poverty/philanthropy

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Submitted: June 16, 2019

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Submitted: June 16, 2019

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Is it true that if I have a duty to rescue a drowning child in a shallow pond, I also have a duty to save the life of a child in a distant land by sending money to charity?

The paper by Peter Singer argues that we all have a moral duty to contribute to charity. The context of his essay relates to the famine in East Bengal during the 1970’s. The lives of 9 million people were threatened by the ever present spectres of constant poverty, cyclones and civil war. Singer suggests that moral duty calls for us to deliver up to 50% of income to protect those endangered lives.  In short, based on the title of this paper philanthropic duty (morality) is not governed by distance but by need.

Having read both Singers paper and its criticism by Andrew Kuper I am left with the view that both are incomplete and short on empathy. It is difficult for the layman to understand why two apparently intelligent academics make no attempt to place themselves in the “skin” of recipients. Or discuss in any way the environment and constituency of those receiving the West’s largesse. Kuper makes the point that charity at a certain level becomes “financial colonialism”. I would argue that the way in which the two papers approach the subject is “intellectual colonialism”. Poverty, its effects and consequences are being discussed without reference to or understanding of those who are being offered assistance. For charity to work it must be a two way street. At its simplest; in my view the philosophical assertions being made by Western philanthropists must be understood by the people receiving aid.

The problem I have with academic research is that the experts are perhaps given too much credence. In this case they have a philosophical debate without reference to the culture and circumstances of the poor they are trying to help. Not the best place to start. Singer’s paper is perhaps the easiest to talk about since his argument is a narrow one. He addresses only one form of poverty, hunger. Although by implication his view of charity extends to all the other aspects of poverty. I believe there is a great deal of merit in his assertion that charity is necessary and appropriate; a more complicated question would be what level of contribution is proper. My credo is simple; duty is measured by right and that the stronger owes more and the weaker less. But unlike philosophers and academics I live in the real world and like everyone else I have to take my own decisions based on prevailing information. Those engaged in the governance and control of world aid on the other hand are influenced by many considerations. Having said that; the individual, charity directors and governments must be cognisant of long and short term necessities; if we are to mitigate poverty there is a requirement for both direct action and systemic change. In the case of the famine in East Bengal direct action is relatively easy; raise enough money for food aid and at least lives will be saved. I would say that in this day and age environmental disasters, flood, famine, earthquake and tsunamis are quickly reacted to by donor countries and individuals; charity works. But here is the rub, raise enough money to save lives, then what? The poor are still poor and little changes.

It strikes me that if we were to accept Peter Singer’s philosophy on a global basis; a great deal of discord would ensue and we may be faced with many unforeseen consequences. To alleviate poverty must be the primary aim of any civilisation; however to do so by charity or largesse alone may be asking for trouble. As a starting point, if we are to tackle poverty there’s a need to prioritise and the mere fact that you favour one country over another, causes resentment. Even more controversial; if you are serious about eradicating world poverty is the need to reduce or control the global population. Where would you start, the major religions would be grossly offended and individuals would interpret any such action as interference. Current scientific knowledge is not even certain what part suffering plays in evolution and social cohesion! An odd concept; but it occurs to me that as long as you preserve life some measure of suffering may be beneficial. Take a mother giving birth; the pain she endures contributes to her love of the child. In a strange way her painful experience is nature’s way of helping her bond with the infant. Take away all pain from childbirth and in the long term you may alter the nature of motherhood. During the last war, London endured the “blitz”; the countries collective experience altered our view of the world and enhanced social cohesion. In recent times 9/11 had a similar effect on the USA and the recent massacre in New Zealand underlined the point. I am not suggesting we should in any way curtail our fight to eradicate poverty; but if we impose “Western” solutions on countries we provide with aid its incumbent upon us to take account of our charity on their culture. In particular, it is difficult if not impossible to distribute aid charity fairly. At an individual level people are apt to feel they are receiving less than their neighbour and perhaps less than they deserve. Such feelings lead to resentment and animosity towards donor countries and discord within the receiving community. Refugee camps are an example of rich countries and individuals contributing to the “least worst” option. On The credit side refugee havens save lives provide shelter, security and minimal healthcare; on the down side they undermine independence and the sense of community which existed before people were placed in the camps. In addition children who remain in camps for the early part of their lives are cut off forever from their traditional way of life. It has also been shown that refugee camps can lead to a culture of dependence by inmates who are reluctant to return to their homes even when it is safe to do so. So, the example of refugee camps and how they relate to national culture highlights an important point which I shall speak a little more of later; suffice to say poverty is not just a lack of physical facilities, healthcare, education, security and material possessions it is above all a state or attitude of mind.

Kuper’s, view of the world looks to a more systemic solution; whilst he does not totally reject Singer’s “charity” scenario he argues in my view for a more pragmatic methodology ; a “belt and braces” approach. All right thinking people understand the iniquity and suffering generated by poverty; most folk would like to see it eliminate. However, apart from climate change, world poverty is probably the most significant the most complex and perhaps the most difficult subject facing mankind. So in my view the most profound comment made by Kuper when speaking of solutions was that “we should proceed carefully”. Any solution proposed by western philanthropy must first be accepted by recipient governments. Likewise, any political, economic or structural change must also be accepted by the people receiving help. We live in the real world and if we are to make any difference to the worlds poor dispensing with political dogma may be a good place to start. Human nature suggests that if the political right suggest a way forward then the political left will take issue with whatever is proposed. Similarly, the political right will dispute any initiative the political left comes up with. In the meantime the poor continue to suffer. We need structural change but how to achieve it remains elusive. We require a pragmatic approach from all sides, the key of course is education and enlightenment but unfortunately, in my view it’s more likely to come through evolution than revolution. We have enough wars without encouraging more discord, even if the conflict we promote is confined only to diplomacy.

I was interested in Kwame Nkrumah’s cynical paraphrasing of Marxist philosophy when he suggested capitalists only made concessions to the poor to stave of possible revolution. I think he was playing to the “gallery”. But his removal from government in 1966 underlines the point made earlier that a politician who rises to power on a left wing ticket often prompts retaliation from the next administration. When Nkrumah was deposed the incoming “National Liberation Council” privatised many of Ghana’s state corporations continuing the cycle of left right political extremism. In the meantime the poor are just as poor. My view is that if we are to make a significant difference we need to change the minds of those governments who hold sway over the poorest countries nations and territories; a vast undertaking. In particular we need to channel our help to comprise only the following, health care (including food aid) then education. If these two elements can be managed everything else will follow. Among the difficulties facing those providing aid is that too much interference by outside agencies often has a detrimental effect on local culture social cohesion and traditional hierarchy. When providing aid it’s as well to remember that our goal should be to change minds as well as save lives. We should avoid the danger of creating dependent populations. The poor have a right to control their own lives, care for their families and to take their own decisions. No one is certain to what extent modern technology has altered the evolutionary process. Whilst it may have improved communications among the poor it has probably increased expectations, particularly among the young. There has never been a more urgent need to help the poor but like Kuper suggests; we must proceed carefully. Nonetheless I shall continue contributing to charitable causes!

 


© Copyright 2020 Peter Piper. All rights reserved.

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