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Looking good and making a fast buck? Why rich countries help the poor

Guest content
07 September 2016

The arguments for rich nation's moral duty and responsibility to help the distant needy are well known, but short-term political and commercial advantages are dominating the practice of redistributing foreign aid. And the underlying problem is a lack of critical public engagement and concern, writes David Hulme in an extract from his new book, 'Should Rich Nations Help the Poor?'.

Why do rich nations help the poor in faraway places? There are a mix of very different reasons, ranging from the high-minded – “It’s our moral duty” – to the venal – “We can look good and make a fast buck out of this”. Commonly, the governments of rich countries use combinations of altruism and self-interest to justify support for the distant needy to their taxpayers. There are four distinct lines of argument.

The most commonly heard reason that the leaders and politicians of rich nations make for supporting the distant needy is moral duty. All human beings should be compassionate and should seek to reduce the suffering of others. The pursuit of social justice requires that the poor in any part of the world should be assisted by those individuals (and their governments) with the means to help. From this perspective such actions are not simply charity, they are a duty. How could anyone spend $5 on a cup of coffee when $5 could pay for the medicine to save a child’s life in Africa? 

The second argument, moral responsibility, is based on causal analysis. It holds that rich nations and their citizens must support poor nations because they are responsible for the economic and political structures that have made countries and populations poor. In effect, this is a critique of colonialism, post-colonial developmentalism, contemporary capitalism and globalisation. It views such processes as a major cause of global poverty, global inequality and social injustice. The impacts of colonialism (resource extraction, racism, ethnic divisions, slavery and societal breakdown, illogical national boundaries, government by narrow predatory elites that hold power, etc) have created historical legacies that continue to impoverish poor nations. The classic example is the Atlantic slave trade, which depopulated and socially destabilised west Africa in ways that hamper development today. While all colonial powers have left negative legacies, the Belgians are sometimes held up as bequeathing some of the greatest problems, such as fostering an ethnic divide in Rwanda between the revenue-collecting rulers (Tutsi) and the taxpaying ruled (Hutu) that laid the basis for the genocide of 1994.

And so to the present: a manifestly unfair world trade regime helps keep poor people poor. African cotton farmers are impoverished while US cotton farmers receive vast public subsidies to keep them going. The average cow in the EU receives grants of $2.50 a day: more income than around one-third of humanity. Multinational corporations based in rich countries dominate business in many poorer countries and illicitly help extract $10 from poor countries for every $1 of foreign aid the rich world provides. The world’s leading pharmaceutical companies, based in Europe and the US, charge such high prices for their products that millions of poor people die unnecessarily. Rich country control over finance and technology ensures that poorer countries cannot compete economically or meet the social needs of their populations. Furthermore, the policies pursued by the IMF and World Bank are tightly monitored by the US government (and thus indirectly by US corporate interests). Such evidence has created heated debates among leading philosophers about whether poor countries have an ethical case to declare a “just war” against rich nations in order to protect the lives of their citizens! 

In recent years a further strand of argument, climate change, has greatly strengthened the case that the rich nations are responsible for poverty in low-income nations. The world’s most economically advanced countries and wealthiest people have pumped so much CO2 into the atmosphere that this is now undermining the livelihoods of poor people in poor countries. 

The third argument for rich nations helping the poor – common interests – is based as much on self-interest as altruism. It posits that people whose basic needs are met should assist the poor if they want to maintain and improve their own wellbeing. The relatively better-off should assist poor people: to improve local and national social cohesion; to reduce the incentives for excluded social groups to threaten social and economic stability; to create economic opportunities; to reduce the likelihood of public health problems and pandemics; and to reduce rates of migration and population growth. 

The arguments about health and migration have been highly evident in recent years. Without effective health policy support from rich nations, the likelihood of major new diseases, such as Ebola, evolving in poor countries and subsequently spreading across the world is much higher. Similarly, any serious attempt to reduce the flow of Africans crossing the Mediterranean to live in Europe entails rich nations actively promoting economic growth and job creation in Africa so that the stark inequality in economic opportunities between the two continents is dramatically reduced. Relatedly, if you want to cap global population at 9 billion, rather than 10 or 11 billion, then you need to reduce poverty rapidly in the poorest parts of the world. 

The best way to bring down fertility rates is not to hand out contraceptives but to reduce poverty. Prosperity in Bangladesh has brought the total fertility rate (the average number of births in a lifetime per woman) down from 5.2 to 2.1 in just 30 years. An important argument in the west has been that if the distant needy have no prospects for improvement, then some of them might be more likely to support violent political groups and/or engage in drug trafficking and international crime. At the extreme they may become terrorists. So, helping the distant needy may not only be “the right thing to do”, it might also reduce the social and political problems rich nations face. This argument has been common in the US since 9/11, although the evidence to support it is very limited. 

Photo credit: United Nations Photo