The ethical foundations of aid

The ethical foundations of aid: Two duties of rescue


The ethical rationale for aid has nestled undisturbed under the generic banner of charity, and the presumed recipients have appeared to be all the moral justification that was necessary. But the actual practice of aid has at times drifted far from any coherent ethical principle.

In this working paper, Professor Paul Collier proposes an anchor. He suggests that the ethical foundation of aid cannot rest on the conventional mantra of ‘addressing global poverty’. Rather, it should be two distinct ‘duties of rescue’ that are the common responsibility of successful societies. One, which is standard, is the duty to rescue a minority of other societies from the immediate tragedy of humanitarian catastrophes. The other, which is unfamiliar and therefore the focus of the working paper, is the duty to rescue a different minority of societies from the enduring tragedy of the lack of credible hope of prosperity.

Having grounded the ethics of aid in these responsibilities, the author explores whether meeting the two ‘duties of rescue’ is compatible with the continuation of national self-interest. He suggests that ethical aid can be reinforced by ‘mutual benefit’ – that is, the addition of an element of self-interest – but he warns that due to the potential for moral hazard, claims of mutual benefit must be rigorously assessed.

Professor Collier uses these criteria to assess five current approaches to aid: the social agenda favoured by Western donors; China’s resources-for-infrastructure agenda; aid linked to commercial ventures as undertaken by agencies such as the International Finance Corporation (IFC); interventions in fragile states; and aid for the mitigation of climate change.

About the author

Paul Collier is Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government and a Director of the International Growth Centre.