Waylaid Dialectic

June 12, 2011

Are Good Deeds Really Rivalrous?

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 1:14 pm

[Update: Read Matt’s comment below. Sloppy blogging on my behalf. I didn’t do a good job of interpreting Matt’s original post. Reading his comment and re-reading his post I think I largely agree with him: while we may have a moral obligation to give aid and undertake actions such as liberalise migration laws, politicians may often focus primarily on the aid side of things because it is an easier political sell than migration, which effectively misleads the public with regards to what they could be doing. Although, that being said, even aid – I suspect – isn’t an easy sell to the UK public at present…]

Over at Aid Thoughts Matt writes (wrt a speech by Andrew Mitchell claiming that aid is a moral duty):

I agree with Peter Singer’s basic argument: that we do have a moral imperative to help the poor out of poverty. Many, including Singer himself, have used this to argue that overseas aid is a moral duty.

Yet this argument is conditional on aid being the most effective means of reducing poverty, or at least the most effective way you can reduce poverty. It’s not clear, when stacked up against trade, immigration, investment, etc, that aid really is a moral duty. It’s a bit like arguing that baking cakes is a moral duty, but choosing to focus just on the icing.

Readers would be reasonable to point out that the average person can’t do much about these other paths out of poverty, at least not in expectation. This is also Singer’s argument – aid is the easiest way for people to ease suffering in the short term. Still, this isn’t true for Andrew Mitchell – he’s in the cabinet of a major government. If he’s going to argue that we have a moral imperative to give aid, he should also spend more time arguing for other policies that might have equal or even greater success in reducing poverty.

I see what Matt’s getting at here but his argument hinges on two key assumptions:

1. That Andrew Mitchell actually has a ‘trade lever’ and a ‘migration lever’ that he can pull to improve global welfare.


2. The good deeds are really rivalrous. That is that doing more on aid by necessity means doing less on migration or trade.

On point 1, I agree that any developing country which successfully inserts itself into the global economy will do far more for the welfare of its people than will ever be achieved by aid. But my question is: is there really much the UK can do to bring this about. I confess I know nothing about UK trade rules (other than that there was a Corn Law once and some guy called Ricardo wrote something about it at some point) but I suspect that barriers at the UK end are doing far less to prevent developing countries from trading their way to wealth than the constraints within developing countries themselves. In New Zealand’s case this is certainly true: we’re almost tariff free. And the only charge that could really be levelled against us is that we are perhaps too zealously promote tariff removal in the Pacific (a blog post for another day) and yet tariff free entry for Pacific exports to NZ (and Australia) has done relatively little to stimulate economic lift-off in these countries.

In the case of migration, the UK dramatically easing migration restrictions on people from developing countries would probably do more to improve the welfare of those people able to migrate (and those people who received their remittances) than a big increase in aid. But would this ever really happen? I certainly support the move, but I think you’ll find the UK public would hate it immensely. The Sun would have a field day and Nick Griffen would end up in parliament. I wish public attitudes to migration weren’t as they are, but for the time being they are. Which really limits what can be done with this lever.

On point 2, the assumption here is that if the UK does more with aid it will by necessity have to do less in other areas that matter. Good deeds if this were the case would be rivalrous. Perhaps, for example, if we gave less aid the public would be more inclined to relax migration rules.  In which case our moral duty might well be to decrease aid and increase migration.

This is, however, only an assumption in Matt’s post. It’s not proven. And, on the other hand, if more of one doesn’t necessarily mean less of the other, then our moral duty should be to promote both as best we can.

Ultimately, whether Matt’s assumption is correct is an empirical question but I’m inclined to believe that there isn’t a finite store of tolerance for all good deeds amongst the voting public of developed countries, and that more of one will lead to less of another. Or, at least, if such a thing does exist, that it wouldn’t only kick in at much higher levels of aid or migration.

If such a restriction did exist we’d expect to see it in the data. Countries that gave more aid would have greater restrictions on migration, or be more protectionist. Yet, at least from my very hurried graphing of CDG Commitment to Development Index data this really doesn’t seem to be the case. Graphs below. Source here [large Excel file] (noting that R2 etc is somewhat meaningless with such a small dataset).

If good deeds really are rivalrous it really doesn’t leap out of the data. Andrew Mitchell, you have a moral duty to give aid and to pursue trade and migration policies that are pro-development.



  1. Terence,

    I don’t see how these two assumptions come out of my post at all, especially the second.

    1. That Andrew Mitchell actually has a ‘trade lever’ and a ‘migration lever’ that he can pull to improve global welfare.

    My point is that policymakers, as opposed to the general public, can have more impact on non-aid policy than we do. They focus on aid because it is the easiest solution politically. DFID’s own description of itself is ‘UK Government Department responsible for promoting development and the reduction of poverty.” That’s markedly different from an aid agency – they have a mandate to reduce poverty, not just give aid.


    2. The good deeds are really rivalrous. That is that doing more on aid by necessity means doing less on migration or trade.

    I never said this at all, nor did I imply it. Actually, my cake analogy suggests the opposite – that aid is a fundamental part of the package. My only point is that while we have a moral obligation to reduce poverty and suffering, surely this should include any all means of doing so, not just aid – and we’re creating a. If aid isn’t a necessary nor sufficient means of reducing poverty, then it is hard to argue that we have a *moral* obligation to provide aid. I was arguing that we need to take a step back and say “We have a moral obligation to reduce poverty and suffering.” In some situations, this might require aid. Yet politicians like Mitchell are hesitant to do this, because it means that they have to tackle the bigger problems.

    Comment by Matt — June 12, 2011 @ 7:16 pm

  2. “– and we’re creating a.” should read “– “and we’re creating an unwarranted expectation of aid effectiveness by making it a moral absolute.”

    Comment by Matt — June 12, 2011 @ 7:20 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: