The Samaritan's dilemma - development aid


Both political and moral reasons compel us to channel some of our affluence into underprivileged sectors of the electorate. But fundamental rules of fairness are overturned when material gifts are granted without reciprocity. Outside the immediate circle of family and friends, the recipient is placed in a false position. The end result is the well-known resentment towards the donor – the Samaritans’ dilemma.

A moral impasse

The Good Samaritan in St. Luke’s Gospel has become the epitome of the charitable human who voluntarily shoulders responsibility, inconvenience and expenses in helping an alien in distress.

The choice of the Samaritan is simple. He could pass by, or stay and help. If passing by, his lack of compassion would be manifest and if morally endowed, he would feel guilty. But if one is part of a crowd, the individual responsibility is diluted and it can happen that nobody heeds the call for help, even if the greater part would act differently when singled out. This is the dilemma of democracy. Refraining from taking part, we become a member of the large class of free-riders who deny society its wholehearted support.

Strangely enough, it is less demoralizing to be regularly compelled to sacrifice a large portion of an honest income than it is to command unearned resources – be it public assistance, inherited wealth or a pools win. On a national level, the same can be said of large-scale aid to poor countries. When vulnerable groups are exposed to the international relief system, the end result may be the wholesale destruction of a culture.

The huge refugee camps which absorbed dislocated Somalis from the 1970s onward, severely undermined social values and have certainly contributed to Somalia’s self-destruction. Once a nomadic tribe has become entangled in the deceptively secure and comfortable meshes of camp life, voluntary return to the barren and uncertain livelihood of the semi-desert becomes highly improbable.

In emergencies the impulse to help usually reaches its target despite the rather chaotic circumstances. Long-term help is more problematic. A continuous resource flow tends to increase corruption and creates an unsound dependence on the donors; for the middlemen the aid often turns into just a profitable business.

A glorious mess

It is doubtful if the financial support of developing countries makes sense. To donate from a surplus is all right but most donating countries are deeply indebted despite high taxes. Helping by diving into ever deeper debt sounds irresponsible; we should concurrently reduce our own consumption. Ultimately, the middle class of the rich nations is supporting the corrupt elite in the poor countries. For these people solidarity with their compatriots does not stretch to the payment of taxes even if the length of the limousines holds its own in international competition; capital flight often exceeds the development aid. But the solidarity of the poor emigrants to their kin is impressive. During 2005, approximately 250 billion dollars were transferred to relatives in the developing countries which many times exceeds the official development aid.

The United Nations has settled on a figure of 0.7 % of GNP as a general target for the support to underdeveloped countries. Although only a few small nations attain this level, with oil-rich Norway to the fore, it is rarely questioned in the media. Development aid has become an excellent business for a highly paid and often tax-exempt establishment, which acts in symbiosis with uncritical media and with the usually corrupt politicians in the target countries.

Good governance has been introduced as a condition for outside support, but it is not consistently applied. The developing countries are playing off the donors against each other and have developed considerable expertise in misrepresentation. Since 1978, when Daniel Arap Moi rose to power in Kenya, corruption has been rampant. But the ‘cooperation’ with the providers has continued, accompanied by the empty threats of shutting off the gravy train. (See for example It’s Our Turn to Eat (2009) by Michela Wrong)

Ever more vociferous international conferences and resolutions are turning a blind eye to abuses and inefficiencies. The aims are becoming increasingly unrealistic; nonetheless the money claims grow incessantly. The futility of increased spending should eventually be dawning. Not even the hundreds of billions of Nigerian oil money has produced a basis for sustainable development. Financial aid has rarely created prosperity but the donors obviously want to get rid of their money at any price!

The worst predicament is when the emergency aid prolongs the agony by interfering with a sensible accommodation. The generous stream of food and other necessities does not reach the needy before corrupt authorities, hungry soldiers or roving bandits have taken their ample share. North Korea is the most flagrant example of the distortions of emergency aid. A substantial part of the population is dependent on food aid from the outside while the vile dictator constructs more nuclear weapons.

The busybody politicians are not without support. For instance Jeffrey Sachs, an eminent economist, has in The End of Poverty (2005) stood up for massive economic support to the LDCs. The basic idea is that poor countries must get help to climb to a critical point – the hump – a take-off point for self-supporting economic growth. Sachs accuses the West of mean stinginess and is passionately addressing our better selves. Such misdirected moralizing leads, as pointed out earlier, into a dead end. Sachs has already received an effective rejoinder from William Easterly – The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good (2006). Unperturbed, Sachs is answering back with Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet (2008).

Our Christian responsibility

Many African countries are on the skids and totally dependent on outside support. The grip of incompetent central governments has contributed to the decay, but federalist constitutions along tribal lines have not fared much better. In any case, a durable democratization of the failed or collapsing states is impracticable without help from the outside world. But the present praxis is a glorious mess. On average, thirty different organizations vie for the opportunity to offer support to a less developed country. This cannot go on.

Most of the failing states do not enjoy the advantage of a determined outside intervention. They are abandoned in the midst of anarchy and internal fighting. A dismayed West keeps the system and the people floating by distributing money and food but shies away from assuming real responsibility. When the going gets too rough, the UN personnel are the first to leave, the killed and kidnapped excepted. The passive wait for democracy to emerge by itself is hardly compatible with true humanism or Christian compassion.

The majority of new nations have met with great economic difficulties despite big doses of good advice, subsidized loans and outright financial aid. Corruption, political instability and civil war are not the right preconditions for sound business activities. Under such circumstances no help will be effective. Yet if the investment climate is right no help is needed because capital from abroad will be available for all sensible purposes.

Despite all our ostensible caring, we refuse to assume true responsibility for our fellow human beings. Instead we simply throw money at the problems, and back away from unpleasant duties. By accepting foul play, we degrade the rules and actually disqualify our handicapped playmates.

Missionaries on low budgets but with strong convictions have been the true pioneers of development aid. Technical skills and know-how belong to the next stage in the culture game. Large-scale economic inflows cannot be absorbed until the crucial meta-rules have been more or less established. In due course the domestic creation of spiritual and material capital will encourage enterprise and attract investment; the self -propelling machinery of economic progress will then be in place.

The globalization of trade is the best development aid, despite the loud complaints of the losers when the market demolishes their privileged positions.