I wanted to draw people’s attention to this fascinating philosophical and pragmatic debate over on the website of Global Brief over the provocative question of weather or not rich countries have an obligation to help the 12 million people suffering from the drought and food crisis in the Horn of Africa.  Arguing against the proposition is James Radner, a University of Toronto professor of public policy. Arguing for is friend-of-Dispatch James MacArthur, the former CEO of Millennium Promise who is currently with the UN Foundation.

Both bring an important perspective to this question.  Recommended reading for sure. Here is a taste.

Proposition: Advanced countries have a duty to help feed the Horn of Africa

James Radner (against): A terrible human catastrophe is unfolding day by day in the Horn of Africa. Innocent people are dying, or suffering permanent impairment, for want of food. Individually, as families, and collectively, as nations, we in the industrialized world have resources that could help, and I urge everyone to give generously to avert suffering and death. If there is one thing that people will take away from this debate, may it be a refreshed commitment to stretch ourselves to relieve the Horn.

Why then, beyond perversity and self-subversion, am I saying ‘No’ to the proposition before us? It is because I think that ‘duty’ is the wrong way to look at this, and the wrong basis upon which to decide what to do. Webster’s defines ‘duty’ as “a moral or legal obligation” – something binding. I do not see such an obligation here, and I would not want to try to convince a friend who prefers to spend the resources on, say, a humanitarian cause closer to home – or, more provocatively, for some other type of purpose altogether, like recreation – that she is guilty of shirking.

What – if not a duty – do we have in the face of the famine in the Horn? We have, I think, a choice: we are not bound to offer any particular level of support, and we are entitled, as we choose whether and how to act, to take account of a full range of factors. When we choose as individuals, these factors will include our own life circumstances and the needs of our families. When we choose as nations, they will include considerations of national interest and Realpolitik. But if we cannot – as we make our individual and collective choices – find within ourselves an abiding and genuinely motivating compassion for the afflicted, then I think that we have lost a vital part of our own humanity.

John W. McArthur (for): You and I agree that the hunger, suffering, and starvation affecting more than 13 million people in the Horn of Africa merits urgent action and financing. Everything else is secondary to this first-order agreement.

In that context, you make an interesting case regarding why it is the right thing to do, rejecting notions of duty and obligation, and arguing instead for notions of choice – whether guided by household budget constraints or national interests. I have two main reactions to this argument. The first is entirely pragmatic. I am generally agnostic as to the variety of motivations that different people draw upon when deciding to help solve a problem. For example, many people are inspired by religious beliefs. Many follow secular theories of justice. Some people are driven by security concerns. Still others are motivated by economic interests – short- or long-term. One could easily and legitimately cite any of these schools of thought in order to motivate humanitarian action in the Horn.

If one is focussed primarily on solving the problem on the ground, then, at a practical level, it matters little why one might, say, support the World Food Program to provide emergency food relief and, in turn, invest in local systems to support food security. What matters is that the relief is delivered, and that the local investments are made. The world’s most powerful coalitions for good have been formed when a variety of groups and interests have come together to solve a problem. The past decade’s campaigns to scale up AIDS treatment and malaria control, for example, drew upon leaders from academia, religion, industry, politics and non-profit organizations around the world – each of whom brought his or her distinct blend of motivations. But all of these leaders were united by an interest in solving the problem at hand.

The second reaction is more philosophical, and focusses on the questions of duty and obligation. I probably take a harder line than you on this, since I believe that rich countries and their citizens do have an obligation to support humanitarian emergencies and development investments in low-income countries – primarily because it costs so little for us to do so. In December of last year, the World Food Program – which is financed entirely through voluntary contributions – declared the need for an extra US $92 million for the first four months of 2012. Spread across the one billion people living in the rich world, this works out to nine cents per person. If a country like Canada were to pick up the tab on its own, it would cost less than US $3 per Canadian. Indeed, the entire consolidated UN humanitarian appeal for 2012 is US $7.7 billion to support 51 million beneficiaries across 16 countries, at an average of US $151 worth of goods and services per beneficiary for the year. This works out to US $7.70 per person in the rich world, where average incomes now top US $40,000 per annum. To be sure, this is hardly the stuff of existential trade-offs.

If we do not think that human lives are worth $7.70 of our resources, then we would not just be failing to meet our obligations to humanity; we would be failing to meet our obligations to promote a secure and stable world – and thereby to protect our own countries, our communities, our families and ourselves. Yes, we can always choose not to meet such obligations and reject any sense of duty. But to do so would be very unwise.

Go to Global Brief to read the rest,  You won’t be disappointed.

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