The philosophy of famine and aid
In 1974, in the journal Psychology Today, the right wing American philosopher Garett Hardin published a controversial article entitled, 'Lifeboat Ethics: the case against helping the poor'. He makes the following analogy to model the rich/poor divide.
"If we divide the world crudely into rich nations and poor nations, two thirds of them are desperately poor, and only one third comparatively rich, with the United States the wealthiest of all. Metaphorically each rich nation can be seen as a lifeboat full of comparatively rich people. In the ocean outside each lifeboat swim the poor of the world, who would like to get in, or at least to share some of the wealth. What should the lifeboat passengers do?"
Hardin observes that the lifeboat has limited capacity. There are too many people in the water to fit in the boat, but here Hardin uses the principles of Christianity (each man is our brother) and Marxism (each man must be allocated what he needs - since each man is drowning, each man needs to be in the lifeboat) to suggest that by these rationales, all come in and everyone in the lifeboat ends up drowning as the boat sinks.
Whilst it is "morally abhorrent" then to some people, Hardin asserts that none should be let in, since none is more deserving than the other, none can be chosen over others, and moreover, if you did choose arbitrarily, none should be let in the lifeboat anyway because we need a "safety factor". Indeed, to those horrified by the callousness, he proposes this:
My reply is simple: "Get out and yield your place to others." This may solve the problem of the guilt-ridden person's conscience, but it does not change the ethics of the lifeboat. The needy person to whom the guilt-ridden person yields his place will not himself feel guilty about his good luck. If he did, he would not climb aboard. The net result of conscience-stricken people giving up their unjustly held seats is the elimination of that sort of conscience from the lifeboat.
Hardin goes on to assert the value of private property:
Under a system of private property, the men who own property recognize their responsibility to care for it, for if they don't they will eventually suffer. A farmer, for instance, will allow no more cattle in a pasture than its carrying capacity justifies. If he overloads it, erosion sets in, weeds take over, and he loses the use of the pasture.
If a pasture becomes a commons open to all, the right of each to use it may not be matched by a corresponding responsibility to protect it. Asking everyone to use it with discretion will hardly do, for the considerate herdsman who refrains from overloading the commons suffers more than a selfish one who says his needs are greater. If everyone would restrain himself, all would be well; but it takes only one less than everyone to ruin a system of voluntary restraint. In a crowded world of less than perfect human beings, mutual ruin is inevitable if there are no controls. This is the tragedy of the commons.
On the giving of surplus foodstuffs, he argues that:
In the years 1960 to 1970, U.S. taxpayers spent a total of $7.9 billion on the Food for Peace program. Between 1948 and 1970, they also paid an additional $50 billion for other economic-aid programs, some of which went for food and food-producing machinery and technology. Though all U.S. taxpayers were forced to contribute to the cost of P.L. 480 certain special interest groups gained handsomely under the program. Farmers did not have to contribute the grain; the Government or rather the taxpayers, bought it from them at full market prices. The increased demand raised prices of farm products generally. The manufacturers of farm machinery, fertilizers and pesticides benefited by the farmers' extra efforts to grow more food. Grain elevators profited from storing the surplus until it could be shipped. Railroads made money hauling it to ports, and shipping lines profited from carrying it overseas. The implementation of P.L. 480 required the creation of a vast Government bureaucracy, which then acquired its own vested interest in continuing the program regardless of its merits.
He concludes that:
We are all the descendants of thieves, and the world's resources are inequitably distributed. But we must begin the journey to tomorrow from the point where we are today. We cannot remake the past. We cannot safely divide the wealth equitably among all peoples so long as people reproduce at different rates. To do so would guarantee that our grandchildren and everyone else's grandchildren, would have only a ruined world to inhabit.
|Garett Hardin (1915-2003)|
In the same year and reinforcing the theme, he published "living on a lifeboat" in BioScience. There are some points of contention here. Hardin wants to begin the journey from today, but as Foucault once noted, "how can history have a truth if truth has a history?". The journey that led to the massive disparity in wealth began decades ago. To start from today elides the historical trajectory in which we find ourselves, with the poor getting poorer, the rich, wealthier.
According to the United Nations DP figures, in 1998, the 225 richest individuals have an aggregate wealth of $1 trillion. In today's figures, that means those 225 individuals have wealth equivalent to one fourteenth of the US budget deficit. Their wealth is equal to the combined annual income of the 2.5 billion poorest individuals. The lifeboat was a construct of the wealthy and when the nations were developing, there was no ocean in which some drowned whilst the wealthy did not.
Consider Amartya Sen (1933-) writing in 1988 in his "Property and Hunger" who argued that inability to distribute food, systemic failings, has contributed to famines and about private property:
If property rights are taken to be morally inviolable irrespective of their consequences, then it will follow that these policies cannot be morally acceptable even though they might save thousands, or even millions, from dying. [...] A moral system that values both property rights and other goals - such as avoiding famines and starvation, or fulfilling people's right not be hungry - can, on the one hand, give property rights instrinsic importance, and on the other, recommend the violation of property rights when that leads to better overall consequences.
Peter Singer (1946-), the Austrialian philosopher who donates half of his income to charity, demonstrated his distaste for the affluent pursuit of material happiness in an article in the New York Times (1999):
The average family in the United States spends almost one-third of its income on things that are no more necessary to them than Dora's new TV was to her...so much of our income is spent on things not essential to the preservation of our lives and health. Donated to one of a number of charitable agencies, that money could mean the difference between life and death for children in need.
Onora O'Neill (1941-) in her influential "Kantian approaches to some famine problems", speaks of systemic abuse within the international system, seeing the multinationals pernicious influences as early as 1980.
Where a less developed country is pushed to exempt a multinational corporation from tax laws, or to construct out of its meager tax revenues the infrastruture of roads, harbours, or airports [...] that the corporation - but perhaps not the country - needs, then one suspects that some coercion has been involved.
For O'Neill, humanity must be treated as the end rather than the means. It is morally incumbent, regardless of whether the lifeboat will sink or not (Kantian ethics make fewer demands in this case that Utilitarian ethics) upon you to make people 'happy' - the only possible act therefore is to try to do something to alleviate poverty.
The giving of proportions of income is a fashionable if not now normative part of Western affluent lifestyles. Indeed, philanthropy is a very fashionable undertaking of the uber-rich, who host lavish charity events for worthy causes, without a hint of irony. But the giving of wealth is only the first part of the aid experience. The other end is what happens to the aid and this has been subject to rigorous scrutiny in a number of different theatres of conflict and famine.
Kenya, Somalia inter alia
In Mogadishu, it has been reported that thousands of sacks of food donated by the UN for Somalia's famine victims are being sold openly at markets in the capital. An official in Mogadishu was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that he believed that almost half of all recent deliveries of aid had been stolen. Foreign Policy show a photo in which demonstrators in Mogadishu denounce the United Nations mission in the country, accusing it of spending too much on flying diplomats in and out of Nairobi and not enough on fixing what's broken in Somalia.
The problem of the 'privatization' of aid once it reaches the danger zone is documented in myriad countries. Another problem, seen in Afghanistan especially, but most well documented in Haiti, is that the aid affort is often poorly coordinated and bypasses the very organs of the target country that it hopes to eventually bolster. This is the paradox of humanitarian intervention. The U.N. humanitarian coordinator, John Holmes, spoke openly of this problem with regard to Haiti.
And then there is donor fatigue, the phenomenon in which each new 'catastrophe' is met with ever greater apathy. Donor fatigue was blamed for a poor response to the Pakistan floods in 2010 though it is probable that there was also a clash of civilizations antipathy to that country from many Western onlookers.
Linda Polman catalogues the ways in which NGOs actually prolong insecurity in her book "War Games: The Story of War and Aid in Modern Times". In the review of the work by Joanna Bourke, she notes how aid give "succour" to the bad guys. Bourke further notes that:
Those who seek to profit from humanitarian aid have ingenious way of doing so. After starving his own people during the Biafran conflict of the late Sixties, Colonel Emeka Ojukwu enlisted a Geneva PR company to take photographs of starving children to help to mobilise world opinion in his favour. As John Graham, of Save the Children, complained: “If you don’t have starving babies, you don’t get the money.”
All of which makes the giving of aid a complex issue. So when the U.N pleaded for aid for the famine in Somalia at the start of August 2011, amid claims, notably from Baroness Amos that 2500 people a day could die from the famine with 3.7 million at risk. Sen is probably nodding though, as some believe that the famine is as much about failed government as failed rains. Kenya has turned into a refugee camp as 1300 Somalis a day cross the border. Across the entire Horn of Africa, it's believed that as many as 12.4 million people are at risk of starvation. It needs between $1.5 and $2.5 billion to fund a relief effort. Al-Shabab is blocking access to 2.2 million though it has lost control in areas of Mogadishu since the private US military contractor, Bancroft Global Development, has been training African troops in urban counter-insurgency tactics.
So what to do - give, as a moral responsibility, aware that your contribution could end up funding the Shabab, an Islamist militia which has been subject to Mi5 warnings that British Somalis trained by the group will return to Britain and commit atrocities? The choice, of course, is a philosophical one.