On the WHO list of the most common causes of death, major differences can be seen between low income countries and high income countries. Tuberculosis, malaria and diarrhoeal diseases all make the top ten ailments that are mostly preventable in richer nations by such simple measures as good hygiene, lack of overcrowding or access to clean drinking water, and importantly, vaccines. Much of this almost goes without saying, but it gets to the heart of why the Ebola outbreak has attracted global attention. There is no cure for the virus, and although media sensationalism plays a big role, there is no doubt that the Ebola crisis captures the imagination of the wider world; it inspires fear.
The issue for wealthy nations is that whilst we can imagine a prospective worldwide Ebola epidemic, those directly affected by the virus see little difference between Ebola and various other diseases. Such are poor nations’ lack of access to prevention and cure, that Ebola is simply one among many more common and more prolific killers.
In this sense, the developed world is in a position where it could suffer for its negligence concerning international healthcare. Even if you get past the moral standpoint of helping your fellow human being, those who argue that what happens in other countries should not be our concern “because it doesn’t affect us” no longer have a leg to stand on. The Ebola outbreak is not a lone incident that should open the eyes of the world to the suffering in other nations, it is simply another example of how it is foolish to stand by and fail to properly assist other countries when assistance can be offered.
This is not just my opinion; the slow response of wealthier nations to the crisis has been condemned by senior figures as Michael Weinstein, the President of the AIDS healthcare foundation. Weinstein described the global reaction as “criminally negligent”, and suggested that Western governments cared little until Western citizens contracted the virus. Such comments help to demonstrate that whilst this Ebola outbreak may not spread throughout Europe and North America, the threat will remain, particularly as it is widely believed that Sierra Leone, the source of this outbreak, will continue to struggle economically as a result. With this being the case, unless the wealthier world acts quickly, we are surely set to repeat this crisis in the future. It is time, as Weinstein implies, for the developed world to be proactive rather than lazy in such dire situations.
Now it would be a little unfair to suggest that the West has systematically turned a blind eye. In this particular case, courageous relief workers have made the news for their efforts to provide support, and, as a general rule, foreign aid has been a subject of discussion and mostly action for several decades. In 1970, the UN General Assembly saw governments agree to spend 0.7% of their annual Gross National Income on international aid.
The issue is, however, that this target has been consistently and almost universally missed. Moreover, when aid does arrive in less developed countries, it is often tied to trade agreements that are designed to benefit donor countries and consequently prevent the most effective use of donations. Some would argue that such a financial incentive is a necessity as it gives governments a reason to invest foreign aid, but to me this attitude sets a dangerous precedent, as I shall explain.
In an article for TIME in early 2014, William Easterly argued that aid can and is misspent by dictators looking to further their self-interest. He points to the example of Meles Zenawi, the former leader of Ethiopia, who is criticised for withholding aid from non-ruling party members. If correct, this is of course deplorable, and an instance where the voices of those who would reduce foreign aid on the basis that it is a drainage on the domestic economy and does little good in the countries where it is spent (Easterly not being one of them), would find some traction for their arguments. (See comments on http://www.debate.org/opinions/should-the-u-s-provide-foreign-aid).
But, when richer nations themselves are potentially limiting the effectiveness of their donations by tying them to trade agreements, it seems somewhat hypocritical to call out the country’s own government for acting in self-interest. Clearly there are major differences between the conduct of the donor and the receiver, but the exact details in this particular case are beside the point. What matters is that the spirit of foreign aid is being breached at multiple points along its path of travel, and as long as financial self-interest has a part to play, this will remain a hindrance to the intended function of foreign aid.
To summarise, I do not just believe there is a moral reason for supporting less developed countries with an increase in foreign aid. I also argue that the positive effects that could arise from stability and growth in these countries, such as a reduction of the threat from a deadly virus, should make such policy more appealing to people on all points of the political spectrum. The attitude of the richer world has failed to live up to the target outlined at the 1970 UN general assembly, in part because foreign aid is often a thorny issue for parties trying to gain the upper hand in domestic politics.
I do not claim to have a fool proof blueprint for the correct spending of overseas relief money in terms of quantity or quality. I do, however, believe that promoting the issue to a higher place in political debate is the job of the parties and the media. Greater information must be easily accessible to the general public to prevent misconceptions damaging the reputation and, as a political consequence, the provision of foreign aid. Swift reaction and more generous terms of donation are both crucial steps on this path.
By Philip Barclay