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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

World Hunger: A Moral Response

Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez

Between now and tomorrow morning, 40,000 children will starve to death. The day after tomorrow, 40,000 more children will die, and so on throughout 1992. In a "world of plenty," the number of human beings dying or suffering from hunger, malnutrition, and hunger-related diseases is staggering. According to the World Bank, over 1 billion people—at least one quarter of the world's population—live in poverty. Over half of these people live in South Asia; most of the remainder in sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia.

The contrast between these peoples and the populations of rich nations is a stark one. In the poor nations of South Asia, the mortality rate among children under the age of 5 is more than 170 deaths per thousand, while in Sweden it is fewer than 10. In sub-Saharan Africa, life expectancy is 50 years, while in Japan it is 80.

These contrasts raise the question of whether people living in rich nations have a moral obligation to aid those in poor nations. Currently, less than 1/2 of 1% of the total world gross national product is devoted to aiding poverty-stricken nations. In 1988, the amount of aid from the U S. amounted to only 0.21% of its GNP. In 1990, the World Bank urged the international community to increase aid to poor countries to 0.7% of their GNP. If this goal is reached, poverty could be reduced by as much as 40% by the end of this decade. What is the extent of our duty to poor nations?

We Have No Obligation to Aid Poor Nations
Some ethicists argue that rich nations have no obligation to aid poor nations. Our moral duty, they claim, is always to act in ways that will maximize human happiness and minimize human suffering. In the long run, aiding poor nations will produce far more suffering than it will alleviate. Nations with the highest incidence of poverty also have the highest birthrates. One report estimates that more than 90% of the world's total population growth between now and the year 2025 will occur in developing countries. Providing aid to people in such countries will only allow more of them to survive and reproduce, placing ever greater demands on the world's limited food supply. And as the populations of these countries swell, more people will be forced onto marginal and environmentally fragile lands, leading to widespread land degradation, further reducing the land available for food production. The increase in demands on the limited food supply combined with a decrease in the production of food will threaten the survival of future generations of all peoples, rich and poor.

Others claim that, even in the short-run, little benefit is derived from aiding poor nations. Aid sent to developing countries rarely reaches the people it was intended to benefit. Instead, it is used by oppressive governments to subsidize their military or spent on projects that benefit local elites, or ends up on the black market. Between 1978 and 1984, more than 80% of 596 million of food aid sent to Somalia went to the military and other public institutions. In El Salvador, 80% of U.S. aid in dry milk ended up on the black market. Furthermore, giving aid to poor countries undermines any incentive on the part of these countries to become self-sufficient through programs that would benefit the poor, such as those that would increase food production or control population growth. Food aid, for example, depresses local food prices, discouraging local food production and agricultural development. Poor dairy farmers in El Salvador have found themselves competing against free milk from the U.S. As a result of aid, many countries, such as Haiti, Sudan, and Zaire, have become aid dependent.

Some ethicists maintain that the principle of justice also dictates against aiding poor nations. Justice requires that benefits and burdens be distributed fairly among peoples. Nations that have planned for the needs of their citizens by regulating food production to ensure an adequate food supply for the present, as well as a surplus for emergencies, and nations that have implemented programs to limit population growth, should enjoy the benefits of their foresight. Many poor nations have irresponsibly failed to adopt policies that would stimulate food production and development. Instead, resources are spent on lavish projects or military regimes. Consider the $200 million air-conditioned cathedral recently constructed in the impoverished country of Cote D'Ivoire. Or consider that, in 1986, developing countries spent six times what they received in aid on their armed forces. Such nations that have failed to act responsibly should bear the consequences. It is unjust to ask nations that have acted responsibly to now assume the burdens of those nations that have not.

Finally, it is argued, all persons have a basic right to freedom, which includes the right to use the resources they have legitimately acquired as they freely choose. To oblige people in wealthy nations to give aid to poor nations violates this right. Aiding poor nations may be praiseworthy, but not obligatory.

We Have an Obligation to Aid Poor Nations
Many maintain that the citizens of rich nations have a moral obligation to aid poor nations. First, some have argued, all persons have a moral obligation to prevent harm when doing so would not cause comparable harm to themselves. It is clear that suffering and death from starvation are harms. It is also clear that minor financial sacrifices on the part of people of rich nations can prevent massive amounts of suffering and death from starvation. Thus, they conclude, people in rich nations have a moral obligation to aid poor nations. Every week more than a quarter of a million children die from malnutrition and illness. Many of these deaths are preventable. For example, the diarrhea disease and respiratory infections that claim the lives of 16,000 children every day could be prevented by 10 cent packets of oral rehydration salts or by antibiotics usually costing under a dollar. The aid needed to prevent the great majority of child illness and death due to malnutrition in the next decade is equal to the amount of money spent in the U.S. to advertise cigarettes. It is well within the capacity of peoples of rich nations as collectives or as individuals to prevent these avoidable deaths and to reduce this misery without sacrificing anything of comparable significance. Personalizing the argument, Peter Singer, a contemporary philosopher, writes:

Just how much we will think ourselves obliged to give up will depend on what we consider to be of comparable moral significance to the poverty we could prevent: color television, stylish clothes, expensive dinners, a sophisticated stereo system, overseas holidays, a (second ?) car, a larger house, private schools for our children . . . none of these is likely to be of comparable significance to the reduction of absolute poverty.

Giving aid to the poor in other nations may require some inconvenience or some sacrifice of luxury on the part of peoples of rich nations, but to ignore the plight of starving people is as morally reprehensible as failing to save a child drowning in a pool because of the inconvenience of getting one's clothes wet.

In fact, according to Singer, allowing a person to die from hunger when it is easily within one's means to prevent it is no different, morally speaking, from killing another human being. If I purchase a VCR or spend money I don't need, knowing that I could instead have given my money to some relief agency that could have prevented some deaths from starvation, I am morally responsible for those deaths. The objection that I didn't intend for anyone to die is irrelevant. If I speed though an intersection and, as a result, kill a pedestrian, I am morally responsible for that death whether I intended it or not.

In making a case for aid to poor nations, others appeal to the principle of justice. Justice demands that people be compensated for the harms and injustices suffered at the hands of others. Much of the poverty of developing nations, they argue, is the result of unjust and exploitative policies of governments and corporations in wealthy countries. The protectionist trade policies of rich nations, for example, have driven down the price of exports of poor nations. According to one report, the European Economic Community imposes a tariff four times as high against cloth imported from poor nations as from rich ones. Such trade barriers cost developing countries $50 to $100 billion a year in lost sales and depressed markets. Moreover, the massive debt burdens consuming the resources of poor nations is the result of the tight monetary policies adopted by developed nations which drove up interest rates on the loans that had been made to these countries. In 1989, Third World countries owed $1.2 trillion nearly half of their total CNP to banks and governments in industrial countries. According to one report, since 1988, $50 billion a year has been transferred from poor nations to rich nations to service these debts.

Those who claim that wealthy nations have a duty to aid poor nations counter the argument that aiding poor nations will produce more suffering than happiness in the long run. First, they argue, there is no evidence to support the charge that aiding poor nations will lead to rapid population growth in these nations, thus straining the world's resource supply. Research shows that as poverty decreases, fertility rates decline. When people are economically secure, they have less need to have large families to ensure that they will be supported in old age. As infant mortality declines, there is less need to have more children to insure against the likelihood that some will die. With more aid, then, there is a fair chance that population growth will be brought under control.

Moreover, contrary to popular belief, it is rich countries, not poor countries, that pose a threat to the world's resource supply. The average American uses up to thirty times more of the world's resources than does the average Asian or African. If our concern is to ensure that there is an adequate resource base for the world's population, policies aimed at decreasing consumption by rich nations should be adopted.

Those who support aid to poor nations also counter the argument that aid to poor nations rarely accomplishes what it was intended to accomplish. As a result of aid, they point out, many countries have significantly reduced poverty and moved from dependence to self reliance. Aid has allowed Indonesia, for example, to reduce poverty from 58% to 17% in less than a generation. There are, unfortunately, instances in which the poor haven't benefitted from aid, but such cases only move us to find more effective ways to combat poverty in these countries, be it canceling debts, lowering trade restrictions, or improving distribution mechanisms for direct aid. Furthermore, poor nations would benefit from aid if more aid was sent to them in the first place. In 1988, 41% of all aid was directed to high-income and middle-income countries, rather than to low income countries. According to the World Bank, only 8% of U.S. aid in 1986 could be identified as development assistance devoted to low income countries. Obviously poor countries can't benefit from aid if they're not receiving it.

Finally, it is argued, all human beings have dignity deserving of respect and are entitled to what is necessary to live in dignity, including a right to life and a right to the goods necessary to satisfy one's basic needs. This right to satisfy basic needs takes precedence over the rights of others to accumulate wealth and property. When people are without the resources needed to survive, those with surplus resources are obligated to come to their aid.

In the coming decade, the gap between rich nations and poor nations will grow and appeals for assistance will multiply. How peoples of rich nations respond to the plight of those in poor nations will depend, in part, on how they come to view their duty to poor nations--taking into account justice and fairness, the benefits and harms of aid, and moral rights, including the right to accumulate surplus and the right to resources to meet basic human needs.


"I begin with the assumption that suffering from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad.... My next point is this: if it is within our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it."
--Peter Singer


Further reading

Brown, L. R. State of the World 1990: A Worldwatch Institute Report on progress toward a sustainable society. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990.

Hardin, G. Lifeboat ethics: "The case against helping the poor." Psychology Today, September 1974, 8, pp. 38-43; 123-126.

Helmuth, J. W. "World hunger amidst plenty." USA Today, March 1989, 117, pp. 48-50. Singer, P. "Famine, affluence, and morality." Philosophy and Public Affairs, Spring 1972, 1, (3), pp. 229-243.

Worid Bank. World development report 1990: Poverty. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

World Commission on Environment and Development. Our common future. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

This article was originally published in Issues in Ethics - V. 5, N. 1 Spring 1992

Nov 13, 2015
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