Why Should We Give Foreign Aid?

14 December 2018

Do we have a duty to help developing nations escape poverty? Or does foreign aid do more harm than good? What is the best way to end global poverty? These are some of the questions we’ll be in asking in this week’s show on foreign aid.

Some people dislike the term “foreign aid” because it suggests we’re giving handouts or gifts to developing nations, and it ignores the troubling history of exploitation and colonization by western imperial powers. When we in the west have despoiled the planet, stolen natural resources, exploited poor foreign workers, propped up corrupt regimes, and funded dictators and warlords around the globe, for our own gain, it’s easy to see the point. A better term to use might be “reparations,” not “aid.”

While I think it’s important to frame our moral obligations to developing nations in terms of compensatory justice and not ignore the historical context that has given rise to pockets of extreme poverty around the globe, I worry that this approach could let some in the west off the hook.

Take Ireland, for example, where I’m from. It has never been a global power and instead itself suffered over 800 years of brutal oppression, exploitation, cultural obliteration, land theft, and colonization at the hands of the British empire. Ireland has only been an independent republic for as long as India has. And till fairly recently, its economy struggled to such a degree, when I was growing up we were not sure if we were living in a “third world” country or not. (After the failure of the “Celtic Tiger” in the late 1990’s, some Irish still wonder if the country is a “banana republic,” as Bob Geldolf once claimed almost 40 years ago.) Certainly, we have never had a history of colonizing African nations, propping up Latin American dictators, or waging war in the Middle East. So, does that mean countries like Ireland that are now developed have no obligation to give to poor, developing nations?

That seems like a bad conclusion. But this is what the compensatory justice model of foreign aid leads to. Of course, one could argue that all developed nations have benefitted from the exploitation of developing nations, and just because Ireland or some other country was never a colonial power, and was itself a victim of colonialism, it doesn’t follow that it hasn’t benefitted indirectly from from the exploitation of developing nations. There’s no doubt some truth to that, but if what we owe is proportional to what we have taken, or the harm we’ve done, it’s going to be a messy business figuring out who owes what to whom, especially because those most guilty deny their crimes. And surely it would be better to say that if you’re a rich country, you ought, for humanitarian reasons, to spend some amount of your GDP on pulling poor countries out of poverty, regardless of whether you were the one who is responsible for their poverty or not.

Moreover, surely we ought to help those who are suffering in other countries even if their poverty is not a result of western exploitation. You might think, good luck finding a country like that. But whether or not current poverty is always a result of western exploitation is an empirical question that we can set aside. The humanitarian argument is that those who are in a position to help should help those who need it.  

Some might object to the humanitarian position for the opposite reason I’ve objected to the compensatory justice view. Where one picture is too limited, holding only rich countries who have a direct history of imperialism responsible, the other is too expansive. It makes every developed country obligated to help lift poor countries out of poverty, regardless of how they got there. It places too high a burden on developed countries that were not directly involved in the exploitation of developing nations, when those who are most responsible and who have benefitted the most should bear the greatest burden.

There is a third position to consider. It is in our enlightened self-interest to give to developing nations. It’s both in our economic interest to alleviate poverty, and it’s a matter of national security. When there are places in the world with no opportunities, economic insecurity, war, instability, hunger, and overwhelming hopelessness, it’s a natural breeding ground for terrorism. So one of the best ways to tackle global terrorism is to lift people out of poverty. It’s good for everyone.

It may be true that it is in our enlightened self-interest to lift everyone out of poverty, but for that to be the motive for helping strikes me as desperately cynical. And what if there are nations where it’s not in our self-interest to help? Should we just ignore their plight? That doesn’t seem like the right approach to me.

All three approaches to foreign aid I’ve outlined—the compensatory justice view, the humanitarian view, and the enlightened self-interest view—all have problems. So what is the best approach? Maybe some combination of the three?

And once we’ve figured that out, next we have to tackle the problem of what kind of aid we ought to give. How do we make sure our giving isn’t just propping up corrupt governments rather than lifting the general population out of poverty? How can we be sure that the aid we give isn’t actually doing more harm than good?

Tune in to this week’s broadcast where Ken and Debra dig into these kinds of questions with economist John Welborn.


Comments (1)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, December 18, 2018 -- 9:54 AM

In consideration of the

In consideration of the totality of circumstances, it seems to me that foreign aid is, as my father and grandfather used to say, 'like pouring sand down a rat hole'. There just isn't any percentage in it.