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.