Foreign Aid 
Foreign Aid: Option or Obligation?

Kishan Koria explores how using political theory could force a rethinking about foreign aid

George Osborne Budget Stunt - Parliament Square London - IF Campaign. Photo by OxfamMidlands via Flickr

George Osborne Budget Stunt – Parliament Square London – IF Campaign

It has been a busy summer of developments in the protracted debate over Britain’s continued commitment to overseas aid. The Queen’s speech notably omitted any mention of David Cameron’s long standing pledge to make a 0.7% of GDP contribution to international aid a legal requirement, leading to fears from some that the policy was set to be scrapped. The “Enough Food IF” campaign was then launched by a number of high profile charities and NGOs, seeking to put pressure on the coalition government to commit to its promise. Boosted by participation from a multitude of celebrities, the campaign included a large rally at Hyde Park, a somewhat bizarre stunt in which hundreds of supporters dressed as George Osborne in Westminster prior to the budget, and a meeting with the Prime Minister at Downing Street. To the satisfaction of the campaigners, Osborne’s budget outlined a continued increase in spending on overseas aid (from £10.5 billion next year, to £11.1 billion in 2015), bringing the UK’s contribution in line with the 0.7% commitment and making Britain the third largest net donor behind only the United States and Germany. If this wasn’t enough, UKIP’s controversial yet irrepressible Godfrey Bloom (of subsequent “sluts” fame) also hit the headlines proclaiming the idiocy of continued payments of “billions of pounds a month” to “Bongo-Bongo Land”.

Whilst Bloom was understandably rebuked for the manner of his protestations, a look at the comment sections of articles on the websites of Britain’s major newspapers suggests that a quite substantial proportion of the population share elements of his worries. In a time of much publicised economic belt-tightening from the coalition government (or the “age of austerity” as it has come to be known) criticism of Cameron’s long held stance has mounted. The arguments against Britain’s sizeable aid contributions are quite familiar. In addition to worries regarding the prioritisation of domestic need in the current economic climate (some of which refer to the maxim “charity begins at home”), secondary arguments are made regarding the poor distribution of development aid, both with regards which countries receive it, and how exactly it is deployed within said countries.

There is, of course, a case offered in support of the sizeable aid commitments made by the British government. Addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York last year, David Cameron spoke of the pressing need to deliver on the promises of the Millennium Development goals, speaking briefly of the instrumental benefits of aid to domestic issues in Britain, but focusing predominantly on what he dubbed a ‘moral obligation… to tackle poverty’.

To simplify, the debate seems to be between a group on one side who stress the importance of prioritising domestic issues over charity for those abroad, and those on the other who feel an overriding moral obligation necessitates aid regardless of the domestic picture. Both stances hold an element of plausibility but my contention is that without a conceptual understanding of the relationship we believe exists between the domestic and the global in the modern world, and a critical assessment of any potential moral obligations owed to those in need, these debates remains rather inconclusive. Practical modern politics requires a foray into the domain of political theory to provide any real answers.

Thankfully, literature in this field is plentiful. On the topic of moral responsibilities for those who are more affluent to those in dire need, we might refer to Peter Singer’s influential 1972 paper ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’ in which it is argued that the base requirement to prevent moral “bads” (of which suffering is one) necessitates action, so long as nothing of comparable moral importance is sacrificed in this prevention. Simple in its construction but radical in its implications, Singer’s thesis challenges the status quo idea of aid and donations being thought of as charity. Instead of being thanked for their generosity, individuals and states giving contributions to attempts to prevent moral “bads” are instead acknowledged as fulfilling their obligations by diverting funds from less morally worthy activities at home to those of utmost importance abroad. Some have objected that the requirements of Singer’s morality are too demanding, entailing that individuals prioritising the needs of their family, for example, come to be subjected to a moral critique. However, Singer’s retort is that regardless of our intuitive feelings or the prescriptions of conventional morality on such matters (many of which are fuelled by the intrinsic pull of our own self interest) the physical or emotional proximity of an agent to an individual in need is morally arbitrary. Such factors might impact on whether we currently act to help, but this is a different question to whether, strictly speaking, we should.

Political theorists belonging to the “Cosmopolitan” school of thought further Singer’s claim. These theorists advocate a worldview in which the scope of distributive justice is not determined by the membership of nation-states. This contrasts with the work of scholars who uphold the significance of the nation-state to issues of justice in political theory such as David Miller, and the Realist school of thought in international relations. Cosmopolitan arguments come in a variety of forms. Charles Beitz argues for the presence of a social structure in globalised modern society that is not dissimilar to the social structure in domestic national polities, which he feels would allow for the principles of distributive justice to extend to members of other states. Thomas Pogge, additionally, claims that affluent states are partially responsible for the plight of impoverished nations, due to their tacit acceptance of despotic leaders and the international community’s allowance of those leaders to seize resources and laden their country with debt. For Pogge, this responsibility for widespread poverty entails a duty to help eradicate it.

These theorists provide a rich conceptual foundation for building analysis on the topic of foreign aid. In particular, the narrative of certain global justice theorists offer a means of locating the illusive concept of a moral responsibility or obligation, which is often invoked by those championing Britain’s current levels of contribution, coinciding with the Prime Minister’s desire to make the 0.7% commitment a legal requirement. Headlines will continue to be made on the issue of aid, but in order for there to be clarity an important question needs to be answered. Is foreign aid an option or an obligation? Politicians so often bound by the dictates of pragmatism and populism need to engage with the insights of their cousins in the world of political theory if we are to truly arrive at an informed conclusion.

Kishan Koria is a 3rd year PPE undergraduate at Christ Church.