To challenge his students to contemplate the ethics of our obligation to save a stranger, Peter Singer describes the situation in which a small child is in danger of drowning in a pond. The students unanimously agree that they have a responsibility to rescue the child despite the inconvenience of getting wet and dirty. Singer points out that “we are all in that situation of the person passing the shallow pond” and can save many lives across the world by turning to effective altruism (Singer 2012). The analogy of saving the drowning child has a few shortcomings. First, it presents the passerby as a hero saving a helpless child and disregards why the child is in the pond in the first place. Second, it suggests that the more money you have, the more good you can do, and turns a blind eye to how the money was obtained. I argue that effective altruism obscures the underlying structural causes of global inequality and creates a moral hierarchy between benevolent givers and grateful beneficiaries. Due to the structural nature of underlying problems, non-governmental organizations are second best actors in comparison to democracy. To address structural concerns, we must focus on distributive justice and reform global and domestic economic, political, and legal structures to address the root causes of poverty.
The current global distribution of wealth can be traced back to colonialism. The Global North did not acquire wealth because they were more intelligent, deserving, or hardworking but because they plundered the natural resources of other countries. The theft of minerals and fossil fuels drove industrialization and created the economic structures to which we are beneficiaries. The wealth we enjoy is built on the sacrifices forced upon others and we cannot enjoy the economic entitlements without also inheriting the culpability of these crimes. The historical context of poverty reframes philanthropy from an act of beneficence to a duty of justice. Philanthropy and the development project has long been associated with the image of a benevolent Western expert working out of an enlightened moral vision to bring scientific and technical assistance to the backwards Global South. Quite the opposite, philanthropy is a necessary compensation by rich countries to pay for the historical processes that enriched them. According to Paul Farmer, “there is an enormous difference between seeing people as the victims of innate shortcomings and seeing them as victims of structural violence.” In seeing people as victims of shortcomings, we disregard the historical context of their condition and risk treating those suffering as subordinate, passive recipients of aid rather than those who have been wronged. Justice requires wealth to be returned to those who are its rightful owners, and in reality, we are just returning the wealth to those who should have had it in the first place. Donating is therefore not altruistic act going beyond the call of duty, but rather our responsibility.
Since there are structural causes for the destitute conditions, it is better to correct the cause of poverty and structural injustices than to offset their effects through band-aid interventions. The effective altruist’s efforts to reduce suffering, increase happiness, and help people live longer has limited feasibility. According to Reich, “relatively few non-profit institutions serve the poor as their primary clientele,” with the majority of giving going to religious organizations (Reich 2010). Relatively few organizations are geared towards redistributive efforts. For those organizations that do serve the poor as their primary clientele, projects focus on ameliorating suffering. While donating to alleviate hunger or mosquito nets for malaria indisputably saves lives, these are only remedial solutions. It is crucial that NGOs and governments alike place an emphasis on addressing the underlying issues of climate change causing agriculture yields to plummet, lack of clean water sources, and insufficient healthcare infrastructure so that in the future remedial efforts will no longer be necessary.
To achieve these large-scale changes, the motley assortment of NGOs are second best actors in comparison to democratic institutions. Charities operate “within an understanding of the world as it currently is and does not reach into realms of radical or systemic change. In other words, ‘charity’ is too small a frame; it fundamentally restricts the scale of action offered or demanded,” and we must rely upon democratic institutions to bring about wide-scale structural change (Kirk 2012). Democratic institutions may be better able to address the needs of a community as most NGOs are Western-based and established by wealthy individuals, and consequently have a limited understanding of the complex social, political, religious, economic and cultural dynamics associated with their region of interest. Furthermore, lacking “ballot box legitimacy” and the accountability of representativeness, NGOs technically only speak for themselves and largely resemble a “hereditary monarch” minus the political controls (Riech 2016). Consequently, the authority of NGOs relies almost entirely upon their assumed expertise and effectiveness. To end the vicious cycle of poverty and its associated hardships, therefore, it is more prudent to direct limited funding and resources to strengthen our own and foreign governments so that they can provide for their people.
A tension arises, however, due to the urgency of the concerns of people suffering and dying right now who might be saved by the donations from across the world. Even the band-aids, after all, provide a huge amount of good. Structural changes, on the other hand, require time, huge amounts of money, and strong leadership to be successful. In the current state of affairs, NGOs may be the best actors to fulfill the needs of the impoverished. Paul Farmer warns of the dangers of letting NGOs step in as there is “a trap: the withdrawal of states from the basic business of providing housing, education, and medical services usually means further erosion of the social and economic rights of the poor.” In relieving states of their duties, NGOs may be fulfilling the immediate needs of people but succumb to this pitfall. Eliminating NGOs would be abhorrent as those who are currently being helped by these efforts would be completely abandoned and thus doubly wronged by historical structural violence and the rescinding of aid. Just as abolishing the sweatshop would worsen the conditions of people as it would throw workers onto the streets and rid them of their income, getting rid of NGOs would harm people’s overall interests. With time, the work conditions and safety of the sweatshop can be improved to a state where they meet social standards. Likewise, with time the infrastructure and economic stability of a nation can be strengthened to the point when sweatshops and NGOs are both no longer necessary for subsistence. To avoid the trap of further eroding the state, we should primarily support organizations such as Oxfam and the World Health Organization that actively engage with governments to empower local people and foster resilience.
Strengthening the governments of foreign nations represents only part of the path to zero-poverty, zero-hunger, and good health and well-being for all. According to former President Theodore Roosevelt, “no amount of charities in spending such fortunes can compensate in any way for the misconduct in acquiring them” (Reich 2016: 4). International processes such as environmental regulation, trade and finance, and debt are heavily skewed towards the West and provide excessive clout to a few affluent nations. For instance, first world nations continue to disproportionately use finite fossil fuels resulting in the exceeding of planetary boundaries and in doing so continue to rob other nations of the same opportunity to develop. Addressing the uneven playing field by focusing private resources towards influencing government policies is crucial to ending the propagation of these harmful power dynamics. Furthermore, since “the rise of nonprofit organizations coincides with the decline of civic engagement and association life,” by relocating our attention to democratic process we will not only be able to initiate transformative change but also increase the pluralistic nature of policy making (Reich 188). Increased support behind governments will foster “democratic experimentalism” and empower policymakers to consider more innovative social policies with longer time horizons and produce public goods that have been historically under-produced (Reich 18). Currently, for every $100 earned by the United States, only 22 cents are given for foreign development. Therefore, by redirecting the money spent on NGOs and given away as tax subsidies towards the government, it will be possible to greatly increase the amount of money allocated for development efforts and bring about lasting change.
Through democratic means, our goal should be to create a world in which both desperate poverty and philanthropies do not exist. Reich exclaims that the “growth in inequality might be a foe to civic comity, but it is a friend to private philanthropy” (Reich 2016: 8). While philanthropies are currently a key partner in the effort to achieve sustainable goals, we should strive for a world in which there is no need for humanitarianism. Through fair-trade and environmentally conscious policies, there will come a time when Americans at the bottom 5% are not still richer than two-thirds of the people in the world and half of the world’s wealth is in the hands of a 1% of the population. Effective altruism alone cannot bring about this major redistribution of wealth. To end poverty, we must first focus on reparative measures to offset the costs of past wrongs and then transform the social mores and moral norms that propagate unfair policy and economic negotiations. Through these means, a future in which all lives are truly equal and worth saving can be realized.
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