Friday, December 18, 2009

A Global Welfare System? I hope not.

Owen Barder, who is a thoughtful, articulate, and measured supporter of the current system by which the developed world aids the developing world, has written an interesting article here on the OpenDemocracy blog. One of his larger points is that we need to re-conceptualize what aid is meant to do and what it is capable of doing. He seems to be advocating for some sort of permanent global welfare system. Although I am sympathetic to a lot of what he says, aid surely helps some people, such a system would not be a step in the right direction. Here are a few of my concerns.

1. A global welfare system implies a global welfare provider, and even then welfare systems are extremely tricky to implement well. We don’t even have a provider however. The “international community” (as Copenhagen is showing) is a very divided and dysfunctional one. We should not have confidence that it can run such a system well.
2. Somewhat counter-intuitively, I think such a global welfare system would be immoral. We cannot treat roughly 2/3rds of the world as if they were incapable of surviving in the global economy, and therefore in need of a welfare system. This is dehumanizing and simply wrong. Welfare systems in developed countries typically take care of 10 to 20% of a population and even at this level we encounter all sorts of dependency issues.
3. Such a welfare system would shift our focus away from fixing our horrid international economic system to simply taking care of those whom it excludes. This is also immoral. “Perserving livelihoods” while excluding people from competing, i.e. giving them a fish rather than teaching and allowing them to fish for themselves, is not a second-best approach which we should embrace.
4. (And this a more pedantic concern arising from my current doctoral studies in Korea) The idea that South Korea can be held up by aid supporters as an example of their success is laughable, and worse, offensive to the Koreans who have worked determinedly for the past 50 years to develop their country.



  1. Justin

    Thanks. Your worry about a welfare state deserves a longer response and more thought, so I'll try to address that at another time.

    But I wanted to ask you about your "pedantic" point about South Korea.

    I hope that nobody who celebrates the success of aid, where it occurs, is in any way undermining or belittling the efforts of the people who have lifted themselves out of poverty and achieved huge success.

    Korea is sometimes held up (including by me) as an example of a country that received a very large amount of aid and which succeeded in rapid industrialisation. Is it your view that the aid was irrelevant to Korea's economic success, partly helpful, or partly unhelpful?

    (This is a genuine question, not a rhetorical point. I know next to nothing about Korea.)

    Kind regards

  2. Owen,

    Thanks for your comment.
    My short answer is that aid (depending upon how you define it) in Korea was all three. Some of it was helpful. Some of it was hurtful. But mostly I would judge it to have played, if not an irrelevant, then certainly a minor role in Korea's development. Which is why I find it mildly irksome when people imply a (strong) causation when their was really only a (I would judge rather weak) correlation between the aid that Korea received and its development.

    But this topic deserves more discussion. Accordingly I will be posting a longer answer to your question on this blog in the near future.