A failure of sentiment or of reasoning?

Should you give to charity? Looking at the arguments associated with two recent books it would seem that you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. But take a second look from an evolutionary perspective and it seems that sins of omission and of commission inhere at a different grain of analysis.

The first book is Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty (argument summarised here). Singer is raising consciousness. Writing to an American audience he lays out the facts about how little America actually gives in aid and how much less it gives to the very poorest countries. En route he dispatches arguments that America’s large private sector offsets the lack of public largesse – it doesn’t. But Singer doesn’t stop here. With his utilitarian bent on full display, he compares these aid figures with the amount the US government is willing to pay to save American lives (from road traffic accidents for example) and the amount it costs to save African lives. This gives a rough figure of how much America values the lives of its citizens over others: ten thousand to one. Singer acknowledges the inevitable inequity (the expanding moral circle is not a Boolean guide to action) but questions its degree. He also discusses the effectiveness of aid and points to the effectiveness of at least some interventions while calling for more research (even arguing for prospective control studies – given that there is never enough aid for all who need it). The conclusion is that people in developed countries need to be more generous because their money is more valuable in developing countries than in their own pockets even if some is squandered by the corrupt or unwisely spent by the inept. Acknowledging uncertainty in this way is a clever argumentative strategy on his part and one that seems to turn the tables on opponents of aid who fail to consider the least convenient possible world (or even a minimally inconvenient counterfactual). Thus we are cogently coaxed away from our moral complacency.

But then there is the second book, by economist Dambisa Moyo: Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa (she is interviewed here). She and Singer don’t seem to have engaged directly so far as I can tell, but her arguments seem effective counters to Singer’s. It would indeed be complacent not to give to charity if at least some good came of it, but what if it did more harm than good? More Africans are poor now than in the past, not just more people, but a vastly higher proportion – this despite a deluge of aid. Aid is sequestered by and sustains corrupt regimes (and yes this still includes Zimbabwe). And while Singer argues that NGOs circumvent this by direct work in the community, she makes the general argument that this damages the credibility of the relatively less effectual government, further weakening democracy. Deeper than this, in fact, aid can directly interefere with the means of production within Africa – she gives the example of 160 mosquito net makers and their dependents who were taken out of business and themselves became dependent on aid as a result of the arrival of nets from abroad. So Moyo wants to shake us from a different sort of complacence – that which favours pity over reason. And she has positive things to say about trade. In a qualified way she praises China for the huge amount it has done for Africa compared with Europe and America simply by trading with Africans (there is an implicit moral point here that traders interact as equal partners while aid leads to dependency). She is a fan of microcredit and recommends this website where you can lend small sums to shop owners, agriculturalists, etc. all over the world who have an effective plan.

So one way of reading this is as a barney (argument) about the effectiveness of aid. But when you attend to the details (especially those in Moyo’s argument) perhaps a “third way” presents itself. What is interesting about microcredit, for example, it that it is somewhere between trade and aid – as a lender you do not charge interest so you are foregoing interest you might have earned. So does the lender take on this opportunity cost out of pity? To me this looks like enlightened generosity – the right mix of sentiment and reasoning on the lender’s part and the right mix of incentives at system level to benefit people in poor countries.

I favour Moyo’s point that aid can be counterproductive although I think this might be because it hasn’t been evidence based and therefore this might be fixable. Of particular concern given the patchwork distribution of aid (and the prevalance of religious charities) is the lack of available contraception. A recent study in PLoS Medicine illustrates this with results that are beautifully congruent with evolutionary theory (or at least the trade-offs assumed in life history theory). Mhairi Gibson and Ruth Mace carried out a retrospective study in which they assessed the effects of the installation of water taps (faucets) in some villages (and not in others) on mortality and health in children and mothers. It seems that the decreased maternal effort associated with obtaining water results in energy being redirected towards increased fecundity. I limn from a multivariate analysis here, but essentially villages with a water supply showed decreases in infant mortality and it seems that fertility increased in mothers with access to taps, but this was associated with no better maternal health and, in fact, with poorer infant health including a greater risk of malnourishment and stunting. The authors point to the growing African population as a severe problem (and here I am reminded of Jared Diamond’s controversial suggestion regarding the causes of the Rwandan genocide) unless interventions are designed to address fertility in concert with more traditional development goals.

The call for more research ought to be heeded, but in our current state of partial ignorance I would suggest that Moyo’s argument that aid can be counterproductive is not a feeble excuse for inaction but a reasonable concern.

Postnote: Charlie Rose (as ever) conducts a courteous but thoroughgoing interview with Dambisa Moyo raising Singer’s arguments briefly and many of the most interesting issues discussed here…


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