What do we owe the world’s poor?

Over at Stumbling and Mumbling, Chris Dillow sets out a compelling moral case for the people of rich countries to help the world’s poor.  He argues that, whether you take a utilitarian, rights-based, or a social contract view, we have a duty to assist.

I agree with this as far as it goes, but it seems to me that there are four categories of reasons why we should help the world’s poor. 

  • First, we have a moral duty to our fellow human beings
    Chris covers this in some detail, and I have little to add.  I would, however, particularly endorse the thought that we have just as much responsibility for helping the people of Lusaka as we do the people of Liverpool.   Just because they are further away does not reduce our obligations to them.
  • Second, we bear some responsibility for poverty in developing countries
    A part (and only a part) of the reason why there is poverty in developing countries is because of the behaviour of rich countries; and they are part (and only a part) of the reason that we are rich.  I suspect this will be controversial, so I’ll set out a number of reasons why I believe this is true (and you don’t have to believe them all to agree with the conclusion.) The obscenity of slavery deprived Africa of generations of its most economically active young men, and traumatised many communities.  The colonial powers – especially France – benefited enormously from the products of slave labour, such as sugar and cotton. Through the period of colonialisation we exploited natural resources of developing countries, such as minerals and timber, accumulating capital for the colonisers but leaving nothing for the colonised. At the Berlin Conference 1884-1885, the colonial powers drew political boundaries in Africa which did not reflect linguistic, ethnic, historical or geographical boundaries, burdening Africa with deep complications in the governance of nation states.  The European tactics of divide and rule created conflicts in societies that persist today (for example, see Gourevitch’s account of how the Europeans invented a conflict between Tutsi and Hutus, in order to govern the Great Lakes regions; an artificial and recent division which eventually erupted into the Rwanda genocide).  Through the colonial era and in to the Cold War, the rich countries installed and supported dictators such as Mobuto, Mengistu, Houphouët-Boigny, Eyadéma, Traoré, and Banda, because we thought it was in our strategic and commerical interests to do so. Our opposition to the evolution of democratic institutions during the colonial period and Cold War has contributed to the lack of democracy, freedom and good governance that is now recognised as a major cause of poverty in Africa.  More recently, we continue to provide the money which feeds widespread corruption, for example through oil royalties or mineral extraction rights, while our companies refuse to publish details of the payments they make.  (This is not generally true of aid, which is now carefully monitored to ensure that the funds are well spent; but it remains true of the much larger flow of private sector funds.)    And through the emmission of greenhouse gases, it seems increasingly likely that we have contributed to global warming which leads to desertification and the destruction of the habitats and livelihoods of people in the developing world. (I have deliberately excluded from this list the many ways in which things we don’t do contribute to poverty – such as allowing poor countries access to our markets).
  • Third, reducing poverty will reduce the risk of bad things happening to us
    We have strong reasons of self interest to fight poverty.  We have seen from recent terrorism that our security is threatened as much by weak states as by strong states.  Growing international inequality contributes to a sense of injustice among young people – for example, the would-be bombers in London on July 21 2005 were from East Africa.  Conflict between and within developing countries is never completely contained, and we sometimes become involved to keep peace or prevent humanitarian disasters. As well as violent unrest and conflict, we are at risk of organised crime, export of drugs, the spread of infectious diseases, and widespread environmental degradation which will reduce the quality of all our lives if we do not tackle it.
  • Fourth, reducing poverty will increase the economic opportunities available to us
    It is in our interests to have economically strong trading partners. Rather than feel threatened by the loss of jobs overseas, we have the opportunity to build large and growing markets which, at least in the case of Africa and Europe, are on the doorstep. If conditions improved in developing countries, there would be opportunities for greater trade, cheaper raw materials, and greater economic diversity.

I suspect that the second reason given above will be the most controversial, and I would emphasise that it is only part of the reason why I think we should help the world’s poor.  Each of these four categories would, in my view, be sufficient to make a compelling case.  Taken together, I believe the case is unanswerable.

There is also a debate about who exactly should bear this responsibility.  Some libertarians would argue that it is for private individuals, not governments, to determine whether and to what extent we should help other people.  (See the comments on Chris’s post at Stumbling and Mumbling for some flavour of this argument.)   I think the case for leaving this to individual decision is strongest if the justification for helping others is entirely moral: in that case, you might think we should each make an ethical decision for ourselves.  But if you believe the second, third and fourth category of reason given above, this creates a stronger case for public involvement in aid.  In particular, reducing the risks to us and creating greater economic opportunities are public goods, in the sense that they are non-excludable, and in the absence of government intervention there would be a strong incentive for some people to free ride on the generosity of others, leading to an underprovision of these goods. 

4 thoughts on “What do we owe the world’s poor?”

  1. A part (and only a part) of the reason why there is poverty in developing countries is because of the behaviour of rich countries; and they are part (and only a part) of the reason that we are rich. I suspect this will be controversial

    Good grief. I’d have expected to see that one (especially with the qualifications) prefaced with ‘Firstly and most obviously’. But I dare say you’re right about the people who read this blog – or about the people who read this blog antagonistically, at least.

  2. Some fair points. Unfortunately it’s impossible to quantify the historical costs of our actions and potential benefits of further help. It’s also worth considering the likelihood that foreign states would have developed an environment conducive to growth in the absence of foreign meddling. Furthermore, what weight should be put on faults of the developing world itself?

    The above questions would no doubt yield highly varied responses. Is it then possible to say whether donating 2% of GDP is more appropriate morally than 1% of GDP? Or perhaps 3.5% of GDP is a fairer obligation than a higher 4% of GDP. After all, I’m certain we don’t owe the developing world an eternal debt, worthy of sacrificing our laptops, ipods and televisions. There’s no doubt some lump sum, or fixed-term obligation that reflects our debt, but I see us arguing about it indefinitely.

    Your last point is weak as a standalone argument. If it were really the state’s job to take wealth and distribute it to areas deemed profitable in the long run, China, the US, or Germany would be no less deserving of charity. Such countries are far more likely to engage in trade, purchasing goods/services in which we have a comparative advantage than Uganda or Sudan.

  3. Two doesn’t srike me as all that strong. If slavery were as much of a cause of the current poverty as you say then the Arab nations would owe a great deal more than the “western” ones. And be richer.

    I think that the things that we do not do (like free trade etc) are much more of an idiocy on our part. They would do us good as well so why on earth are we not doing them?

    1,3 and 4 all have some resonance but it is 4 that I would use as a sufficient justification for aiding growth in the poor countries.

    I’d put it slightly differently, in that if the currently poor countries were as rich as we are now, then we would be grossly, Croesus like, richer again, given the effects of trade. A selfish reason perhaps but then Adam Smith and enlightened self-interest and all that.

    The argument that as it is a moral duty then it should be done individually also makes some sense to me as only individuals are capable of moral actions.

    But I’m happy to put that aside. What I want to know is what is the most efficient (read fastest, or lowest cost, your choice) method of making the currently poor countries as stinking rich as ourselves?

    Alas, you have yet to convince me that aid bureaucracies are indeed that. $50 billion in aid or $50 billion in investment in entrepreneurs (perhaps micro-credit, perhaps capitalist leeches like myself), which would raise the growth rate the most?
    As we’re never going to do the latter we’ll never actually know and so I guess I can stay safe inside my prejudices.

  4. Tim – I agree: the question of how we should help is at least as important and controversial as why we should help (which was the original subject of this post).

    It has been interesting to see the different perspectives of those who have commented. Phil thinks the argument that we were a part of the problem is the most important; you don’t find it convincing. Iyobosa is not persuaded by the benefits of creating prosperous trading partners, and you are. In my view, all four are good arguments for why we should help. (Incidentally, you don’t need to buy the argument about slavery to accept that we caused part of Africa’s problem – what about our scandalous support for African dictators throughout much of the latter half of the 20th Century?)

    On the issue you raise of how best to proceed, my opposition to investing $50bn in entrepreneurs is not that I am against investing in the private sector, but that:

    a. I am not attracted by having governments and philanthropists subsidise private firms, for the same pro-market reasons that I am against trade barriers to protect infant industries, or other forms of government intervention to pick winners and support particular firms or industries; businesses become addicted to the subsidies, and never grow up to be competitive firms, and over time the investments are diverted to rent-seeking and corruption;

    b. I’d rather focus on lifting the barriers to investment and growth which are within government’s control (such as poor governance, excessive bureaucracy, inadequate infrastructure, lousy public services, inadequate provision of public goods, inadequate investment in human capital, excessive government regulation, trade barriers) by helping governments to change their policies, improve public services and raise revenues in less damaging ways; it cannot be a sustainable long term solution to ignore these structural weaknesses in the economy and instead to subsidise private firms to enable them to overcome them in the short run.

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