Peter Singer famously argued that just as we have compelling moral reason to save a drowning child, so we have compelling moral reason to aid the world’s needy. In this Lecture, I raise a number of worries about the relevance of Singer’s Pond Example to whether we should be donating money to international aid organizations.
I consider a number of possible disanalogies between saving a drowning child and giving to an international relief organization. These include whether those needing help are members of one’s own community, whether they are near or far, whether one’s aid requires the assistance of many intervening agents, whether one is actually saving lives, whether corruption is a worry, whether those needing assistance are innocent and/or not responsible for their plight, whether the needy are victims of an accident or social injustice, and whether anyone stands to benefit from one’s intervention other than the needy themselves. I show that some of these disanalogies may have important normative significance, making the case for contributing to international aid agencies much less clear than the case for saving the drowning child in Singer’s famous example.
In addressing these topics, I argue that we must be attuned to the many direct and indirect ways in which international aid efforts may inadvertently benefit the perpetrators of grave social injustices, incentivizing such injustices. Similarly, we must be aware of the possibility that our aid efforts may end up rewarding corrupt leaders whose policies have contributed to hybrid natural/man-made disasters, thus encouraging such disastrous policies. Furthermore, I note that aid organizations have every incentive to emphasize the good that they accomplish, and to not look for, ignore, or even cover up any bad effects that may result from their interventions, and that independent agencies assessing aid effectiveness may lack the means of accurately determining all the negative effects to which international aid efforts may give rise. Thus, however compelling it may be, Singer’s Pond Example depicts a simple situation that is a far cry from the complex reality with which international development agencies have to contend. Accordingly, much more needs to be considered before one can pass judgment on the overall merits of funding international aid organizations.