Oz Blog News Commentary

Wenar on why you shouldn’t try to help poor people

April 18, 2024 - 15:19 -- Admin

In all the discussion of Leif Wenar’s critique of Effective Altruism , I haven’t seen much mention of the central premise: that development aid is generally counterproductive (unless, perhaps, it’s delivered by wealthy surfers in their spare time). Wenar is quite clear that his argument applies just as much to official development aid and to the long-standing efforts of NGOs as to projects supported by EA. He quotes burned-out aid workers “hoping their projects were doing more good than harm.”

Wenar provides some examples of unintended consequences. For example, bednets provided to fight are sometimes diverted for use as fishing nets. And catching more fish might be bad because it could lead to overfishing (there is no actual evidence of this happening, AFAICT). This seems trivial in comparison to the lives saved by anti-malarial programs

It’s worth pointing out that, on Wenar’s telling, a project that gave poor people proper fishing nets (exactly the kind of thing that might appeal to the coastal villagers befriended by his surfer friend) might be even worse for overfishing than the occasional diversion of bednets.

Wenar applies his critique to international aid programs. But exactly the same kind of arguments could be, and are made, against similar programs at the national level or subnational level. It’s not hard to find burned-out social workers, teachers and for that matter, university professors, who will say, after some particularly dispiriting experience, that their efforts have been worse than useless. And the political right is always eager to point out the unintended consequences of helping people. But we have plenty of evidence, most notably from the last decade of austerity, to show that not helping people is much worse.

Reading Wenar, I was particularly struck by this casual dismissal of the lifesaving effects of programs like the WHO campaign against malaria and the PEPFARs aid initiative, which I initially found quoted with approval by Brian Leiter [1]  

“The claim that there is “not much to show for [aid]” is simply false. Even among the “bottom billion”—the population of countries that have experienced the weakest economic growth over the last few decades—quality of life has increased dramatically. In 1950, life expectancy in sub-Saharan Africa was just 36.7 years. Now it’s 56 years, a gain of almost 50% … In reality, a tiny amount of aid has been spent, and there have been dramatic increases in the welfare of the world’s poorest people.” Now this is pure hooey. Even aid’s biggest boosters would cringe at the implication that aid had caused a 50 percent increase in sub-Saharan life expectancies. And what follows this astonishing statement is a tangle of qualifications and irrelevancies trailing off into the footnotes. To anyone who knows even a little about aid, it’s like MacAskill has tattooed “Not Serious” on his forehead.

I’m not an expert on classical logic [2] but I can count at least three fallacies here: guilt by assocation, an argument from incredulity and a false dichotomy. First, the fact the claim being attacked is supported by someone silly like McAskill says nothing about its truth value. Second, apart from anecdotes about disgruntled aid workers, Wenar offers nothing more in rebuttal than ‘I don’t believe it’.

Third, and most importantly, even if it’s not true that all of the increase in life expectancy is due to aid, that doesn’t prove that there was no contribution. Suppose that all the aid provided since the end of colonial rule (approaching one trillion $US) had only increased African life expectancy by one year, and had achieved nothing else. That’s still at least a billion years of extra life. To achieve that same gain with medical interventions in the rich countries of the world, it would be necessary to spend at least $US50 trillion (at the margin, interventions have typically already been adopted unless they cost more than $50-100 000 per life year gained)

Why, apart from the unpopularity of people like McAskill and SBF, has this shoddy stuff been taken seriously? Attacks on aid programs have a clear appeal on the ideological extremes of right and left, and a more diffuse appeal based on sloppy reasoning. The rightwing view is that aid (whether foreign aid or domestic social welfare programs) promotes dependency among recipients, when what is needed is trade and free markets. The far-left mirror image is that aid is designed to pacify the recipients who would otherwise mobilise as a revolutionary force. The sloppy middle view, typically associated with terms like ‘band-aid’, starts from the correct premise that, in a better world, aid would not be necessary, and goes on to to the non sequitur that giving aid is inconsistent with hopes for that better world.

Finally coming to the capitalized version of Effective Altruism, it’s true that it provides a way for predatory rich people to salve their consciences. But rich predatory people have always sought such salves. It’s better to use the guilt money to give effective help to poor people than to endow elite colleges and opera companies for other rich people (see, most recently, the Sacklers). If you don’t like this conclusion, the right response is to change the system that rewards destructive behavior with massive piles of wealth, while leaving billions of people in poverty. [3]. Until that effort succeeds, aid is the least bad option (and there is no reason not to do both).

[1] I’m aware that Leiter is something of a polarising figure. So bringing him in might be seen as an ad hominem on my part. If so, turnabout is fair play, I say.[2] Modal logic is much more useful in the theoretical work I do.[3] Ingrid’s work on limitarianism is having some impact here.