Activism, Philosophy, recent, Top Stories, World Affairs

Why the American Left Should Embrace Effective Altruism over Provincial Populism

I

After the global financial crisis, the Right seemed to know something the Left didn’t: how to channel post-recession outrage into political action. As Francis Fukuyama observed in a 2012 article: “Despite widespread anger at Wall Street bailouts, there has been no great upsurge of left-wing American populism in response.” The Occupy Wall Street movement sputtered while the Tea Party fueled one of the most sweeping Republican midterm victories in history, including the election of many insurgent hard-Right candidates.

Little did Fukuyama know that an upsurge of left-wing American populism was well on its way. Seven years ago, who could’ve imagined that Bernie Sanders would pose a serious primary challenge to the Clinton machine? Who could’ve predicted that the chairman of the DNC would describe Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—a 29-year-old democratic socialist who was working at a bar a little over a year ago—as the “future of our party”?

It’s no surprise that left-wing populism is ascendant in the United States. Beyond the fact that Donald Trump has a special talent for enraging and energizing the activist Left, the social and political forces that catalyzed the Occupy movement are still very much with us. And the most powerful force of all is inequality. 

For most Americans, real average wages have been stagnant for decades while income inequality has been steadily increasing. In 1970, the top 10 percent of Americans earned 6.9 times as much as the bottom 10 percent—now they earn 8.7 times as much. In 2016, the top 1 percent controlled almost 40 percent of the country’s wealth.

Inequality has become an obsession on the populist Left. Here’s what you’ll find prominently displayed on Sanders’s website: “The issue of wealth and income inequality is the great moral issue of our time, it is the great economic issue of our time, and it is the great political issue of our time.” Ocasio-Cortez often frames the issue in stark moral terms as well, as she did during a recent conversation with the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates: “I do think that a system that allows billionaires to exist when there are parts of Alabama where people are still getting ringworm because they don’t have access to public health is wrong.”

Unsurprisingly, this moral outrage is focused on poverty and affluence in the United States. When Sanders says inequality is the “great moral issue of our time,” he’s talking about inequality in the richest country in human history. When Elizabeth Warren calls billionaires “freeloaders” who need to “pick up their fair share,” she appeals to their sense of national solidarity: “That is your obligation. That’s part of the social contract. That’s part of being a citizen of the United States of America.”

You may be thinking: Of course American politicians talk this way—their constituents are Americans, aren’t they? Fair enough, but as long as they insist on using words like “moral” and “wrong,” they should ask themselves a simple question: If inequality in the United States is morally obscene, how should we feel about the much larger gap between affluent countries and the poorest parts of the world?

II

The median American worker earns around $32,000 per year—more than 96 percent of the planet. To be in the top 1 percent, Occupy protesters may be surprised to discover that you only need to earn $53,000 per year. Meanwhile, there are more than 700 million people living on less than $1.90 per day (adjusted for cost of living), most of whom don’t have access to clean water, enough food, or basic medical care.

As unpleasant as ringworm in Alabama is, the public health problems in the U.S. are nothing like the crises faced by the global poor. According to the World Health Organization, 6.3 million children under the age of 15 died in 2017—15,000 per day among children younger than five. The WHO reports that “more than half of these early child deaths are due to conditions that could be prevented or treated with access to simple, affordable interventions”—like the provision of rotavirus vaccines, bed nets to prevent the spread of malaria, and antibiotics to treat pneumonia and other infections. In sub-Saharan Africa, the likelihood that a child will die before the age of five is more than 15 times higher than it is in high-income countries.

The populist Left frequently emphasizes public investment in education. A year and a half ago, I traveled to Tanzania and visited several schools in and around Dar es Salaam and Morogoro (about 130 miles to the west of the former capital). If you want to see how sharp the disparities between the U.S. and the developing world are, peek into a few Tanzanian classrooms.

What would American parents say if their children were squeezed into a single classroom with 200 other students? Or if the school’s “windows” were just holes with metal bars over them? Or if there was no running water? Even at one of the nicer public schools I visited, the bathroom in the administrative office had a toilet that could only be “flushed” by pouring a bucket of water into a pit. This isn’t just an inconvenience—10 percent of girls in sub-Saharan Africa don’t show up for school during their menstrual cycle because they don’t have the proper facilities or sanitary products, and many never return.

As long as Americans are going to gravely suggest that inequality is the “great moral issue of our time,” the discussion shouldn’t be confined to inequality in their own country. As Peter Singer argued in his 1972 essay “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” the physical location or nationality of a person in need is morally irrelevant: “If we accept any principle of impartiality, universalizability, equality, or whatever, we cannot discriminate against someone merely because he is far away from us.” The only relevant ethical questions are: How much are people suffering and what can be done to help them?

III

Last year, Congress approved $39.92 billion for foreign aid—less than 1 percent of the total budget. A much smaller proportion of that sum was allocated to humanitarian assistance. To put that amount in perspective: Warren has called for a 2 percent tax on the 75,000 richest households in the U.S. (3 percent for earnings over $1 billion)—a proposal she says will raise $2.75 trillion over the next decade.

GiveWell is a nonprofit that evaluates the cost-effectiveness of charities and recommends the ones that, by its metrics, are doing the most good (which is why it’s an important resource in the growing Effective Altruism movement). It currently lists eight top charities: the Malaria Consortium, Deworm the World Initiative, Against Malaria Foundation, Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, Helen Keller International, Sightsavers’ deworming program, The END Fund’s deworming program, and GiveDirectly.

The Against Malaria Foundation can provide an insecticide-treated bed net for $4.93, while the Malaria Consortium can give a person four months of antimalarial drugs for $6.93. The four deworming programs can treat children who suffer from various parasitic worms with interventions that cost between 37 cents and 99 cents per child. Helen Keller International delivers vitamin A supplementation—which can improve vision and prevent blindness—for $1.35 per person. GiveDirectly facilitates cash transfers straight to people in extreme poverty.

GiveWell publishes a range of cost-effectiveness estimates such as “cost per death averted.” Given the sheer number of variables and practical limitations involved, these estimates are rough, but they give us an idea of what could be done with substantial investments in effective international charities. For example, GiveWell estimates that the Against Malaria Foundation can save a life for every $4,115 it receives. The current figure for the Malaria Consortium is $2,296.

GiveWell also estimates how much money each charity could “productively use” over the next three years—from $1.7 million for Sightsavers’ deworming program to hundreds of millions of dollars for the Against Malaria Foundation. The combined total estimate for all eight charities isn’t even $1 billion (depending on exactly how much can be absorbed by the Against Malaria Foundation and GiveDirectly). Assuming Warren’s tax plan would, in fact, generate $275 billion per year, it doesn’t take much imagination to see what even a small proportion of that money would do for the poorest people in the world.

For the sake of argument, let’s say the Against Malaria Foundation could use $300 million over the next three years. Let’s also assume that GiveWell’s estimate of how much it takes to save a life is accurate. That would mean the $300 million investment would save almost 73,000 lives. Is it possible to think of a more ethical way to spend that money? If you care about inequality, shouldn’t you care about people who can’t even afford to spend $4.93 on a bed net that could save their lives or the lives of their children?

IV

The Right will doubtless be unsympathetic to many of the arguments I’ve presented here, but the populist Left’s provincialism is more puzzling. After all, many on the Left routinely remind us that “no human being is illegal” and tweet slogans like “No bans, no walls, no fences, no chains.” They argue for expanded refugee resettlement programs and more integrative, compassionate immigration policies. They call for the robust enforcement of international law. They’re hostile to nationalism, especially the version of it that exists in Trump’s America, Orban’s Hungary, etc. And they’re much less comfortable with inequality.

Are all human lives equally valuable? If you asked Sanders, Warren, or Ocasio-Cortez that question, wouldn’t the word “yes” come out of their mouths as naturally as the next breath? To use Singer’s words, if we accept any principle of impartiality, universalizability, or equality, no other answer is conceivable. If the populist Left truly believes in these principles, it should fight for equality at home and abroad.

Internationalism should be a core principle on the Left, and many left-wing causes are already global. For example, efforts to combat climate change (such as the implementation of a “Green New Deal”) affect everyone on the planet—people in developing countries most of all. Nuclear nonproliferation is another issue that transcends national borders. Warren argues for the development of “multilateral arms control and nonproliferation efforts for the twenty-first century, recommitting the United States to being a leader in the fight to create a world without nuclear weapons.” At a time when inequality is so politically salient, couldn’t the populist Left invoke the same spirit of internationalism to argue that the U.S. should lead a multilateral campaign to eradicate global poverty? 

Advocates for greater U.S. assistance to the global poor can point to the overwhelming success of programs like the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which has provided HIV testing services for 95 million people and antiretroviral treatment for 14.6 million people—interventions that have probably saved millions of lives. The U.S. has invested $80 billion in PEPFAR and Congress has reauthorized it three times since 2003, which demonstrates that American taxpayers are willing to pay for effective large-scale international aid programs.

But there are still many stubborn misconceptions about foreign aid. When the Kaiser Family Foundation asked Americans how much the government spends on foreign aid, the average answer was 26 percent—26 times the actual amount. No wonder 56 percent of respondents said foreign aid spending was too high and just 11 percent said it was too low. However, when respondents were told how much the U.S. actually spends, these numbers shifted dramatically—to 28 percent and 26 percent, respectively.

If major figures like Sanders, Warren, and Ocasio-Cortez started emphasizing the importance of reducing global inequality, they could educate Americans about what their government is (and isn’t) doing to help the world’s poorest people. But more importantly, they could start pushing our national conversation about inequality past our own borders.

Warren is running for president, and her announcement speech was all about inequality: “Today, in the richest country in the history of the world, tens of millions of people are struggling to get by. … It is not right.” After she said those words, a chant rose from the crowd: “It’s not right! It’s not right! It’s not right!” Over the next 21 months, we’ll hear all about inequality in the richest country in the history of the world. But if inequality is, in fact, the great moral issue of our time, we can’t pretend like the rest of the world doesn’t exist. Doing so may be politically expedient, but to quote Warren and her supporters, it certainly isn’t right.

 

Matt Johnson has written for Stanford Social Innovation ReviewEditor & PublisherAreo MagazineArc DigitalSplice TodayForbes, and the Kansas City Star. He was formerly the opinion page editor at the Topeka Capital-Journal. You can follow him on Twitter @mattjj89

77 Comments

  1. E. Olson says

    President Warren decides to send billions in cash, medicine, and other “free” stuff to Africa to save lives, what will happen to all of it? If history is any guide, much of it will end up in Swiss and Cayman bank accounts of the kleptocrats that run most of the countries. But even if we assume that somehow Warren will use her Cherokee cunning to get most of the aid to the people that need it, what will it actually do? We can hope it will save thousands of poor people, but if they survive what will they do with their lives?

    What happens to local food producers and sellers when tons of free food arrive in local markets? Do you think they will need employees and have money to expand their farms and businesses? What happens to local medical facilities and doctors when free medicines, doctors, and mobile clinics arrive? Do you think the doctors and hospitals will have incentives to keep operating when their potential patients can get free care from visiting Western doctors? Who will take pride of ownership and have the financial and technical ability to maintain the free hospitals, schools, wells, and other infrastructure that gets built with Western aid? Will any locals want to train to be a doctor or start a new business knowing that their livelihood will always be threatened by a flood of free stuff coming in? How will floods of “free aid” ever produce a self-sufficient country that will offer all those “saved” lives something productive to do with their time and a way to make an honest living?

    It is relatively easy and cheap to save lives, but the unanswered question is what for? Most of the remaining poor regions of the world have already squandered many billions of aid, and not maintained the extensive infrastructure that has been built for them by colonialists and Western aid, so what will be different this time? Has anyone considered that sending lots of money and free stuff to the world’s poor is perhaps the most ineffective means of helping them?

    • @ E. Olson

      Ah, of course, it’s you!

      “President Warren decides to send billions in cash, medicine, and other “free” stuff to Africa to save lives”

      Not going to happen, even if Warren gets the job.

      ” Most of the remaining poor regions of the world have already squandered many billions of aid”

      How do you know? Yes, a lot of aid is wasted. But evidence for most of it being squandered?

      “and not maintained the extensive infrastructure that has been built for them by colonialists”

      The infrastructure built by colonialists was primarily for themselves. Imagine if “the colonised” had the “skills” to maintain such infrastructure…

      “and Western aid”

      Western aid usually doesn’t build infrastructure to that extent. If only that was the case…

      “Has anyone considered that sending lots of money and free stuff to the world’s poor is perhaps the most ineffective means of helping them?”

      A fair question. And I agree it isn’t. A huge amount of aid isn’t paid as aid but bribery. A huge amount of money is given for “other purposes”. Pakistan, for example, was given huge amounts [30+ billion] in aid and has nothing to show for it. A large amount was to keep the government on the right side. One of its ex-Presidents is raicher than Trump and has genuine $4 billions to show for it.

      There are better ways to give aid than direct money. And that is what the article is about.

      • K. Dershem says

        “There are better ways to give aid than direct money.” Agreed. A recent review of foreign aid programs found that “some projects financed by official aid work and are effective in reducing poverty and moving the domestic populations towards self-sufficiency and prosperity, while other projects (and programmes) fail miserably. The question is not how aggregate aid programmes have fared in the past, but how to evaluate whether specific programmes are effective …. If we want to truly understand the convoluted ways in which official aid affects different economic outcomes, we need to plunge into archives, analyse data in detail, carefully look for counterfactuals, understand the temperament of the major players, and take into account historical circumstances. This is a difficult subject that requires detective-like work.” In other works, it’s extremely complicated — but it does seem possible for aid to help if the programs are properly designed.

        https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2014/11/how-effective-is-foreign-aid/

        • alan white says

          Equally as important as providing aid is to analyze the long-term impact of that aid on the well being of the recipients. Without those records there is no way to know which aid is effective and which is counter-effective. It makes no sense to subsidize the latter. Singer would probably object to any such analysis, arguing that the most significant remedy is to increase the present income of the poor by any means possible.

      • Jeff D says

        @Amin “How do you know? Yes, a lot of aid is wasted. But evidence for most of it being squandered?”

        Read something like “Our Votes, Our Guns” or any one of dozens of books written about what happens to money, goods, and talent sent to many (not all) African nations over the past 50 years. In many cases, squandering would be the best possible outcome. Instead, this aid is often converted to cash in order to buy weapons to slaughter citizens. That’s just how it is.

        https://www.amazon.com/Our-Votes-Guns-Tragedy-Zimbabwe/dp/1586481282/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=our+guns+our+vote&qid=1551326823&s=gateway&sr=8-1-spell

        • Ray the left-finned dolphin says

          @Jeff D

          Thanks. Indeed, sometimes just taking the aid money and burning it in a pile would have been better than what happened.

          • alan white says

            Poor people learn nothing from being given money with no strings attached except how to keep the scam going.

      • E. Olson says

        There you go Amin – I knew you could write a constructive comment without resorting to name calling, please keep up the good work. I agree with you that direct money is a bad way to give aid, and that a lot of it is wasted on bribery or lost due to incompetence or criminality. My reading of the article, however, is that the author wishes a President Warren to tax wealth away from the billionaires and give the money to the global poor as a way to equalize income and wealth, which would be direct money aid. Yet even if such billionaire cash is converted into food or medical aid, such aid will also have detrimental effects on local producers, distributors, and sellers who hope to make a profit selling similar good, because it is very difficult to compete with “free”. Trade not aid is almost certainly a better way to go.

      • Ray the left-finned dolphin says

        @Amin

        Nice to see you having something to say Amin. I suspect that you and Olson might agree on quite a few things so why not drop the adversarial stance and explore the subject? For example:

        “How do you know? Yes, a lot of aid is wasted. But evidence for most of it being squandered? ”

        We all know that so very much of it has been squandered that quibbling over whether we should say ‘most’ or merely ‘much’ or perhaps ‘an appalling amount’, is pointless. I think all three of us would agree that far too much has been wasted and better approaches are needed.

        Disclosure: When I was a kid my dad was involved with Canada’s foreign aid projects. I could tell you a few sad tales. For example, one of his projects was to built a fish storage and freezing/processing plant on a West Indian Island. [ In the heat, the local fishermen’s catches can go bad so fast that just getting them to market in time is a challenge.] The plant worked for a few months making ice then broke down, and after that it was used as a toilet. [It was considered patriarchal for Canadians to run the plant. PC required local maintenance, repair and running of the thing, so my dad could do nothing when it broke down.]

        That one would not support this kind of thing does not make one a Nazi.

    • K. Dershem says

      E., that’s a very good point. Aid is often ineffective and can have unintended consequences. The same is true of welfare programs within countries, which can create perverse incentives and result in dependence if they’re poorly designed. A recent review of foreign aid projects found that some “are effective in reducing poverty and moving the domestic populations towards self-sufficiency and prosperity, while other projects (and programmes) fail miserably …. If we want to truly understand the convoluted ways in which official aid affects different economic outcomes, we need to plunge into archives, analyse data in detail, carefully look for counterfactuals, understand the temperament of the major players, and take into account historical circumstances. This is a difficult subject that requires detective-like work.”

      https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2014/11/how-effective-is-foreign-aid/

      • K. Dershem says

        Sorry for the double post — I’m having issues accessing the website.

      • E. Olson says

        K, thanks for the link. I agree that a lot more study should be done of what has been most effective – there certainly is a long history of foreign aid to analyze. On the other hand, there is something that is already proven to be the most effective poverty alleviator known to man, which is adopting free-market reforms as in lowering trade barriers, deregulating labor markets, streamlining new business permitting, ensuring strong protection of property rights and contract rights, eliminating currency restrictions, etc. As other commenters have noted, almost all of the remaining poorest people live in Marxist/centrally controlled economies, while formerly poor countries that have freed things up have prospered.

        • Ray the left-finned dolphin says

          @E. Olson

          Tho I’m not as absolutist as yourself when it comes to ‘socialism’, there can be no doubt that in Africa in particular we could probably draw a graph with few bumps in it that would demonstrate an exact inverse relationship between a country’s degree of ‘socialism’ and it’s level of prosperity.

          • K. Dershem says

            Congo is a prime example of what’s been called “the resources curse”:

            “Striking gold or discovering oil would seem to guarantee instant fortune. Instead, it often leads to conflict, corruption and poverty. History is full of examples of countries whose natural-resource wealth led to less economic success. Revenue from extracting raw materials might be mismanaged or embezzled by government officials, or siphoned off by foreign corporations. The bonanza might crowd out investment in other parts of the economy and make goods and services more expensive. And the country’s fiscal and economic fate might hang on volatile global commodity prices, especially for smaller and less diverse economies. All told, local populations can be left with little to show for their resources except a degraded environment.”

            https://www.bloomberg.com/quicktake/resource-curse

        • historian says

          “there is something that is already proven to be the most effective poverty alleviator known to man, which is adopting free-market reforms”

          This. Even just teaching people how to set up a business with three people fulfilling the three classical western business offices of President, Secretary and Treasurer has been shown to result in positive results.

    • By your logic not helping is great and some punishment even better. We can argue about how aid should be used (teach a man how to fish, etc) but the rest simply doesn’t follow. Notwithstanding the recent history and economics of most African countries (50 years of independence, tribal divisions and artificial borders, no real long term tradition of democracy, dependence on commodities, theatre for the Cold War, etc) you also forget that geographically many are poorly located. Making a living in the temperate regions is much easier (not to mention healthier) than the tropics, hence some of us got luckier. Targeting aid to eliminate these roadblocks to development and not sapping their best and brightest would help them help themselves.

      • Ray the left-finned dolphin says

        @JFM

        There is much truth in what you say. OTOH by virtue of it’s mineral wealth Congo should be one of the world’s wealthier nations and several others should be doing very well.

        • K. Dershem says

          Congo is a prime example of what’s been called “the resources curse”:

          “Striking gold or discovering oil would seem to guarantee instant fortune. Instead, it often leads to conflict, corruption and poverty. History is full of examples of countries whose natural-resource wealth led to less economic success. Revenue from extracting raw materials might be mismanaged or embezzled by government officials, or siphoned off by foreign corporations. The bonanza might crowd out investment in other parts of the economy and make goods and services more expensive. And the country’s fiscal and economic fate might hang on volatile global commodity prices, especially for smaller and less diverse economies. All told, local populations can be left with little to show for their resources except a degraded environment.”

          https://www.bloomberg.com/quicktake/resource-curse

          • K. Dershem says

            Dammit, still double-posting. And I meant to write the “resource curse.”

      • Stephanie says

        JFM, no, by this logic it is more important to differentiate between what makes you feel good from what does good to people you want to help.

        Giving charity makes the donor feel good – the serotonin rush humans get from altruism is a well-understood motivator. However, for all the reasons E. Olsen and others pointed out, it is often a destabilizing force for the local economy. The best thing you can do is support the local economy by trading with them. This a task best suited to private business, not government.

        The premise that African countries are poorly situated is not supported by global data. Singapore is smack on the equator and it is extremely wealthy. Namibia has a similar latitude to Australia. On the other hand, icy Canada and tropical Oz have very similar economies. It is clear that the economic and political model is the determining factor, not latitude or climate.

        As for K. Dershem’s point about the resource curse, this is certainly true for countries with little economic and political maturity, but resources themselves aren’t the problem. Oil-rich Alberta is often criticized for being insufficiently diversified, but it’s the only place in Canada where a high school graduate can make a six-figure salary after just a few years of building skills on the job.

    • Anonymous says

      Excellent point. Dumping free stuff on a region mostly serves to disrupt the local economy – and in the long run does more harm than good.

      The author of this piece, seems unaware of this basic historical fact.

    • Phil Major says

      “If major figures like Sanders, Warren, and Ocasio-Cortez started emphasizing the importance of reducing global inequality, they could educate Americans about what their government is (and isn’t) doing to help the world’s poorest people.”

      Maybe someone can start by explaining why reducing global inequality is important as this author claims and takes for granted.

      I can see investing money to stop the spread of diseases that could come to our shores, but aside from that, why is it important to me, my family or my community that global inequality is reduced?

    • What happens to local food producers and sellers when tons of free food arrive in local markets?

      There is a legit food shortage in most parts caused by low supply. I’d encourage most charity/aid be directed in enabling local producers. Providing free food isn’t sustainable by any means. Educate farmers/businesses about technologies they can use to ramp up their production and in a few years you wouldn’t need to provide aid

      What happens to local medical facilities and doctors when free medicines, doctors, and mobile clinics arrive? Do you think the doctors and hospitals will have incentives to keep operating when their potential patients can get free care from visiting Western doctors?

      I doubt even foreign aid can provide enough Docs to serve this huge population adequately. Clinics in Africa are overcrowded, nurses and doctors alike overworked. I have a feeling they would actually encourage any help they can get. Again a more sustainable way would be to invest in increasing the capacity of already existing medical infrastructure. Africa does have doctors and technicians smart enough to keep running these facilities way after the “white man” has left. Unless you mean to say no hospitals are being run around here hehe

      Who will take pride of ownership and have the financial and technical ability to maintain the free hospitals, schools, wells, and other infrastructure that gets built with Western aid?

      As long as aid providers insist prefer to work with governments , this might be an issue. However, if frameworks were set to be more community centered, and community tends to be a real thing around here, the communities themselves would take a lot of pride in these projects and treasure them. Trust me no one will destroy the hospital that literally saves their lives and those of their families.

      Will any locals want to train to be a doctor or start a new business knowing that their livelihood will always be threatened by a flood of free stuff coming in?

      I’d argue yes if not for anything else at least now there’d be hospitals they can work in. 2ndly, I don’t think the goal is to always have free stuff coming. I think the goal of aid is to act as a catalyst and enable locals to rise beyond mere survival. Provide free food for a season as you train them modern methods of farming. And many local solutions already do exist of simple subsistence farming. A season later they won’t need free-stuff. I’d argue they might even have surplus to trade in for other stuff

      How will floods of “free aid” ever produce a self-sufficient country that will offer all those “saved” lives something productive to do with their time and a way to make an honest living?

      I don’t think free aid can ever produce a self-sufficient country. Aid can however enable locals build a self sufficient country. It doesn’t even have to be free per se. For instance, a few organisations offer local women access to financial services (loans and stuff) at relatively cheap costs than local banks would. Others partner with local banks to do so. Most African women are very enterprising and with a little boost they are able to grow their small grocer and “jua kali” businesses. They pay for their kids education and provide for their families, now that can build a self-sustaining country.

      I’d encourage charities and AID organisations in Africa and maybe other parts to study these societies first. Look at what solutions they have come up with that if funded and well organised will lift them out of poverty. There are many existing solutions to most of Africa’s problems that just need scaling.

      • E. Olson says

        MK – thanks for the thoughtful comment. I certainly agree that aid needs to be studied and structured to provide more than temporary fix. As for doctors and nurses, the major reason I questioned whether Western aid is hurting the local medical industry is because so many Western country medical systems are staffed by doctors and nurses from developing countries. If they could make a good living in their home country, I would think many more would wish to stay to serve the medical needs of their fellow citizens.

        • @E. Olson:

          As I’ve commented on a previous article on the subject of Effective Altruism, EA advocates are perfectly aware of problems with government corruption and food relief. These are not the kinds of charitable interventions they are advocating. The drive to ‘study and structure’ charitable giving is precisely the movement’s raison d’etre.

          As if turns out, direct (electronic) cash donations to the poor (not their governments) actually seems to be a highly effective method of both directly relieving poverty and stimulating local markets and businesses. GiveDirectly is currently running a well-controlling pilot study on UBI for this purpose.

    • Softclocks says

      A surplus of medical services and food is the least of their concern.

      The demand for such things is more than enough to keep local doctors and businesses afloat.

  2. Serenity says

    “[By the end of 20th century] Rwanda [has] become synonymous in our minds with two things: high population and genocide…

    By 1994 Rwanda has prospered for 15 years and became a favourite recipient of foreign aid from overseas donors, who point to a peaceful country with improving health, education… Rwanda’s high population grew at an average rate of over 3% per year. [Rwanda’s] steep hills were being farmed right up to their crests. …famines began to reappear.

    Because all land in the commune was already occupied, young people found it difficult to marry, leave home, acquire a farm, and set up their own household. Increasingly, young people postponed marriage and continued to live at home with their parents.
    …most people were impoverished, hungry and desperate. The land disputes undermined the cohesion of Rwandan society’s traditional fabric. Traditionally, richer landowners were expected to help their poor relatives. This system was breaking down, because even the landowners who were richer than other landowners were still too poor to be able to spare anything for poorer relatives.

    Even before 1994, Rwanda was experiencing rising levels of violence and theft, perpetrated especially by hungry landless young people without off-farm income. …among different parts of Rwanda… high population densities and worse starvation were associated with more crime.

    The 1994 events provided a unique opportunity to settle scores, or to reshuffle land properties, even among Hutu villagers. …It is not rare, even today, to hear Rwandans argue that a war is necessary to wipe out an excess of population and to bring numbers into line with the available land resources.”

    Jared Diamond “Collapse.”

    • Ray Andrews says

      @Serenity

      To put it bluntly, tribal genocide is merely one of Africa’s ways of sorting out overpopulation problems. The other two traditional ways are famine and pestilence. Now of course we’ve added emigration to the West.

      • ga gamba says

        If only albinism was more common in Africa. That would offer another pathway to reduce overpopulation.

  3. Farris says

    “The Right will doubtless be unsympathetic to many of the arguments I’ve presented here….”

    The unsympathetic Right is too busy building homes, providing running water and more on mission trips. People who identify as Right on average donate more of their time and treasure than people who identify as Left. However if this author is any indication, the Left appears to have cornered the market on sanctimony.

    • Ray the left-finned dolphin says

      @Farris

      Interesting that the Haters actually give more charity than the Lovers, isn’t it?

  4. Farris says

    The author mentions Tanzania as an impoverished country in need of aid. The author fails to mention that Tanzania is a uni-Party Socialist Republic. The politicians the author lionizes are of the stripe of people for perpetuating poverty. But only if we give them more money, we could solve these issues. Venezuela, Rwanda, Cuba socialism’s legacy. How many free market capitalist countries are in need of aid?

    • Ray the left-finned dolphin says

      @Farris

      “People who identify as Right on average donate more of their time and treasure than people who identify as Left.”

      Yes, it’s funny how the Haters actually give more.

      • Erle S Bowman says

        Not unexpected however tasteless and hurtful for a typical media site to produce such a response but certainly disappointing for one that appeared to be successfully challenging today’s norms. The devil is always in the details when it eventually rears its head. It may be onward and hopefully upwards for me from here but time will tell.

        • Erle S Bowman says

          Difficult to take a stand when I can’t easily tell where I was standing. Lets just say that my comment was in support of @Farris.

  5. Farris says

    The author mentions Tanzania as an impoverished country in need of aid. The author fails to mention that Tanzania is a uni-Party Socialist Republic. The politicians the author lionizes are of the stripe of people for perpetuating poverty. But only if we give them more money, we could solve these issues. Venezuela, Rwanda socialism’s legacy. How many free market capitalist countries are in need of aid?

  6. Morgan Foster says

    @Farris

    Try this: When you post, do it once and then close out of Quillette completely. Just shut it down and wait a few minutes. Then open it in a new window or tab.

    You might see your post then.

    • Farris says

      Thanks Morgan! For some reason (probably WiFi) I’m having issues with the site today.

      • Stephanie says

        Farris, several people have been double-posting the last few days, I don’t think it’s your fault.

        Great comment, by the way.

  7. Ray the left-finned dolphin says

    Much as we weep for the dead children of Africa we can take comfort in the fact that the population is expected to hit 3 – 4 billion by the end of this century. The ‘no borders’ folks will be glad to remind us that most of these Africans will be moving to the West where they will no doubt add to our Diversity.

    • K. Dershem says

      Population growth in sub-Saharan Africa is a MASSIVE economic, sociological and environmental problem which will compound all of the challenges the region already faces. If you try to address it, you’ll almost certainly be called a racist.

      • Ray the left-finned dolphin says

        @K. Dershem

        The day has almost arrives when the elephant in the room can’t be ignored much longer. I do wonder how long PC will last when things really start to crumble (the bridges already are). Or perhaps a better question is whether, when things start to crumble, if salvaging the situation will even be possible. Will sane and competent people be able to arrest the collapse of the West once it has started? Will there be any sane and competent people in positions of power? Will there be any capital left in the social cohesion bank? President Warren is confronted with massive hunger riots. LA is a no-go zone even for the army. Will she know what to do? Will she reconsider her ‘no one is illegal’ doctrine? Or will she just chant: “All we need is love, da-da da da da da daaaa”, and blame it all on The Patriarchy?

        Sorry, another one of my dystopian moments 😉

      • Mechan B says

        @K. Dershem

        It doesn’t sound at all like you actually want to address it at all but instead let Africa falter. If all you care about the situation(sub-Saharan area) is to let it play out based on your preconceptions, then you are not actually engaging the issues at all.

        • K. Dershem says

          @Mechan, I think that economic development, universal education, and the empowerment of women are necessary to help African countries achieve the demographic transition to lower fertility rates. Insofar as the U.S. and other countries can contribute to these goals — mostly through trade rather than aid, but well-designed aid programs can also play a role — I think we should do so. Unfortunately, the governments of some of the states with the fastest population growth are deeply corrupt and dysfunctional.

  8. Chinese in Montreal says

    What about free market and free trade? China didn’t get (relatively) rich by foreign aid, neither did Taiwan, Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong etc. I believe the most effective way to help a developing country is still globalization and free market. Foreign aid sounds good in principal, but it is wrought with confusion, contradiction and complication when practiced in the real world, as has been articulated again and again in various articles over the years. I know folks in the West, especially folks on this forum perhaps don’t agree with me, but I believe that perhaps the biggest humanitarian achievement that happened in the last 40 years is no doubt the the embrace of (limited) capitalism and free trade in China after the reform and open up of 1979, (and Vietnam after the 80s and India after the 90s etc.) . The living standard of 1.3 billion people has improved dramatically and it doesn’t cost a dime from developed countries. People in rich country and poor alike don’t want hand out; people want opportunities. Just a personal note, my grandpa has 9 siblings, all except him and his big brother died from hunger and war and poverty before he reached maturity. It is the kind of thing that is unimaginable to me and my generation, but is far too common not so long ago.

    P.S. It is a separate but tangential topic. I know folks think China etc. developed at the expense of the US, EU etc. I don’t believe that to be the case. There are definitely jobs lost due to globalization, there are also job created due to globalization and clearly globalization is a net gain for consumers. The world is not a fixed pie and trade is mutually beneficial, comparative advantage, specialization etc. Just a reminder, the economies (or GDP per capita) of the US and other developed countries are growing not shrinking and has been for quite some time. It is just the rich disproportionally gained from globalization while the cost is shouldered disproportionally by the folks in the rustbelt. I believe for the vast majority of the middle class, it is a net gain. It is just ( as has been observed by Milton Friedman) when someone benefited from globalization, it is not acknowledged, while if someone lost jobs due to globalization, it is all over the news. For example, a software developer working in Silicon Valley perhaps indirectly owed his or her salary to the fact that Chinese workers in Shenzhen has made iPhone an affordable product for billions around the world, thus providing a vast consumer base to reward his labor, but it is unlikely he will thank globalization when he took home a 6 figure paycheck. But if a manufacture firm decided to outsource to China, then everybody from politicians to activists to angry people on Twitter immediately pin the blame on China.

    • Phil Major says

      The software developer is a skilled worker who could have been successful in many fields and many roles in the economy. The low skill assembly line worker can not find success in many other areas of the economy.

      So the loss of the low end work that sustained so many families and communities in places like the rust belt aren’t always replaceable. This is where the problems come in.

      Had western nations bled a small portion of jobs from a cross section of the economy, it wouldn’t be felt as such a problem for said countries.

    • Stephanie says

      Chinese in Montreal, good comment.

      The fact hundreds of millions of Chinese are being lifted out of poverty is a wonderful thing. The benefits to consumers, as you point out, is clear as well.

      It is the failure of the West that we haven’t helped our low-skilled workers find new work. Of course we can’t expect all such workers to become coders, but investing and deregulating infrastructure and natural resource development could have caught some of the most low-IQ workers.

  9. thatsmysecretcap says

    This is an argument against the leftist obsession with inequality, not an argument for greater aid to the poorest.

    Unless I’m missing something, the reasoning here leads to the conclusion that it is morally wrong for resources to be spent here when others have greater needs. This would mean that the first world has a responsibility to transfer everything that isn’t nailed down to the third world until quality of life equalizes for everyone everywhere. I realize that I’m extending this to the extreme limit, but the author didn’t provide any parameters, limits, or qualifiers about how this idea is to be applied and I’m trying to demonstrate the absurdity of the overarching worldview. As long as we are invoking morals, our willingness to give doesn’t matter; as long as our conditions are better than theirs, we have a responsibility to give to them.

    The end state of this view has to be material equality of all people everywhere. That might be a nice concept, but it can’t happen at the current first world quality of life. I am not ashamed to admit that given a choice between what we have now and a world where everything is distributed equitably, I would choose this world. I would love to see a rigorous study of the ramifications, but an equitable distribution would have to knock us back to a turn of the century lifestyle (which would be meteoric improvement for millions or billions). My heart may be unusually hard, but I can’t imagine that the progressives would choose that life for their children even if it means millions elsewhere are saved.

    The solution to the great cognitive dissonance that the author is picking at isn’t massive transfer of aid to the global poor. It is for people to acknowledge that they care more about those close to them than those far away. That people on the other side of the world could have their lives saved by the money spent on a nicer car, but we are going to buy the nicer car because that is what we want and personal property still exists. Imagine if every purchase gave you an option to help the disadvantaged instead. Starbucks asks if you’d like to prevent 3.5 hours of vicious suffering for a 3 year old instead of getting that coffee. Home depot asks if you would rather build a hospital for people who are currently dying of infections caused by lack of cleanliness than building that garage. I’m sure that giving would increase, but only so far. We are actually making those choices with every purchase we make, we just aren’t forced to acknowledge it.

    This whole concept seems to be based on the idea that we should hold all human life to be of equal value. I reject that. My brother has more value to me than millions of people thousands of miles away. Are people morally wrong if they spend thousands of dollars on a medical procedure that will minimally improve their children’s health while that money could have saved dozens of lives? The only way for this world view to be a valid conclusion is if you start with the idea that personal property is morally wrong and all people have equal rights to all things, or to each according to his need. In a vacuum, this seems viable, but our current human nature has exposed it as a reliable disaster.

    The same concept bothers me when arguments are made that we are morally wrong to not welcome all migrant comers into our society. If we are obligated to include them, why isn’t there a greater responsibility for us to fan out around the globe and hunt down the billions that are worse off, then beg them to join our society. If scarcity implies rights, why don’t all people worse off than us have a right to be here?

    If people want to expend their resources helping those less fortunate, that’s a valid choice. If they want to speak loudly about the virtues of charity, that is an annoying but valid use of their speech. When they start declaring that not helping those in need is a moral wrong, I can’t go along with that. The necessary conclusion of that position is perfect material equality, which I don’t think is a productive path to pursue.

    So how does one justify any transfer of resources from haves to have nots? By looking at the groups that people are organized into. Family members follow from each according to ability and to each according to need because they love and care for each other. It is reasonable for a national government to transfer wealth because it reduces inequality and calms people down. Properly applied, transferred wealth can be used to increase the health, education, and productivity of an underprivileged area, generating a societal net gain. The transfer can be justified as a fee that the wealthy pay for access to the infrastructure, economic, and legal structures that make their success possible. National security can make nation to nation transfers a rational decision. People don’t even perform charity because they have a moral obligation. They do it because it gives them a positive emotional response.

    The reason that we should help our own underprivileged rather than those far away is that ours are closer to us and we will be dealing with their outcomes one way or another, not because we have some moral responsibility. To the extent that we will deal with the outcomes of those far away, it may make sense to help them.

    If I have misinterpreted and the author only meant that charities should be assessed for their impact effectiveness relative to the donor’s priorities before donating, then I’ve clearly flown off the handle. But that doesn’t justify a new philosophy of charity. I smell something more manipulative here.

    • Phil Major says

      Your reply pretty much nails what is wrong with these assumptions that we are morally obliged to care about literally everyone, and that every human life is of equal worth.

      Equal worth according to what measure? Emotional proximity matters, as you point out with the example of your brother. But doesn’t utility matter as well? An ER doctor or a sub-Saharan peasant that offers no utility to the world. It’s grossly naive to suggest every human life has equal worth. That’s feel good nonsense you tell to children, not a serious position that a thinking adult would espouse.

    • Sneed Urn says

      The actual point of the article is unclear. Progressives do in fact propose working toward reducing global inequality. They are generally not insane about it.That is a different realm from Private charities addressing other specific problems.

      I want to point out that you are Not applying “This whole concept seems to be based on the idea that we should hold all human life to be of equal value.” in the correct context. Everyone recognizes what you point out; we ‘value’ people closest to us more than people increasingly distant, in rough proportion to distance.

      The ‘all lives have equal value’ proposition is used in the context of devising systems of government (and philosophy). It recognizes that your favoring your family is no different from anyone else favoring their family. And that no one’s preference for their own is intrinsically more valid than another’s for purposes of advancing favoritism in government. You can call it moral or practical or simply rational or all three.

      Also, you don’t have to start with “personal property is morally wrong”. Asking the question about why personal property is right and what (besides force) gives anyone access to more of the world’s resources than someone else is central to this issue. It is far from settled. My own understanding uses the idea of ‘the commons’. It is a useful concept in private property discussions. For a multitude of practical and philosophical reasons, what constitutes the commons should be vastly expanded and made explicitly clear as a way of then making systems of private property more rigorously morally and practically justifiable. You might correctly infer that I hold libertarian ‘thought’ in contempt. It is a sloppy sophist smokescreen for simple greed irrationally unconstrained.

    • @thatsmysecretcap

      I too was confused by the author’s motivations. I suspect that it’s a poke at the left’s virtual signaling regarding their hopes to reduce or remove inequality touting their mantra of “a rising tide raises all ships.”

      Historically, resource redistribution comes at the end of a sword or with a bashed door or broken window. The thievery does little to offset inequality in the long run as the thief quickly squanders what was not earned and has not gained wisdom/experience/skills needed for lasting prosperity.

    • Chinese in Montreal says

      “but an equitable distribution would have to knock us back to a turn of the century lifestyle (which would be meteoric improvement for millions or billions)”

      The GDP per capita of the world is 10000USD(https://www.google.com/publicdata/explore?ds=d5bncppjof8f9_&met_y=ny_gdp_pcap_cd&hl=en&dl=en#!ctype=l&strail=false&bcs=d&nselm=h&met_y=ny_gdp_pcap_cd&scale_y=lin&ind_y=false&rdim=region&idim=country:CAN:USA:CHN&ifdim=region&tdim=true&hl=en_US&dl=en&ind=false), which roughly corresponds to the US living standard in 1979. It can’t be so bad a period of time, since a lot of Americans seem to look back at that period with nostalgia:)

      You greatly underestimated the level of development in the rest of the world, especially in Asia since the end of WWII and especially the end of the cold war. Africa is still pretty bad, not to mention the Middle East, but the development in Asia is pretty amazing, and consider we are half of the world’s population, the world as a whole is actually fast converging to western standard of living. No need of foreign aid, just keep the trade open.

  10. david of Kirkland says

    Foreign aid comes with a bomb. When someone gives you something outside of pure charity, strings are attached.
    Any morality that ends at national borders is immorality in practice.
    Jealousy is ugly even if you pretend it’s about government run Robin Hoodism to take from one to give to another. Charity is when you give freely.
    But, we could tweak tax rates so that the top marginal rate is 40%, and we could tax all income the same rather than prefer unearned income over earned income, and we could tax all wages for social security, and we could stop creating any new law that requires an expenditure without a corresponding tax increase to pay for it.
    Inequality at the hands of government tyranny is theft, fraud and a violation of equal protection.

    • FuzzyLogic says

      China has been heavily investing in infrastructure in Africa’s developing nations. There is no way they are doing this for altruistically. There are strings attached and my fear is that China is cementing themselves as THE world power through their infrastructure investment and resource exploitation in Africa.

    • semanticist says

      “Jealousy is ugly even if you pretend it’s about government run Robin Hoodism to take from one to give to another”

      Please. The word you want is Envy, not Jealousy. Jealousy is the instinctive desire and determination to keep for yourself that which you have come to feel is yours. The whole business of robbing the rich to give to the poor is a pander to the instinct called Envy – being the conviction of the poor that they are entitled to a share of wealth of the rich simply because that wealth exists and everyone is entitled to their fair share of all good things.

  11. Phil Major says

    “If major figures like Sanders, Warren, and Ocasio-Cortez started emphasizing the importance of reducing global inequality, they could educate Americans about what their government is (and isn’t) doing to help the world’s poorest people.”

    Maybe someone can start by explaining why reducing global inequality is important as this author claims and takes for granted.

    I can see investing money to stop the spread of diseases that could come to our shores, but aside from that, why is it important to me, my family or my community that global inequality is reduced?

  12. El Uro says

    The truth is that poverty is the only product that Africa can export in unlimited quantities.
    If you want to help, help with culture, not with food, because more food only means more poverty.

  13. Bill Haywood says

    Was very confused by this article until I realized that the author conflates left with liberal. The left has always kept the globe in view. Remember the bumper sticker “Think globally, act locally”? Liberals, not so much.

  14. Hmmm says

    It’s one thing to say that we should pay attention to global poverty and inequality, not just domestic.

    It’s another to couch it in this author’s ethical framework. It’s telling that he cites Peter Singer, who among other strange things believes that, if you had to jettison one creature from a lifeboat in order to save everyone else’s life, you should throw off your child, if he or she has a severe mental impairment, rather than a chimpanzee. For the absurdity of this star philosopher’s hyper-utilitarianism, see “Other People’s Mothers” from the New Republic back in 2000 (http://www.peterberkowitz.com/otherpeoplesmothers.htm).

  15. I think Progressive Left and Effective Altruism merger probably will reap more synergies than the Nation of Islam and Scientology merger. But why not look to merge with some of the flying saucer cults?

  16. This is an article about economic underdevelopment written by somebody who knows nothing about development economics. All the author sees is the inequality between rich countries and poor countries. The first idea that comes to his mind is that wealth should be transferred from the former to the latter. It’s understandable that he thinks so, but having studied development economics I know that things are considerably more complicated than they seem.
    I will leave it at that.

    • Thrawn says

      Seven of the top 8 most effective charities are not about handing over money. They are about treating disease. The economics are not the same at all. Treating malaria corresponds directly to saving lives, which means that the country can become more productive and more independent.

      And even if you want a pure economic, cold-blooded reason to do it, consider how much of the budget is spent on defence: nearly $650B in 2018. Now consider the international public relations effect of transferring $1B of that – less than 0.5% of the military budget, let alone the entire budget – to humanitarian aid, saturating the major charities and dealing a mortal blow to a bunch of the epidemics that ravage the world, leaving untold millions of people indebted to the USA. To me, that sounds like a wise defence strategy.

      • Also, the 8th charity, GiveDirectly, is currently running a UBI study with pretty rigorous experimental controls. Also else equal, transferring cash directly to participants seems to be substantially more effective than funding local governments or NGOs.

        I would also agree with Thrawn that committing funds to EA programs could be a highly effective method of curtailing long-term social crises down the road.

  17. Skept-O-Punk says

    This article is what happens when someone goes their entire life with their brain shut off and their “heart” running on overdrive. The exact same fundamental issue that fuels Identity Politics, Socialism, Black Lives Matter, Anitifa and all other leftist idiocies. (The same mindset that you find in kooky cults that are waiting for the “Mother ship” to come and save them.)

  18. If you have a system in which those who create great business, which employ millions and provide products we all need, can make money by doing this, you will get billionaires. Most rich in this country (outside the politicians) got rich by doing good–by creating jobs and wealth for others. Any system that prevents this will also prevent job creation and economic growth. Bill Gates got rich by providing essential tools for everyone to do their work at really absurdly low prices. How is that bad?

  19. Thrawn says

    “The Right will doubtless be unsympathetic to many of the arguments I’ve presented here”

    Why do you think that? You’d have to be way off the bell curve, I think, to disagree with spending less than 1% of the budget to save tens of thousands of people who simply don’t have the power or resources to help themselves.

  20. Pingback: Pourquoi la gauche américaine devrait adopter un altruisme efficace plutôt qu’un populisme provincial – OWDIN

  21. Matt says

    If you’re interested in this topic I would highly recommend reading The Divide by Jason Hickel. He explores global poverty extensively including its surprising roots. Hint: aid isn’t the answer.

  22. Jan Shaw says

    The left/progressives in the United States don’t much like poor people and don’t the cause of poor people. The left here is focused on climate change and identity politics. You need to visit.

  23. Constantin says

    Living on $1.90 a day is more of a challenge for the people who start the day at Starbucks. For the rest, life has always been a struggle . My concern with the international redistribution of wealth is that it is guaranteed to have the same spiritual and economic stifling effect it had when practiced at any scale. Free medication may mean 700000 life’s saved, but it also means removing a goal and a common interest, shaming and infantilizing large communities and wrecking havoc with any local entrepreneurial spirit. I understand well the moral dilemma posed by watching people die of malaria while having the means to save hundreds of thousands. I am not saying that charity and the ability to emphatize are not core human traits. I merely point out that with good intentions is paved the road to He’ll and, discussing international aid policy, greater weight should probably be given to combating corruption and encouraging the adoption of well regulated free market solutions. Just saying ! 🙂 I would add that socialist solutions are always bound to be hotly debated among those who will insist they know how to spend the coin in the most effective way. Today, they will argue on which international charity gets the most bang for the buck. Tomorrow, they will argue about the rationing of health care and whether octogenarians should get off the list for life saving medical procedures. “Efficiency comrades! Efficiency!” I prefer to live in a world where individual charitable impulses manifest themselves as freely as any other human endeavor, where we understand that help is sometimes needed and welcome but also destructive, and where we try together to crawl towards a better world. “Comrades ” like the author of this article, are not my cup of tea.

  24. johno says

    The entire concept of ‘inequality’ is predicated upon the somewhat arrogant assumption that everyone wants to live like we do.

    Is that actually the case?

    Some of the longest lived people can be found in rural settings, with a simple, slow paced lifestyle. And, from the empirical observations that can be made, they appear to be quite happy with their lives. Without a high speed internet connection, without being ‘inclusive’, and without giving up their distinct culture that they are quite comfortable with.

    Many of the arguments presented in this piece mirror the rather patronizing leftist attitude of emoting over whatever ‘downtrodden minority’ they can find… largely to boost their own sense of self worth, and perhaps to impose their will on the great unwashed.

    The issue here is that attitude never solves problems… those problems are merely a vehicle for someone’s agenda.

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