Monday, 20 June 2011

Why help the poor? ... it is the right thing to do and we may well benefit

By Spencer Henson

In the face of growing criticism at increasing government spending on aid to developing countries, most notably from many of the Conservative Party’s traditional supporters, the UK’s International Development Secretary has come out fighting. In a speech on 8 June, Andrew Mitchell laid out the case for aid:

“It is a stain on all our consciences that a girl born in South Sudan today is more likely to die having a baby than to complete primary school. When we know what life – and death – is like for over a billion people living on less than 80 pence a day, and we have the wherewithal to do something about it, then yes, I do believe we have a moral imperative to do so.
But if the moral case were not enough we also know that whether you’re talking about tackling conflict, addressing climate change, building global economic stability or helping the most vulnerable populations, international development is one of the best means we have of protecting UK security and prosperity.”
Results from the UK Public Opinion Monitor (UKPOM) at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) suggest that the general public also recognise the moral and self-interest cases for aid. However, individuals who consider aid to be the “right thing to do” are less likely to focus on the potential benefits for the UK. Conversely, moral arguments tend to be less to the fore in the thinking of those who focus on self-interest. Perhaps Andrew Mitchell was aiming to gain the attention and support of both of these constituencies?

But to what extent do the moral and self-interest cases for aid to developing countries sit well with one another? Pragmatically, there are two key issues here.

First, the psychology of human values, that are claimed to be at the root of the attitudes we hold and how these are played out in our behaviour, suggests that morality and self-interest may be in direct conflict with one another. Thus, arguments about the ways in which the UK may ultimately benefit from giving aid to developing countries may actually dull notions of morality, and vice versa. This clearly makes communication with the general public difficult, and suggests that the International Development Secretary’s oration is unlikely to have boosted support for aid. It might have even undermined support amongst those who were “sitting on the fence”.

Second, if we have an aid policy based simultaneously on morality and self-interest, how are decisions made as to where this money is spent, and on what? Aid based on moral concerns would presumably be directed at those in most need, defined in terms of poverty and/or broader notions of human rights. Conversely, if greater weight is put on the ultimate benefits to the UK, whether in terms of security or prosperity, aid will more likely focus on countries that are seen as a “hub of terrorism” (maybe Pakistan or Afghanistan?) or that could present a future vibrant market for British goods ( maybe India?).

Evidently, UK aid policy under the current government is directed at both of these imperatives (or goals). Only time will tell which wins.