Is giving the greatest moral challenge of our time?

14 April 2011

By Weh Yeoh, co-founder of and advisor with Handicap International

It has been a tumultuous couple of months. We've had massive earthquakes in not one but two countries. We've seen huge amounts of flooding in Brazil and Sri Lanka. In Australia alone, we've had unprecedented amounts of flooding and bushfires.

At a time when many of us are feeling the pressures of the cost of living, it is clear that the need to give to others is greater than ever now.

Unfortunately, according to rhetoric at a national level, the simple of act of giving has never been so complicated. Let's say you're a charitable person. You give regularly to the Salvos at train stations. You may have even read Peter Singer's excellent book 'The Life You Can Save' and taken the pledge on his website to donate a considerable part of your wealth every year to charity. You've identified that, as a result of these events, there are many people who need your help. Where then should your money go?

If you're like Tony Abbott, you believe that your money should stay in Australia. You believe that, as his often repeated tagline goes, "charity begins at home". Allegedly borrowing this idea from One Nation's Queensland State Director, Ian Nelson, Abbott questions the need to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on overseas aid, when the amount proposed by the government for flood victims was much less.

Or perhaps you agree with Abbott's insinuation that donating to flood victims is unnecessary, considering you're going to be slugged with a flood levy to help pay for the damages anyway? In that case, you may prefer to give to the New Zealand Earthquake Appeal, because of our proximity and long tradition of close ties with this country. As an audience member on ABC's Q&A program stated, we have a responsibility to help our "ANZAC cousins" in their time of need, and should be diverting money away from programs such as those set up to build Islamic schools in Indonesia. How could we possibly offer up money for Muslims, an ideology so far removed from that of our own country, when there are others suffering who we fought alongside with almost 100 years ago?

Perhaps, though, you were shocked by the enormity of the earthquake in Japan, and feel that that is where your donation should go. After all, the earthquake was the 7th biggest of all time, and it moved the entire country's coastline by up to 4m. Surely the magnitude of this disaster demands a response.

On a personal level, there are many different ways of looking at the same problem.

On a national level, the Australian government is investing a lot of time and effort into determining where and how we, as a nation, should best be giving. To their credit, they called for submissions from the public to canvas a wide range of opinions on the matter. This is crucial, considering the Australian government has previously been criticised for not having a plan for foreign aid, despite plans to steadily increase it.

Research has consistently shown that, in the USA at least, people tend to over-estimate the proportion of the budget spent on foreign aid. Most people think that the US government spends 25% of its budget on overseas assistance, when in reality the figure is 0.21% (as a % of GNI). When asked what an acceptable amount should be, the answer is closer to 10%. Put another way, most US citizens would be happy if their government spent fifty times more than what they currently do on foreign aid.

In Australia, we are looking at increasing our commitment to foreign aid to 0.5% of GNI by 2015-16, up from our current level of 0.33%. Despite our inability to reach the internationally agreed target of 0.7% that 5 other countries have attained, we continue to strongly promote programs that benefit us as a nation. The previously mentioned Indonesian schools program, the legitimacy of which was questioned on Q & A recently by an audience member, only has the support of the government because it promotes "moderate Islamism", and hence has been argued to reduce the threat of regional terrorism. As tenuous as this logic is, it highlights, as our own Foreign Minister did, how we justify the existence of foreign aid when we can get something out of it, not because we actually want to help others.

The question therefore should be, given that 99.67% of our GNI is allocated to further our country's interests, is it too much to ask to give 0.33% for purely altruistic causes?

The message we are being told by both major political parties is unequivocally - yes.

For the average person on the street, this message has an obfuscating effect on the fairly simple notion of giving. I fear that by muddying the issue, it is likely to lead to the worst possible result of all. Research has shown that when people are faced with a moral dilemma, we tend to go for the option that is mentally easier, rather than what is ethically right. The lesson to be learnt is that when presented with conflicting moral rules, we choose the option that is easier to grasp, rather than that which is more morally justifiable. Through well-researched theories such as the identifiable victim bias, we know that the very concept of foreign aid is a difficult one to grasp, because of the distance between ourselves and those in need.

If we resist the ideologically idle temptation to give up on the idea of foreign aid and charitable donations entirely, there are fortunately plenty of resources available to help us best donate our money. Perhaps you could help by listing some of the ways in which you are influenced to give in the comments section below?

I've already mentioned Peter Singer's 'The Life You Can Save' - their website has suggested levels of donations you should consider giving every year, based upon a percentage of your income. The other fine resource is GiveWell, a charity that analyses hundreds of other charities, and rates them according to effectiveness for you, so you don't need to do the hard work yourself. For example, following the Japan earthquake, GiveWell consistently sent the message out that both the Japanese government and NGOs such as Japan Red Cross did not require donations. (Interestingly, the Australian Government has gone full steam ahead, regardless, calling for financial contributions and volunteers)

The French thinker Montesquieu once said:

"A truly virtuous man would come to the aid of the most distant stranger as quickly as to his own friend. If men were perfectly virtuous, they wouldn't have friends."

If we believe this to be true, then we would be giving to those in most need, regardless of whether they are our friends, or our "cousins". We wouldn't worry about their religion, their proximity, or their ideology. We wouldn’t care if they’d fought alongside with us, or whether, if we gave to them, we would decrease the likelihood of them fighting against us. We'd simply be giving to them because we knew it was the right thing to do.

Image by Flickr user Secret Admiral