According to an item in the Guardian (Feb 10) the tear gas canisters fired recently at the protestors in Cairo, and left empty in the streets for all to see, were marked “Made in the USA“.  While foreign aid clearly includes military aid, this is an almost embarassing example that may yet come back to haunt a US administration at pains to assure the Egyptian people that it actually approves of their efforts to restore democratic rule.  While Egypt has sufficient wealth to ensure that a good proportion of its citizens are not third world, the message of aid with political overtones could hardly be lost on even the poorest citizens.

When it comes to aid for third world countries the ethics becomes even more confused.  It is worth reminding ourselves a third world country is usually third world for a host of reasons, and since aid to the third world usually comes from second or first world nations, many of the ethical issues relate to the mismatch. Just as the rich man or woman doesn’t usually get that way by giving too much away without thought, the aim of staying rich or secure can get in the way of ethical donor action at an international level. This becomes even more murky when it is remembered that many of the donor nations operate under some form of democracy. Many years ago I can remember talking at a function about New Zealand’s aid obligations with the then Prime Minister Norman Kirk. He gave me the example of sending a relatively small sum of money for Earthquake relief in South America and getting telegrams from up and down the country telling him, if you can afford to do this for them, you can afford to lower our taxes. In other words even if we have principled leaders anxious to show that we care, in a democracy, it is the whole nation’s conscience which will influence how far the Government can go.

When the donor’s freedom to give aid is strictly limited, apart from humanitarian aid for extreme disasters, conditional aid is a typical option. The socio-political consequences of the conditions can sometimes be extreme and call for radical change – even at a constitutional level. One complication here is that often there is little understanding of local conditions on the part of the donor nation. It is all very well to insist on accountability, strict adherence to human rights obligations and that there be a requirement that no corruption be part of the aid process, yet the recipient may not have the means to comply. The requirements of best practice on the part of the recipient sometimes assumes an unrealistic expectation of stability of government and security, trained and competent people at every step of the process and the necessary infrastructure to deliver the aid. This is why time after time, aid materials rot in warehouses while the intended recipients miss out. There is also the unedifying sight of some Churches and Faith related Aid organisations who insist on proselytising at the same time as they offer aid. The Haiti earthquake relief was a classic example where some aid and missionary organisations gave minimal practical assistance but appeared to be falling over one another in an effort to gain maximum kudos for their efforts.

When working through NGOs previous track record becomes very important to ensure intended aid is actually developed. One reason why Rotary International has had success with much of its aid is that often the aid is sought and delivered between distant Rotary districts through local clubs who are aware both of actual needs and local conditions. Some organisations are very top heavy in terms of the proportion spent on staff and administration even to the extent that for some virtually none of the intended aid gets through to the recipients.

Another consideration is a clear understanding of how the aid will impact on the recipients. In this respect agricultural aid has a very mixed record. Taking a community where local small scale subsistence farming provides a guaranteed means of survival and converting it to high tech single crop farmland can be and often is a recipe for disaster. The large farms usually require fewer workers per hectare and many of the locals are then without economic means for survival. Single crops put a tremendous strain on poor quality soils and ensuring crop success becomes progressively more problematic. Crop failure in such a community then becomes total disaster, in that the normal pattern of eating different foods from the same plot of land is no longer an option.

Then there is a set of problems related to categorising aid. Where for example aid obligations are measured as a money total percentage of GNP giving to benefit local industry eg weapons export to third world countries could hardly be seen as of clear benefit to the recipient state. Development loans are another minefield. The loan repayments with interest can cripple and even bankrupt the recipients. Even the goal of free trade is a very mixed blessing. In practice removing trade barriers has been an excuse to dumping oversupplied goods on third world countries thereby destroying local economies. When the price for removing the trade barriers is negotiated between partners with vastly unequal economic power, the trade offs quietly organised behind the scenes often are very much to the disadvantage of the weaker partner. For example in the recent trade negotiations between New Zealand and the US, New Zealand was asked to take the subsidies of the supply of a number of its medicines to maximise profits for the US based drug companies. Other problems come in the supply of the aid materials. For example seed companies are often accused of insisting the subsidised seed given for grain production has sterile hybrid seed product thereby ensuring local farmers are locked into the company for future supply.

Offshore manufacture in third world countries is often equated with aid in that it provides employment and industry to help the third world nation’s economy. In reality this too carries a host of dangers and questions about ethical obligations. When the reality is that the owner of the company is thereby taking advantage of cheap labour (sometimes in virtual slave type circumstances using under age workers) and also taking advantage of minimal environmental restrictions the end result is often less than helpful. The manufacturing to the advantage of the overseas owners is often damaging to the local environment and very much to the long term disadvantage of the local workers.

There have been some tentative steps towards making aid flows more transparent.  For example last week , a meeting of aid donors in Paris agreed to sign up to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) andin effect publish how their aid is being dispersed.  Not all nations have agreed to sign and pressure is being brought on to Italy and Japan as two of the most criticised to bring their donation flow into the public eye.  Although the US has not signed, they are working on their own equivalent initiative.  Hopefully as the identification of aid and aid flow becomes more transparent, some of the ethical issues will be addressed.

Aid as strategy for organising future partners into various defence treaties and trade blocs is a further complication. The difficulty here is that it then becomes hard to disentangle intent and motive. A partnership may well suit the donor country but disadvantage the recipient in terms of access to further aid from alternative sources. For example in the Pacific it might seem that Australia and New Zealand offer aid to some of the strategically placed island nations when China is talking of offering aid.  Japan has also been accused of offering aid to small countries in Africa to maximise the supportive votes  in the UN for its “scientific whaling” programme.

This of course is the briefest introduction to this topic. Readers are invited to introduce some of the other ethical issues in examples they have encountered and perhaps suggest ways to raise consciousness about some of the more serious questions.

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  1. abhi says:

    I’m all for charity but i do believe that charity only deals with the symptoms of the disease, not the disease itself. It often seems more empowering to those who give than to those who receive. There has to be a better way of identifying and addressing the causes of poverty and hunger around the world. Sometime charity is a easy way out, people with wealth and power can wash their hands of by giving money and providing resources which actually sustains and normalizes the structural problem, rather then getting rid of it.

    • peddiebill says:

      I agree, although for the one who is starving or ill with some preventable illness it may be cold comfort to learn he or she is to be ignored because this is not dealing with a root cause like corruption or trade imbalance. It could be that it is also something to do with circles of compassion, in that we react most compassionately to those we are closest to.

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