Wednesday, 18 May 2005

Altruism: It's about us, not them

Since we've had a few chats here recently about altruism, tsunamis and being uncharitable, it seems appropriate to examine what's been happening with all that tsunami aid that Western countries gave on behalf of their taxpayers.

Turns out that it hasn't all gone where it was supposed to. In fact, much of it hasn't gone anywhere at all, and much that has is still trying to penetrate red tape. Mark Steyn examines what and where here. [Cached copy here.]The problem, notes Steyn, is that Westerners are "eager to help but too naive to understand that, no matter the scale of devastation visited upon a hapless developing nation, its obstructionist bureaucracy will emerge from the rubble unscathed."

The problem is that altruism has encouraged people to think the act of virtue inheres in the giving itself, rather than in the actual result of the giving. "It's the thought that counts," we say smugly. Time to rethink our virtues, I'd suggest.

Take the whole Live Aid palaver for instance. Organised to feed Ethiopia's starving millions after a famine of Biblical proportions decimated the population, the famine was no more Biblical in origin than was Stalin's starving of millions of Ukranian peasants half-a century before -- no surpise, since Colonel Haile Mariam Mengistu was following to the letter Stalin's own programme to exterminate the Kulaks in his own fiefdom. How he must have laughed at Bob Geldof. Daniel Wolf wrote (in a Spectator article originally published in the Spectator and titled in homage to Sir Bob "What Happened to the Fucking Money?"):
In 1984-85, up to a billion dollars’ worth of aid flowed into Ethiopia. Thousands of Western aid workers and journalists flew in with it. The regime ensured that the visitors converted their Western dollars to the local currency at a rate favourable to the government: in 1985 the Dergue tripled its foreign currency reserves. It used this influx of cash to build up its war machine, it commandeered aid vehicles for its own purposes and, by diverting aid supplies, helped to feed its armies.

The United Nations in Addis Ababa, which was co-ordinating the aid operation, denied that the level of diversion was significant. Later on, it became clear that a significant proportion of the relief food in Tigray - the epicentre of the famine - was consigned to the militia. The militias were known locally as "wheat militias".

As Mugged By Reality says, "People were not starving they were being starved." And giving was not saving them from being starved, it was helping to starve them. It was feeding and succoring their oppressors. As Daniel Wolf says, "The story of Band Aid is the story of us, not them"; and so it is with altruism -- with altruism it's the giving itself that matters, not the result of the giving. Sacrifice matters.

Giving the money made people feel better about themselves -- their new-found virtue in being 'good altruists' helped them feel they'd earned the right to be smug. That the giving did less than nothing to help the problem it was supposed to fix seems to have caused barely a ripple since. Don't want to challenge that smugness, do we?


  1. Another point of view is that its better to do something even with minimum impact, than none. Sure there will be those people who will take advantage of our charity, but that will always be like that.

  2. There is nothing inherently wrong with giving for the best intentions.

    As you say, it is important to realize the outcome hardly matches the hope.

    Same problem with Socialism. People may not mind paying taxes for the variety of reasons trotted out by the lefties.

    The reality is the input does not match the output, and it gets harder to take responsibility for your own life when half* of your money is taken to pay for waste and excess.

    Government "charities" are only one solution. It is time people look harder at the outcomes rather than the objectives and admit there is merit in looking at alternatives.

  3. I was quite annoyed when I first read this post- I gave money to the tsunami aid effort and I certainly didn't feel smug about it. Rather I felt sad that it was such a token pathetic gesture but, as I put looking after me and mine first, it was as much as I really felt I could do at the time.

    But on the other hand just reading zentigers comment I am in agreement with the idea that outcomes matter and if a method of delivering the outcome isn't working then it is time to look at alternatives.

    The problem I have with many right wing libertarians - not necessarily you as I'm not an expert on your views- is that I think they place too much faith in markets to deliver outcomes.

    I myself was sympathetic to this brand of libertarianism in the early 90s but the problem of monopolies got me to thinking that we need governments for somethings, and now I think that government is a good mechanism for the delivery of many things and for the coordination of group efforts- as long as there are appropriate checks and balances.

    I was very influenced by a book called Free Markets and Social Justice by Cass Sunstein who is based at the University of Chicago in coming to this view.

    Incidentally on the political compass test I come out as a left wing libertarian.

  4. I think monopoly exists with or without government intervention, I even believe that it is ever more so with government intervention. If you think about it, government itself is the biggest monopoly.

    For example: ACC, Education, etc.

    Government should still exists, but its influence need to be lessen.

  5. I reckon that Steyn, although not in the eat-many in the food pyramid, really ought to be required reading for anyone who likes to link to Fisk articles.

    By jillickers he can be on the money.


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