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March 31, 2005

Morality, Aid and Africa

Posted by Anthony Daniels

The Labour and Conservative parties are seeking to outdo each other in their pledges of how committed they are Africa and how they will outstrip each other in spending on aid. Such commitments have become a badge of virtue. Anthony Daniels questions whether such pledges are indeed a sign of virtue.

Moral reasoning these days has two stages:

i) A person claims to feel compassion for the suffering of a group of people, the larger and further away from himself the better.
ii) He proposes to spend a large sum of other people's money to alleviate their suffering. Whether this money actually will alleviate their suffering, and even whether sum is ever raised, is irrelevant: in this context, it is the thought that counts.

Judged by these criteria, Mr Blair and Mr Brown - or for that matter Mr Howard and Mr Duncan, who have pledged that a Conservative government would at least match Labour's spending on aid - are among the best men who ever lived, for no one has ever proposed that larger sums should be spent on reducing poverty in Africa than they. And what are their sleeves for, after all, if not for wearing their hearts upon?

One is inclined to call their moral attitude Jellybism: their moral passion increases in proportion to the square of the distance from their actual moral responsibilities. But this would be unfair, at least in Mr Blair's case: the charge against him has more often been that he has been rather too attentive to the interests of those around him.

Of course, I have no objection to Messrs Blair and Brown donating their own money, in part or in toto, to Africa if they so wish, though I suspect that they would be wasting it. This is because I don't believe that it is true that the principle obstacle in the way of Africa's development is lack of funds: those countries which have received large sums for their natural resources have fared no better than those which have not. It takes very little acquaintance with Africa to know that most of the obstacles to economic development are internal; and since huge sums can be disbursed only with very slight control as to how they are used, they are likely to end up reinforcing the very obstacles they are ostensibly intended to overcome.

The idea that these men - or any other British politicians - are going to save the world, or any part thereof, would be laughable were it not for the vainglory and hubris of which it is a symptom. Even more do I object to the assumption that a legitimate government such as Mr Blair's is and ought to be an electoral dictatorship, free to expropriate the wealth of its citizenry for whatever purposes it chooses.

It is true, of course, that a government must tax in order to do anything at all. But the taxation ought also bring at least some benefit to the society of those from whom it is raised, or it is merely legalised theft. Not everything that a legitimate government does is legitimate, and this is something that Mr Blair and Mr Brown seem to have some difficulty in understanding. The further away from the concerns of the people who pay, the less legitimate is the expenditure.

I appreciate that the matter is complex and not completely cut and dried. Suppose the majority of the British population couldn't care less about the continuation in existence of the British Museum, or that they would prefer that the money were spent on hip operations abroad for old people: would it be right nonetheless for the government to continue to subsidise the British Museum? I believe that it would, so I cannot claim that I think the government should follow every wish, or whim, of the electorate.

But there are differences between the British Museum and aid for Africa. The first is that the British Museum is British, and a British government's primary responsibility is to Britain. No man is an island, perhaps, but the world is not a British Prime Minister's oyster either. We wouldn't expect a man in charge of a British hospital to conclude that his budget would save more lives if spent on vaccinations in the Central African Republic, and that therefore he should use it in that fashion and close his hospital down. And while the British population might not fully appreciate it, the British Museum does bring them benefits and does offer a palpable return for their money, even if they do not take advantage of it.

Second, we can be reasonably sure that a government subsidy of the British Museum will actually be used for something resembling its intended purpose. No doubt some of the money will be lost en route, as it were, but this is in the nature of administration. We will not end up with just a pile of rubble from which everything has been looted.

But I must confess to a more visceral dislike of the moral fervour of Messrs Blair and Brown when it comes to Africa. I feel it is false, tinny and cheap, simultaneously ersatz and kitsch. It is part of the Dianafication of public life, in which the utterance of banal sentiment is taken as a sign of virtue, for which indeed it is often a substitute. When Mr Blair speaks of his deep feeling for hundreds of millions of people, I have the same sensation I had at school when a teacher accidentally ran his nail down the blackboard.

Let us try to think clearly and be honest with ourselves. We care more for the people in our immediate circle than for those who are very distant and whom we do not know, but whose suffering may be infinitely greater. I love my friends more than I love the people of Burkina Faso, and am in practice more concerned for their welfare than for that of millions of people unknown to me. I wish the people of Burkina Faso no harm, of course; indeed I wish them well but purely in the abstract, because I do not know them and have no emotional contact with them. This is not because I am a wicked, unfeeling person, it is simply because we humans are constituted that way. I don't expect the people of Burkina Faso to care very much about me, either.

Not only are policies that are based upon ersatz emotion unlikely to be sensible in practice, but ersatz emotion itself is a moral failing. Its purpose is to divert us from the true locus of our moral responsibility.

Anthony Daniels is the author of Zanzibar to Timbuktu: Across African by Public Transport, Monrovia Mon Amour: A Visit to Liberia, and Fool or Physician: The Memoirs of a Sceptical Doctor. He retired earlier this year as a doctor.


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Far be it from me to gainsay Dr Daniels' critique of the false piety driving politicians' promised aid to Africa. But sometimes these programmes help. Relief programmes in Darfur and elsewhere save lives for the time being, while longer solutions may or may not be worked out. But as a doctor he would realise that the first step is usually to keep the patient alive.

Then The Economist recommends debt relief for Nigeria, despite their oil and gas revenues. They contend that President Obasanjo has started a lot of anti-corruption battles and a break from grinding poverty would strengthen him politically. Having just got off a plane from Abuja four hours ago, I may be jet-lagged but The Economist makes some sense.

Having spent 20 years in and around international development and relief work, I think that the biggest causes of failure are (a) not tieing aid to achievement benchmarks and (b) failing to overcome the primary incentive of every government spending programme, namely to shovel the money out the door on schedule regardless of whether it is wasted or not. Lots of these programmes work jolly well, but just as many do not and there it is almost always because spending the money rapidly is the first priority of some Western official.

Posted by: s j masty at March 31, 2005 12:50 PM
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