poverty & the duty of assistance
4th quarter 2006
Ten tough questions about charity
Does aid actually work? We ask an expert
Let’s say you’re persuaded: We in the west do have a moral obligation to help those less fortunate than ourselves. But then you remember something from Kant, that “ought” implies “can”. In other words, you can only be morally obliged to do something if you are actually able to do it. You can’t be obliged, for example, to end world poverty single-handed, or donate three kidneys for transplants. Then you take a look at what you can actually do to help the world’s poor and you throw up your hands in despair. The road to hell is allegedly paved with good intentions, and hasn’t experience taught us that meddling westerners are likely to do more harm than good? So shouldn’t do-gooders heed the advice of the physician Galen who urged “first do no harm”, and steer clear of involvement in aid and development? To help answer these questions, we quizzed development expert Hugo Slim, over the line from Geneva where he is chief scholar at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. Slim is well placed to know the truth about the world of development NGOs (non-governmental organisations), having been reader in International Humanitarianism at Oxford Brookes University, and worked with Save the Children
and the UN, as well as sitting on the Council of Oxfam GB. We asked him ten hard question about charitable giving to NGOs, and he obliged by refusing to give easy answers. 1 Is feeling responsibility for poverty in the developing world just another example of a western-centric view which undermines the sense of autonomy in the people we’re trying to help, reducing them to a problem that we need to come in and sort out? There’s a lot to that criticism which I agree with very strongly, and there are a lot of intelligent people and agencies, such as Oxfam, who will realise that. That’s why many of them are moving to address more difficult issues of economic and political corruption in African and other governments. I think it’s all part of western liberalism actually colonising the moral responsibility of others, by saying that it’s somehow our fault that Rwandans commit genocide, for example. The big, mature NGOs are getting beyond that, particularly if they’re faith-rooted, which means that they are always working through local structures, so they’re forced to be realists quite quickly. Bigger ones such as Oxfam are also more mature about it.