Moral justifications for foreign aid


in Economics, Oxford, Politics

The secular moral justifications for giving aid seems to be divided between two strains: one focusing on payments being made in compensation for past or present harmful activity on the part of the giver (somewhat akin to domestic tort law) and one focusing on redistribution for reasons unrelated to any harm done by the giver to the receiver.

Note that this listing is meant to cover moral justifications only: self-interested rational calculations, like the prospect of creating new markets, are not being considered. The listing is meant to include justifications both for development aid used to build economic and social capacity over time and humanitarian aid used to help address immediate crises. I am not considering religious forms of morality.


  1. Compensation for past colonialism (including past support for repugnant but allied regimes during the Cold War and similar periods)
  2. Partial or complete redress for ongoing harmful activities (economic policies harmful to poor countries, exploitative international labour practices, arms sales, providing markets for illegal drugs and other problematic commodities, CO2 emissions, etc)


  1. Providing funds and resources required to attain a basic standard of living, predicated on a notion of essential human rights
  2. Paying to reduce total human suffering, especially among the innocent
  3. Transferring wealth from those who already have a large amount, and thus derive less utility from each additional dollar, to those who have a small amount and thus gain more utility at the margin
  4. Giving aid based on a Rawlsian conception of hypothetical contract based on a veil of ignorance
  5. Compensating for the fact that some are poor and some are rich for arbitrary reasons, such as where they were born (See prior discussion about the morality of inequality)
  6. Giving aid based on the idea that the capacity to give charity and the existence of a world where it is required makes doing so obligatory for the giver

I am writing a paper for my developing world seminar on: “What is the moral case for wealthy countries to give aid to poorer countries? What kind of aid (if any) is justified?” and trying to come up with a comprehensive list of general reasons. Can anyone add to the list above?

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Rob December 21, 2006 at 11:39 am

All of these are perfectly general reasons. I’d imagine there are particularist moral reasons for aid as well: to express friendship between two countries, for example.

Milan December 21, 2006 at 1:23 pm

I thought of a couple more:

7. A government might give foreign aid as a reflection of the will of its citizenry, however motivated.

8. Aid may be given to encourage good behaviour and discourage bad behaviour, on the part of the recipient government.

. August 24, 2010 at 3:16 pm

August 17, 2010

Singer believes that the needs of the poor are of much greater importance than any inconvenience it would cause us to provide the help. He believes not only that it’s our moral obligation to provide the help, but also that it’s immoral not to.

Do we care more about our new suit than the life of another human being? Should the money we would normally spend on luxuries like a meal in an expensive restaurant go instead to feed the poor?

According to the Jewish principle of tzedakah, people should willingly give at least 10% of their income to charity. For them it is a matter of religious duty.

Another school of thought is that charity shouldn’t be an obligation or a duty, but something done out of a true sense of compassion. When a mother gives up the last bit of food in the house to feed her children, she is not doing it out of duty or obligation, but because she sees their welfare and her own welfare as part of a whole. In the same way we should see “the poor” as part of us – not something separate from us. Living among people in need and not helping, diminishes all of us as human beings.

. September 17, 2011 at 1:57 pm

The wealth that came from sugar was extraordinary. In late 17th-century Barbados, the income from a 200-acre (81-hectare) cane plantation and the processing factory that went with it was enough to support the lifestyle of a duke in England. A hundred years later, the trade flowing from Jamaica alone—sugar, slaves and rum, which was made from molasses—was worth more than all the traffic with North America. No wonder the French chose their sugar islands over Canada and Britain’s attempt to hold onto its American colonies was so half-hearted. But while the “plantocracy” accumulated massive fortunes (which were usually turned into noble estates at home at the first opportunity), there was a terrible downside to the whole enterprise.

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