Monday, February 28, 2011

Third World poverty, corruption, and politics

So I thought about weighing in on the discussion at Phoebe's blog regarding the "Live Like a Grad Student... Forever editorial. Based in part on the author's reading of Peter Singer, he has pledged to give away at least 10% of his income to charities that help the developing world. But I was distracted -- I needed to make meatballs! and pimento cheese dip! and then several bound volumes of 1960s legislative history showed up from the library! -- and by the time I looked up, the Internet seemed to have moved on.

But I was reminded of the entire debate again when I saw Megan McArdle's post on feeding the hungry in North Korea. As Megan notes, the North Koreans' situation is truly dire. On a humanitarian level, it cries out for intervention. On the other, the North Koreans are not poor because of scarcity or lack of natural resources. (Their neighbors to the immediate south are doing quite well. Rather, they are poor because of disastrously wrong-headed governmental policies. As McArdle notes, as well-intentioned as food aid programs are, they may have the inadvertent effect of propping up the bad regime that created the dire poverty in the first problem. North Korea is admittedly an unusually dramatic example, but I fear it may be different from other poor countries more in degree rather than in kind.

This points to one potential weakness in the Singer approach: if much poverty in the Third World results not from scarcity, but rather from bad policy, is one still morally obligated to try to alleviate that poverty if the alleviation attempt actually makes things worse in the long run? I suppose Singer and his advocates might say that one then has a moral obligation to donate as much of one's income as possible to political groups that try to overthrow corrupt regimes, but that's a somewhat different framing of the issue than appears in the op-ed. Alternatively, the Singerites might claim that it's morally necessary to give away as much of one's income as possible to the poorest people who live in countries without dysfunctional governments. But the poorest people in such countries tend to be fairly well-off relative to the rest of the world, which makes the humanitarian case for such aggressive altruism less compelling.

Of course, one could take the approach championed by various prominent libertarian economists and say that expanding legal immigration is one of the best ways that America can alleviate crushing poverty in the Third World. I'm not sure how effective groups that lobby for increased legal immigration are likely to be. But it can't hurt to give some of one's income (even if a full 10% is not morally necessary) to some such groups.

1 comment:

  1. If I remember Singer correctly, he realizes that donations need to be made to charitable organizations that are actually going to help in the long run. He provides a list of some in "One World" I believe (I seem to remember Oxfam as his favorite).

    Singer is perhaps wrong about which organizations will really alleviate human suffering (taking the long run view). But he does realize that not all donations are equal.