my view unanswerable.
... if we say the opposite, say that those who could help to stop 30,000 needless child fatalities a day have no moral obligation to do so, we thereby define ourselves as inhabiting a moral universe in which, whatever happens to anyone, they have no moral claims upon the support of others, and - universalizing - no one therefore has any moral claims upon others, however terrible their plight. That is not a moral universe that humankind should be willing to countenance.
The title of the piece is:
Singer and the obligation of aid
Singer's argument is, inter alia:
The late Nobel Prize-winning economist and social scientist Herbert Simon estimated "social capital" is responsible for at least 90 per cent of what people earn in wealthy societies. By social capital he meant not only natural resources but, more important, the technology and organisational skills in the community, and the presence of good government.

This undermines the argument that the rich are entitled to keep their wealth because it is all a result of their hard work.

Thomas Pogge, a philosopher at Columbia University, has argued that at least some of our affluence comes at the expense of the poor. He says international corporations are willing to make deals to buy natural resources from any government, no matter how it has come to power. Successful rebels are rewarded by being able to sell the nation's oil, minerals or timber.

In their dealings with corrupt dictators in developing countries, Pogge says, international corporations are morally no better than someone who knowingly buys stolen goods. In this light, our obligation to the poor is not just one of providing help to strangers but one of compensation for harms that we have caused.
This is a nineteenth-century harvest festival of straw men. (Apparently, "straw man" is a blogosphere favourite, along with "egregious", and should not be used by anyone with higher pretensions. Ah well.)

Who actually argues that "the rich are entitled to keep their wealth because it is all a result of their hard work"? More likely is the argument that the rich are entitled to keep their wealth because it's their wealth. There isn't, or shouldn't be, some kind of committee of Singer's favourite academics deliberating over which of our possessions we're entitled to keep.

Let's try inverting one of Singer's sentences:
In their dealings with international corporations, corrupt dictators in developing countries are morally no better than someone who knowingly sells stolen goods.
But that's not what Singer wants to say. He goes on:
It might be argued that we do not owe the poor compensation, because our affluence benefits them - wealth trickles down, helping the poor more effectively than aid does. But the rich in industrialised nations buy virtually nothing made by the very poor.
The trickle down effect argument is contemptible and wrong, but what we do offer is a market through which - if they have access to it - the poor can get richer. By definition, the poor make virtually nothing, so the fact that the rich buy just that tells us nothing.

Every line of Singer's piece calls for refutation, but that would be bickering. The fact is, Geras is right; we have an overwhelming moral obligation to help people who are starving. What's less clear is how we might best help them. As he geared up for the Live 8 concerts, Bob Geldoff remarked on Radio 4 (no link available) that he had been campaigning for African poverty relief for twenty five years and, if anything, matters had got even worse. When Gordon Brown subsequently announced a $40 billion debt relief package, the Ugandan Trade Minister (again on Radio 4, no link remains) remarked dryly that a 1% increase in trade between Africa and the EU would be worth more per annum, every annum.

But we place tariffs and quotas on African imports, dump subsidised agricultural produce on them, then brush a few crumbs off our table and wait for the O.B.E.

Singer says:
The remedy, it might reasonably be suggested, should come from the state, not from private philanthropy. When aid comes through government, everyone who earns above the tax-free threshold contributes something, with more collected from those with greater ability to pay. Much as we may applaud what Gates and Buffett are doing, we can also be troubled by a system that leaves the fate of hundreds of millions of people hanging on the decisions of two or three private citizens.
So our present system is one in which "the fate of hundreds of millions of people [hangs] on the decisions of two or three private citizens? Talk about egregious straw men!

It "might reasonably be suggested"? Really? Why is this reasonable? Because we all contribute according to our means. Why is that reasonable? This is like saying that, in order to flog this particular dead horse, we're all going to take it in turns and the strongest and youngest can do the most flogging. When the dead horse doesn't seem to be pulling, despite the flogging, we'll lash another - even better - dead horse to its side and take it in turns again. We'll all flog according to our ability and come away with the special sort of sweaty warm glow that comes from strenuous and egalitarian exercise in a good cause.

Aid hasn't worked. Aid. Hasn't. Worked. Aid has done some short term good (and some short term harm - see Tanzanian aid funded collectivisation:"This ujamaa system failed to boost agricultural output and by 1976, the end of the forced collectivization program, Tanzania went from the largest exporter of agricultural products in Africa to the largest importer of agricultural products in Africa.") but no long term good at all.

We need to help less, and to hinder less. Our moral duty is much more difficult than just allowing ourselves to be taxed. It means opening our borders to African imports - fully, without stint. It means stopping subsidising our agriculture. It means stopping this despicable habit of regarding Africans as children who can neither fail nor succeed without the responsibility falling on white people.

1 comment:

Gillian said...

Yep! Trade makes an important contribution to reducing poverty. But so does help with capacity-building and that involves some aid.

Education is a great means of capacity-building, and despite misteps and errors along the way, I have a horrible feeling that things would be a whole lot worse without the assistance given over the years.

Here's my blog on an education project in Tanzania.

My latest post deals with Singer - my problem is with his unrealistic romanticism and armchair calculations that make philosophy look entirely ivory-tower out of touch.