Food Aid and the Famine Relief Argument (Brief Return)
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Recent publications by Pogge (Global ethics: seminal essays. St. Paul: Paragon House 2008) and by Singer (The life you can save: acting now to end world poverty. New York: Random House 2009) have resuscitated a debate over the justifiability of famine relief between Singer and ecologist Garrett Hardin in the 1970s. Yet that debate concluded with a general recognition that (a) general considerations of development ethics presented more compelling ethical problems than famine relief; and (b) some form of development would be essential to avoiding the problems of growth noted by Hardin. Better than renewing the debate, we should recognize two points. First, food needs do indeed evoke a moral response that is more direct and compelling than the philosophical positions often generated to rationalize a duty to bring aid. As such the argument for feeding hungry people cannot be generalized into a paradigm for development ethics without distortions that undercut the morally valid elements in Singer’s original argument. Second, contrary to prevailing assumptions in present day development ethics, food aid and famine relief continue to be important priorities for international agencies, notably the World Food Program. Emergency food assistance, the nominal topic of Singer’s original article, thus is an important issue for agricultural as well as development ethics, though one that should indeed be seen as distinct from more complex duties to address the conditions of chronic poverty and underdevelopment.