No one can deny that both rich and poor countries exist today. There has been much debate as to whether or not wealthy nations are required to help poor nations. Absolute poverty and absolute affluence are two terms that are critical in defining whether a nation is poor or wealthy. Absolute poverty is when one does not have the resources to fulfill basic biological needs, such as a proper diet, clothing, shelter, and medical care. Absolute affluence is when all of these things can be obtained without any problem. There are nations such as our own where absolute affluence is common and absolute poverty is a rarity, and there are many nations in which absolute poverty affects millions.
Peter Singer argues the following:
1. If we can prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing anything of comparable moral value, we ought to do it.
2. Absolute poverty is bad.
3. There is some absolute poverty we can prevent without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance.
4. We ought to prevent some absolute poverty.
Supporting this argument is the fact that the UN has set forth for affluent nations a target percentage of their respective Gross National Product to help poorer nations. The amount suggested is seven-tenths of a percent, with only a few of the qualifying nations meeting this goal. It should also be noted that the United States only contributes 0.0015 percent.
Many people feel that the poverty situation in the US should be taken care of before we begin to solve the problems of other nations. Singer feels that the idea of "taking care of our own" is just as illogical as those of European descent helping only other European descendants rather than helping those of African descent. The distance between the affluent and the poor shouldn't make any difference. In addition, the "poor" in our nation may be very well off compared to those in absolute poverty in another nation.
There are those who argue that by giving "handouts" to poor nations, we would be perpetuating the problem. This means that more people would be healthy in these nations and the already phenomenal birthrate would increase even more. One theory states that countries pass through a "demographic transition". When modern medicine is not available, high birth rates are balanced by high death rates in poor countries. When sanitation and medical facilities are introduced, the birth rates soar and the death rate lowers, meaning more hungry mouths to feed. It takes a while for people to realize that they don't have to have as many children to stay at the level of surviving children that existed before the improvements. In time the population levels off and the poverty level decreases.
As stated before, if we can prevent some absolute poverty without sacrificing something of comparable moral significance, we ought to do it. Contributing to this cause would make life much better for many millions of people.
The question of whether affluent nations are required to assist poor nations can be answered with the theory of "Lifeboat Ethics" presented by Garrett Hardin. This theory states that the affluent nations are in a lifeboat that seats 60 and they represent 50 people. The 50 in the lifeboat see 100 others swimming in the water trying to get in the boat. Letting them into the boat may seem like the right thing to do, but if they are all allowed in, everybody sinks. Even letting 10 more into the boat could be detrimental, taking away our safety factor. This example translates directly to the problem at hand. If we give poor nations enough to solve their problems, we will inherit problems of our own. The extra 10 seats represent our surplus. If we give away our own surplus, we would be vulnerable to a crop disease or a drought.
The UN's target of seven-tenths of a percent of a wealthy nation's GNP is a good idea. The statistics that place the US near the bottom with only 0.0015 percent are misleading, however. These statistics are not including the amount of money spent by affluent nations on military protection for the poorer, weaker nations. The amount spent by the US on such protection would significantly increase the percentage given.
The distribution of aid to poor nations would increase the problem by decreasing death rates and increasing birth rates. The theory of a "demographic transition" is simply a theory. There are theories that state that once new medical and agricultural technology are introduced the population will skyrocket. Poor nations average a 2.5 percent increase in population per year, while rich nations average a 0.8 percent increase. If the poor nations' growth rate got larger, the amount of aid needed to solve their problems would be even more unattainable.
This problem will continue to be a topic of debate until there are no poor nations, which most likely will be never. The theory of Lifeboat Ethics will always be applicable to the problem.