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Overcoming Aid

Liberal sentimentality isn't putting food on Africans' tables.

By 3.16.09

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Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa
By Dambisa Moyo
(Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 208 pages, $24)

The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty
By Peter Singer
(Random House, 224 pages, $22)

It is possible to reduce, in good faith, Peter Singer's argument for more charitable foreign aid in his The Life You Can Save to the following syllogism:

1. If you saw someone in immediate danger, you would unquestionably be obliged to rescue that person even at some personal cost. For instance, you would save a drowning person even if you had to ruin your expensive clothes in the swim.

2. Even if you don't realize it, there are desperately poor people in Africa and elsewhere who are in mortal danger comparable to drowning, and they could be rescued if you offered a little aid.

Conclusion: You have an unquestionable obligation to incur the personal cost of aiding the impoverished.

Singer makes the thesis of his book this simplistic on purpose. He does so because he wants to stress the moral imperative of foreign aid without appealing to his own notoriously unorthodox ethical system.

Singer, a Princeton ethicist, is famous for his radical utilitarianism and system of ethics based on maximizing the preference-satisfaction of all who stand to be affected by a given decision. He is controversial for some of the logical consequences of this philosophy. For example, his ethics suggest that some animals deserve the same rights as the mentally handicapped (since they do not have fully developed preferences to satisfy).

His ethics system compels Singer to try to remedy the serious problems poor people face in satisfying their preferences. But obviously most people have a vastly different moral understanding from his, so he tries to couch his argument in the most innocuous terms possible, so as not to disclose his own worldview.

Does he succeed? Singer's arguments are undermined because most readers will not share his uncritical assumption that aid organizations like Oxfam are the most effective means of helping the poor. The strongest claim he is able to make is that people in wealthy nations should donate to aid organizations on a sliding scale based on income. This goal is modest for the sake of attracting more donors, but as a result it might leave potential donors underwhelmed and unmotivated.

DAMBISA MOYO, HOWEVER, attempts what she terms a "clarion call." Her method for helping Africa's poor is nothing if not ambitious: to cut off all government aid to Africa within five years.

By Moyo's own admission, the arguments against aid were well known before Dead Aid. The criticisms of the current aid model she presents are cribbed out of the work of pro-market economists like William Easterly and Peter Bauer before him, who for years have argued that aid policies hurt the very people they were supposed to help. Moyo claims that it is no accident that aid-dependent African countries have shown negative growth since the foreign aid taps opened.

Aid has the same effect on small countries as the discovery of a valuable natural resource. This "Dutch Disease" creates illusory gains for a country without improving its underlying development, while also raising the prices of its exports. Most aid goes directly into the pockets of dictators, and finances corruption. Furthermore, aid crowds out private investment and reduces the drive to innovate. The greatest shame, Moyo argues, is that it would be easy to implement effective pro-market measures, like micro-finance, foreign direct investment, trade, and floating bonds. All these measures would foster rapid growth and responsibility without the negative effects of aid.

These ideas are not new or revolutionary, but the author is. As an Oxford-trained economist and banking veteran, Moyo appreciates markets and catches the pitfalls of aid that Singer blithely ignores. As a native Zambian, she can empathize with poor Africans and understand the obstacles they face in a way that no white Western man can, Peter Singer very much included.

For Moyo, whose parents fortuitously escaped crushing poverty where others did not, the Africans living in desperate poverty are not an abstraction. Many sub-Saharan African women live in dire circumstances, but proponents of microcredit are finding that even very small loans can drastically improve their situations. Moyo must realize that she could easily have been among those desperate for a micro-loan. Moyo has skin in the game, a reality that lends pragmatism to her approach and enables her to think critically about the current aid schemes.

Her appreciation of poor Africans' humanity and otherness is sorely lacking in Singer's account. Moyo wants to conquer the dehumanizing poverty afflicting Africa, even though the hands-off solution would mean that she doesn't get to be the hero. Singer, on the other hand, seems to care less about helping poor people than he does about hectoring Westerners into feeling guilty about withholding donations. His worldview-free argument requires him to seat the motivation for giving aid squarely in the rich Westerner's conscience, at the cost of thinking critically about Africans' needs as if they mattered as well. The Life You Can Save tends to reduce the aid recipient as well as the aid donation process to a mere abstraction: you put money in the mail, someone in Africa or Asia becomes happier. To the person Singer is exhorting, in the end it does not matter whether the money he gives to Oxfam is siphoned to cruel dictators while Kenyans starve. His conscience is satisfied the moment he puts the check in the mail.

Singer's argument emphasizes the donor over the recipient because it is purely utilitarian. His system doesn't have a natural law or religiously motivated respect for the dignity and worth of every human. Without an appreciation for aid recipients' needs as humans worthy of dignity, Singer's approach lacks the sensibility of Moyo's.

In one revealing aside, Singer claims that for Christians, "sharing our surplus wealth with the poor is not a matter of charity, but of our duty and their rights." Here Singer gets it backward. Christians believe that every human has a God-granted right to life and dignity, but the motivation for aiding the poor transcends the ideas of duty and rights. For Christians, charity means love. The recognition of another's dignity as a human prompts acts of charity or love.

That charity is definitionally supposed to be a matter of love would be obvious to Moyo, whose critical approach to aid is rooted in her awareness of her fellow Africans' wants and needs. For Singer, tragically, charity is reduced to one person maximizing his utility by sending money to a charity organization without thinking too hard about how it benefits an actual human. With such an impoverished understanding of human relations, it's not surprising that his understanding of how aid works is impoverished as well.

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About the Author

Joseph Lawler, former managing editor of The American Spectator, is editor of Real Clear Policy. Follow him on twitter: @josephlawler.