Apr 9, 2011

Is foreign aid putting the ethical speck before the plank?

Recently submitted as ethics paper:

Is Foreign Aid Putting the Ethical Speck Before the Plank?
January 2010: a devastating earthquake rocked the small island country of Haiti. Hundreds of thousands of people died from the initial earthquake. Dozens of aftershocks killed more people and traumatized survivors, who were then devastated by cholera outbreaks and a completely crippled governmental infrastructure that made getting food to the hungry nigh impossible. January 2011: I was sent to Haiti by my employers—a 501(c)(3) non-profit that works to “transform impoverished communities” in Haiti[1]—and saw devastating poverty and its effects first-hand. March 2011: a family in Minneapolis lost their home and had to move to a homeless shelter…again—they couldn’t make rent. Tyler[2] was acting out during Bible Study at a ministry I volunteer with and the adult leaders realized he was exceptionally crabby due to hunger. His parents could not afford food. Suddenly I came face to face with extreme poverty and hunger 30 minutes from where I live as I realized Tyler is small for his age from lack of food. This child is within the borders of the U.S.A., and even he is hungry. Extreme poverty exists oceans and blocks away, yet it is an economical fact that the same $100 would either buy a couple weeks worth of groceries for Tyler or alleviate one case of kwashiorkor, the most extreme form of malnutrition, for a Haitian child. The same amount of money donated to aid foreign countries does more good as the U.S. dollar goes much further than on its own soil. Yet it would seem ethical to battle poverty in our own backyard before focusing on the needs of people in foreign countries. Is it more ethical to encourage people to keep aid money local, where it could do good for a few people within our own nation, or to have them send the same money to a foreign country where it will do good for many people?
Jesus makes it exquisitely clear that we are to “love [our] neighbor as [ourselves]” (Mark 12:31, NIV) for “[a]s I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples” (John 13:34-35, NIV). How are we to love our neighbor? One way is to bless them with our excess (i.e. not needed for survival) material and monetary wealth. Martin Luther believed that “[t]he Christian who receives grace from God must then pass it on, and…this is given concrete form in deeds and material goods; serving the neighbor thus cannot consist only in praying…but must take shape in earthly service as well” (Blanchard, 301-302). Perhaps this is why “more focus is given specifically to money than to any other subject in Jesus’ teaching. This should not be surprising, for what we do with money and possessions reveals more about our true identity and our commitments than anything else” (Snodgrass, 137). Yet “[t]he age-old question “Who is my neighbor?” has an ever-changing answer as the world gets smaller” (Blanchard, 304). Jesus seems to apply this qualifier to any human who is not me—so who exactly is this neighbor to whom I am supposed to extend love? Is it the drunken wino on the street behind me who lost his house for the second time? Is it the starving child two towns over who does not know if Mom and Dad are going to be drunk again tonight? Is it the woman who lost her entire family to the 2010 Haiti earthquake? Or the Japanese fisherman whose boat was swept out to sea during the latest tsunami? Or the thousands of children who die every day in Africa because food is a thing of dreams?
This is a question I wrestle with daily. On one hand, there are a number of easily definable benefits for deeds, material goods, and money remaining local. Children like Tyler are helped and afforded food necessary to strengthen their bodies, thereby increasing their ability to concentrate in school, successfully graduate high school, and live full, filled lives. The local economy is strengthened not only because money and resources are staying here, but also because those individuals who are helped have more potential to be contributing members of our society, culture, and country. Not to mention supporting local governmental interests and fixing our own backyard before trying to “help” a different country run programs for their poor. One could argue that in developed countries, aid remaining local is not a matter of life and death. True, developed countries see far fewer starvation and malnutrition victims, and have lower disease and crime rates. Yet for many individuals within these countries, starvation is still a fact. Indeed, “one in eight Americans struggle with the reality of hunger and food insecurity” (Real Stories, 2011). There are poor, diseased, and starving in need of aid in our own backyard—developing countries are just better at making their issues more invisible.
On the other hand, however, the U.S. dollar goes much further in a foreign country and the same amount can help more people. A starving person is a starving person, after all. Does it not make more moral sense to send one’s financial aid to a foreign country where ten people could be helped for the cost of one in the U.S.—a disturbing kind of 10 for 1 deal? Much of what could be said about the person helped locally can also be said about the person helped in a foreign country. Through the efforts of the able and caring, a person may be afforded food necessary to strengthen a body weakened by malnutrition and disease, thereby increasing their ability to participate in their local forms of education and live a full, filled life. The economy local to the person helped would also be supported as that person has a greater potential to contribute to the society, culture, and country. Their local government interests could be supported and their own backyards addressed as they see the need to help others who are now in the same position that is a part of their past. So the same kinds of results are attained in either place—the only real difference is which nation benefits from the resulting good. If we, as Christians, are supposed to live as though we are all under the Kingdom of God and not tied by man-made national lines of separation, what are we supposed to do? Am I supposed to help the child I know, Tyler, or help ten children I do not know and will never meet?
According to Aristotelian and character ethics, people flourish when they have reached their full potential and fulfillment of character. If “human good turns out to be activity of soul exhibiting excellence, and if there is more than one excellence” (e.g. lock makers being excellent lock makers, politicians being excellent politicians, etc) and each person exhibits a different excellence (Aristotle, 120), then we are each to find that which is the fulfillment of the excellence of our soul, thereby fulfilling our character. Okay, but how does that relate to the topic matter at hand? Perhaps the morality of aiding a local person vs. aiding someone in a different country has less to do with how far the money can go and more to do with the focus of one’s calling. From experience working in the field of non-profits focused both locally and abroad, it is exquisitely clear to me that people are called to aid others in particular areas. Some are led to support the building of schools rather than feed a starving child (and vice versa). Others are led to focus on the neighbor just down the street and would be mightily uncomfortable aiding a person in different country (and vice versa). Character ethics would seem to argue that one should aid where one is led/called for that is the fulfillment of that particular character trait within that particular person. Therefore, though Craig and Susie both live in the same developed country, it would be more moral for Craig to aid the wino down his street, for that is his calling, while it would be more moral for Susie to pursue her specific calling and aid orphaned children in Sudan.
Perhaps this is a matter of where one’s ethical duty lies—here Kant and deontological ethics may be able to offer some guidance. If, as Americans are taught from birth, one’s duty is to one’s countrymen, then are we not obligated to help our countrymen first? After all, with them we share common goals, a national identity, culture, etc. The United States military bases its recruiting system on playing to young persons’ sense of duty to their country; could we not do the same to justify our economically aiding those closest to us first? Yet the kind of duty Kant defines is one of “whatever is the right thing to do”—that which you would will everyone in the exact same kind of situation would do as well (MacKinnon, 82). Faced with our problem, is it preferable for everyone everywhere at every time to send their aid money to a foreign country, or is it preferable for everyone everywhere to help people within their own borders? The former of these options would strip developed countries of their ability to aid people their citizens drive past every day as all aid money would go to other nations. The latter would mean each nation were so focused on its own belly button that no one else mattered—certainly this is not what Jesus was talking about. Sorry Kant, but you are just confusing the issue. We do not live in an ideal world.
What about utilitarianism? Here we find a very straightforward answer. If, as Bentham and Mill suggested, “the best choice [is] that which promote[s] the interests of the greater number” (MacKinnon, 53) then obviously we are to send aid money wherever it will do the most good for the most number of people. If our $100 will save one person for two weeks in the United States but will also be enough to save 10 children for two weeks in a foreign country, then the latter outweighs the former and is the preferred choice. Even if the $100 is only enough to save one person in a foreign country for the rest of his or her life, this is still preferred to staying local and only helping one person for two weeks. Yet one must also take into consideration the plausibility of the intended impact. If, for example, someone could take $100 and drive Tyler to the grocery store for groceries, that is preferred to sending $100 to aid a foreign country when one knows the government is corrupt and the money may instead end up in the hands of a corrupt politician. Though it could have helped more people than just one Tyler, it can be hard to argue for the morality of donating aid to a foreign country when one knows a corrupt government is pilfering aid money away from its designation population. Indeed, even Peter Singer, a rather hardline ethicist, says “[t]he lack of certainty that by giving money I could save a life does reduce the wrongness of not giving” (Singer, 165).
The Bible is frustratingly unhelpful when applied to this particular dilemma. As mentioned before, Jesus has a keen interest in helping the poor, but he puts few qualifiers on who should be helped first. Even if one wanted to argue that we should take care of our family—obviously!...right?—one could cite Matthew 12:49-50 when he counts as his family those who fulfill the will of God, not those within his biological relation. We could also consider Luke 14:26 where he says “[i]f anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple” (NIV). Now, I do not interpret that to mean that Christians are to literally “hate” their family members, but it does support the case that putting luxurious needs of family members above the basic necessity needs of others is absurd. It also seems to support the idea of a global family. Jesus did not say “those who do God’s will who are also citizens of Rome,” but instead includes anyone who does God’s will. It is the same in Matthew 25:31-46 where we are not given qualifications for the sick, hungry, and otherwise needy we are to tend—simply because the conditions exist means they must be tended. So if someone is in need, Biblically they need tending. Given the fact that God’s family is global and that we are to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19, NIV), this is not surprising but is also not terribly helpful for answering the present question. Indeed, Christian understandings of virtue do not provide entirely clear ideas about how generous individuals are supposed to, to whom, and under what kinds of circumstances (Ferkiss, 13).
Disagreement amongst philosophical leanings does not let one off the hook for helping in the first place. Not doing anything because one is frozen by trying to figure out which is the best option is not an option. Peter Singer says “allowing someone to die is not intrinsically different from killing someone” in his argument that “people in rich countries are allowing those in poor countries to suffer from absolute poverty, with consequent malnutrition, ill health and death” (Singer, 162). The poor are the poor, there is no changing or getting around this fact. We are not afforded the luxury of ignoring their struggles merely because we cannot figure out whom to help. Singer argues it is natural for us to want to help those close to us, but that denying people in another nation help simply because we would rather prefer to help someone like us is akin to being white and denying African American people help based on the amount of melanin in their skin. After all, “[e]very affluent nation has some relatively poor citizens, but absolute poverty is limited largely to the poor nations” (Singer, 171).
Next time a prospective donor asks why they should give to World Wide Village instead of an organization that works locally, I could go down a litany of what philosophers, pastors, and those in need have said. I could cite statistic after statistic to paint a dismal picture of the devastating poverty facing people within our own borders and across the ocean. I could tell stories of people I have interacted with in both places, and relay how my heart was shattered while in Haiti. But what do I actually think? Are we more morally responsible to use our economical aid locally or send it overseas? I side with Singer in believing that if we are going to be moral human beings and have the capacity to share resources that will mean the difference between luxury for me and survival for someone else, then I am morally obligated to do so both as a human being and as a Christian. Yet I think every individual needs to decide for themselves where their aid shall go, as each individual is called to work with a different set of people. Those who can work in a psychiatric hospital without a problem have a calling to work with a different set of people than a kindergarten teacher (if both of them are filling their calling). If “[t]he task of all believers is to exercise their calling” (Van Til, 122), and if my job is to stay out of the way of people reaching the fulfillment of their character and/or calling, and if I acknowledge that poor are everywhere and it is the moral obligation of the able to help the poor, then when someone asks where they should help, it is my moral obligation to tell them “find where your heart/calling is and funnel your aid in that direction…but do something”.
Extreme poverty is a matter of life and death wherever it is found, whether that be on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul, MN or at the cholera house operated by the Real Hope for Haiti Clinic in Cazale, Haiti. Deuteronomy 15:11 says “[t]here will always be poor people in the land” (NIV). People are starving, contracting preventable diseases, and dying everywhere. We are morally obligated to aid the poor everywhere in whatever way and however much we are able, not just in a different country because our dollar will stretch further. Yet it also must be acknowledged that some are called to work locally and some are called to work in foreign lands. Goodness knows there is enough to be done.


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Blanchard, K. (2006). "If you do not do this you are not now a Christian": Martin Luther's Pastoral Teachings on Money. Word & World , 26 (3), 299-309.
Ferkiss, V. C. (1965). Foreign Aid: Moral and Political Aspects. New York, New York: The Council on Religion and International Affairs.
MacKinnon, B. (2009). Ethics: Theory & Contemporary Issues. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Palmer, M. (1991). The Theory of Immanuel Kant. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.
Real Stories. (2011). Retrieved March 23, 2011, from Feeding America: http://feedingamerica.org/faces-of-hunger/real-stories.aspx
Singer, P. (1979). Practical Ethics. New York, New York: Cambridge University Press.
Snodgrass, K. (2010). Jesus and Money: No Place to Hide and No Easy Answers. Word & World , 30 (2), 135-143.
Van Til, K. A. (2007). Less Than Two Dollars Per Day: A Christian View of World Poverty. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Ward, B. (1966). The Decade of Development: A Study in Frustration? In Two Views on Aid to Developing Countries (pp. 7-29). Westminster, SWI: Institute of Economic Affairs.
World Wide Village, Inc. (2011, March 15). World Wide Village, Inc. Retrieved March 21, 2011, from www.worldwidevillage.org

[1] Retrieved from www.worldwidevillage.org 21 Mar 2011.
[2] Name changed.