By Peter Singer
Our obligation to the poor is not one of providing assistance to strangers, but of compensation for harms that we have caused, and are still causing, to them. We need to stop the actions that harm them, and compensate them for the harm we have done up to now.
It might be argued that we do not owe the poor compensation, because our affluence actually benefits them. Living luxuriously, it is said, provides employment, and so wealth trickles down to the poor, helping them more effectively than aid does. When the poor receive money, however, they spend it too, and that is more likely to assist others who are poor. The rich in industrialized nations buy virtually nothing that is made by the very poor. During the past twenty years of economic globalization, although expanding trade has helped lift many of the world’s poor out of poverty, it has failed to benefit the poorest 10% of the world’s population. Some of the extremely poor, most of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa, have nothing to sell that rich people want, while others lack the infrastructure to get their goods to market. If they can get their crops to a port, European and US subsidies often mean that they cannot sell them, despite—as for example in the case of West African cotton growers who compete with vastly larger and richer US cotton producers—having a lower production cost than the subsidized producers in the rich nations.
Some of the extremely poor have nothing to sell that rich people want, while others lack the infrastructure to get their goods to market
The remedy to these problems, it might reasonably be suggested, should come from the state. When aid comes through the government, everyone who earns above the tax-free threshold contributes something, with more collected from those with greater ability to pay. But the amount of foreign aid given by the developed countries of the world is, despite some recent increases, extremely small. The rich nations—that is, the donor nations of the OECD—give on average only 0.43% of their gross national income, or 43 cents in every $100 they earn.
Read more on this issue in Peter Singer’s article ‘A global approach to ehtics’
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