Good Intentions

Posted in Uncategorized by chamblee54 on December 24, 2009

PG was editing pictures, and listening to a discussion on “Bloggingheads” about aid to poor people abroad. Two academics with books to promote did the talking.

Peter Singer opened the show with a call for people to donate more to help the poor. He tells the tale of seeing a child drowning in a pond. Do you jump in and save the child, even if it means ruining your expensive new shoes?

William Easterly counters with a call for more accountability and effectiveness. He praises the child in the pond story, but says that it really doesn’t relate to the situation in the real world. In the pond story, it is obvious what needs to be done, and you can see that you are doing it yourself.

PG had another thought about the pond story. Lets say you save the child from drowning. Do you give the child back to the parents? These parents, or whoever was watching the child, allowed the child to get in this pond and almost drown. Do you want to give them another chance, or is there anything you can do about it?

Mr. Singer and Mr. Easterly go back and forth on the giving vs accountability issue, and agree a surprising amount of the time. This is not a debate for fans of intense verbal conflict, but rather a discussion about how tricky it can be to help poor people abroad.

Two issues from Mr. Easterly illustrate how tricky good deeds are. (He has a blog called “Good intentions are not enough“) There are food donation programs from the USA. By law, the corn must be purchased from Nebraska farmers, and shipped in an American ship. It can take up to six months to reach the hungry, by which time it is often too late.

The other issue is the attitude of those in the west that “we know what is best for you”. Many aid programs may look good in a Washington office, but don’t work in Africa.

Mr. Easterly calls for donors to aid programs to be more skeptical, and demand proof that the money is going to help the poor. PG sees a bit of a problem here. The donor here has to take the word of the organization about the utilization of the money. These organizations can lie, even if the donors knew what questions to ask. An audit of the relief agency is one possible answer, but an audit costs money that could be used in Africa to feed to hungry.

The issue of fighting world hunger is complicated. Often, local warlords will demand payment before the food shipments can be released to the people. Starving out the population is a tactic in the wars that seem to be endemic in Africa. While the idea of helping people by a donation is appealing, the reality is often ugly.

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