US Foreign Aid and Rawls’ Duty of Assistance

There is a nice little discussion going on over at Crooked Timber about John Rawls, Peter Singer, and US Foreign aid. I have read a bit of Rawls and Singer, but can't really say that I am familiar enought with either one to add anything to what has been said. However, this does remind me of one point I always like to make, and an interesting story from my college days.

First of all, this whole notion of how much % of GNP the US gives or should give in foreign aid is based on the assumption that monetary aid is the best way to help poor countries.

I agree that we should help them, because like most businesspundits, I want them to become wealthy so they can live a good life, spend money, grow the world economy, and improve the standard of living of us all. But as I've said before, money is not the primary problem in poor countries. The US, EU, and IMF too often try to apply market reforms to these countries (good idea) without requiring them or helping them to establish a good legal system and clear property rights. These countries are filled with poor oppressed businesspundits who would love to make more money and have a good idea but can't get a loan against their property because no one is for sure who the hell owns it. And these corrupt governments don't care, they just want to line their pockets with America's foreign aid $$$.

Secondly, this passage:

On the other hand, he does hold that wealthy countries have a duty of assistance to assist (many) poor countries – those that he calls "burdened societies." These are societies that "lack the political and cultural traditions, the human capital and know-how, and, often, the material and technological resources needed to be well-ordered." Relatively wealthy and well-ordered societies should aim to "help burdened societies to be able to manage their own affairs reasonably and rationally and eventually to become members of the Society of well-ordered Peoples." Once a burdened society reaches that threshold – what Rawls calls the "target" – further assistance to narrow remaining economic inequalities is not required by justice.

reminds me of a story from my college days.

I had to take a class called "Politics of Third World Countries", in order to meet my university's cross-cultural requirement. As part of the class, we read and wrote a paper on a book called "I Rigoberta Menchu". The book was about how Rigoberta's people were mistreated and slaughtered during a civil war. Well, my paper said it was their own fault. Sure, it was a bad thing and whoever was mistreating them (I really don't remember) shouldn't have done it. But the book was filled with talk about how Rigoberta and her tribe resisted change. Others tried to educate them and they refused to let their children attend school, because their ancestors hadn't. They refused to use modern food preparation technologies because their ancestors had made bread this way (slow and labor intensive) for as long as anyone could remember. So my opinion was that by refusing to change, Rigoberta's people brought about their own demise – or at least were partially responsible for their fate.

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I remember this paper because when I received it, I had gotten a C, then it had been scribbled out and replaced with an A. The teacher wrote a note saying that my ideas and lack of compassion disturbed her, but that upon re-reading my paper, she realized that while she disagreed with me, I had supported my claims well with examples from the book and sound analysis (I'm paraphrasing). So, she changed my grade.

My point is that in addition to legal, governmental, and market reforms, these countries sometimes need cultural reform that may or may not happen. They want to stay living like they always have (in some places, not all) but at the same time they want a better life, and sometimes these things conflict. If you put capitalism up against someone's traditions, many will choose the traditions. So I think foreign aid is a much more difficult situation than we usually realize. I'm all for giving more money to poor countries if it actually improves their living conditions. Unfortunately, it sometimes doesn't in part due to reasons stated above. We need to think this through and be aware of all the factors before we throw more money at poor solutions to these problems.