Some critics suggest that International NGOs should focus most if not all of their efforts on fighting poverty rather than advancing other goals, such as fostering civil and political rights. Is this view correct? Why or why not?

            German philosopher Thomas Pogge is famous of his notion of “awesome responsibility” that both Non-Government Institutions(NGO) and their donors have when it comes to international aid programs and human rights enforcement.  As Pogge himself says “To put it bluntly, an INGO must often make decisions that will certainly lead to many deaths because spending one’s limited funds on trying to protect some is tantamount to leaving  others to their fate“(2007:220). This line along with the rest of his justification of it carries with it some strong notions of whether or not NGO’s are doing a morally correct job or are even grossly misguided. Namely they carry that by taking cost effectiveness into account, NGO’s should focus most, if not all of their efforts on fighting poverty rather than advancing other goals, such as fostering civil and political rights.

I do not believe such a view is correct. I will explain this point of view by focusing on three key areas. Firstly, I will tackle the notion that NGO’s and their donors are responsible for the deaths of those they either choose not to help, or cannot help. Secondly, I will highlight the immaterial nature of taking Pogge’s claim seriously, that such people are responsible. Thirdly I will focus on how using Pogge’s own value of cost effectiveness, one must account not only for the skills which an individual, or collective of individuals has, but also for the passions which drive their bid to help those who are in need.

Pogge’s line ‘Other things being equal, an INGO should choose among candidate projects on the basis of the cost-effectiveness of each project, defined as its moral value divided by its cost. Here a project’s moral value is the harm protection it achieves… for the individual persons it affects.” (2007:228) is a more theoretical way of saying that if hypothetically, saving one life for ten dollars was the outcome of one program in Ethiopia, versus a second option of saving two lives for the same cost in Nigeria, the second option is the moral choice. This notion of thinking is certainly nothing that I have any personal disagreement at this simple level of abstraction. Certainly many individuals would follow a similar logic, by following this logic we are saving twice the amount of people we could otherwise; ignoring the very large problems with hard utilitarianism, such logic is quite intuitive to many.

However, following Pogge’s earlier notion, if one were to choose the first option over the second, we are responsible for the deaths of those in Nigeria. Yet if we are to chose the second option of saving twice as many people, we would still be responsible for the deaths of the Ethiopians we could have otherwise helped. By deliberating how we spend our limited funding, we are always going to only be able to protect “some” and thus leave “others” to their fate. Thus the actions of an NGO regardless of the numbers will always lead to the deaths of some, according to Pogge.

This model of thinking is highly striking and a difficult notion to swallow. Surely for one to be responsible for the death of someone, they must take an action in order to ensure the death of that person. Failing to take action to save a life because one was busy saving another life, for whatever reason cannot be considered as taking action against a life.

Think of this hypothetical:  you are a park ranger and have just been warned via radio that there will be an avalanche on the mountain you patrol. You know that there are 50 tourists on the North face of the mountain and there are 50 tourists on the North Eastern face of the mountain. You can only drive to one side of the mountain in time to save the people there. Should you chose to go to the North face of the mountain, you are leaving the people on the North Eastern face of the mountain to their fate and vice versa.

According to Pogge’s logic, the mountain ranger is responsible for the deaths of the people he does not have the ability to save. In this case the numbers do not matter, either way the ranger has chosen to save the lives of some, over others. Surely this is an affront to the ranger who has just saved the lives of 50 individuals. Why is he to be held responsible for the deaths of those he could not save? After all, he did not commit a negative action against those who died. For the ranger to be responsible for the deaths of those he could not save, he would need to have been the one who caused the avalanche. It is simply unfair to place the burden of responsibility on someone for having saved one life over another.

To tie this back to the case of poverty and Ethiopia Vs. Nigeria, the true cause of the deaths of those who die from poverty, is poverty (unless you believe that capitalism is responsible (Marx & Engels 1848:51)). It is not those who help some over others, it is not NGO’s and it is not the donors to said NGO’s. The notion of cost effectiveness is irrelevant to the burden of responsibility.

To tie this back to the original question, it must follow: Those who help “some” by focusing their efforts on civil and political rights are not responsible for the deaths of “others” who die from failure to focus on economic rights. The people who are helping political prisoners and refouled asylum seekers, such as Amnesty International (Steiner & Alston 1996:481) or oppressed minorities are never responsible for the deaths of those who die from poverty, for they are not the cause of their deaths.

I must add however, that the whole notion of responsibility is highly immaterial and without consequence. If we were to concede to Pogge’s point, then what do we make of these NGO’s and their donors who are now responsible for the deaths of millions? Are we now to try, prosecute and sentence the hundreds upon thousands of individuals who had nothing but the best intentions, for failing to save the most amount of lives they possibly could? Surely if these individuals are responsible for the deaths of millions then they should be held accountable for their actions as well.

The entire notion of responsibility when taken seriously is farcical. We certainly do not hold rescue services accountable for the deaths that they “allow” to happen because they were helping others, so why would we hold donors and NGO’s accountable? If such a notion of responsibility is so demonstratively immaterial, why should it be a consideration for where we address our efforts in social justice and human rights?

The notion that International NGOs should focus most if not all of their efforts on fighting poverty rather than advancing other goals, rests on the premise that one should address the greatest harms in the world first. This is because they are those which not only affect the most people, but also affect them the most severely. As Pogge states “Other things (including cost) being equal, it is morally more important to protect a person from greater serious harm, than from lesser” (2007:222).

Yet, as Pogge conceded, cost must be equal in this endeavour. So whilst helping the most people in the worst situations would mean helping those living below the poverty line, this can only be possible if we considered individuals (who are the make-up of NGO’s) as being equal in not only ability, but passion. This is because asking a law professional to help in the field of fund raising events, is less effective than asking an events organiser to perform the same job. A law professional has skills and qualifications which are better suited to working on legal cases than fund raising events. Thus the work that the events organiser produces would be of better quality for the same cost, as that of the law professional.

Further though, the passions that an individual has is a part of what constitutes their ability to produce effective and good work. Passions are the drive within individuals. Simply put a person with a passion for a task will by and large produce better work. An individual that enjoys their work, will not only produce better work, but also produce better work for a longer amount of time as well. In the case of Mariana Cetiner, a Romanian who was a prisoner of conscience solely because of homosexual activity (Donnelly 2003:229), it was Amnesty International that adopted her in 1997. Since then, exemplary progress in the name of gay rights has happened in Romania, where after a decade of pressure from domestic organisations such as Accept and international ones like Human Rights Watch, Romania repealed a sodomy law and passage to broad antidiscrimination protections (Long 2006). Such an amazing turn around in gay rights could not have been possible without the passionate and driven work of individuals with a strong passion for their beliefs. Passion must be accounted for in the cost effectiveness of actions taken in the name of human rights, therefore we should not focus all of our efforts on fighting poverty over other human rights violations, because passion is a factor to our ability to help.

So to sum up, International NGO’s should not focus all of their resources and efforts on fighting poverty rather than advancing other goals such as fostering political and civil rights because, firstly NGO’s and their donors do not have a responsibility to those they cannot help, secondly even if they did, the result of such a thought is impractical and inconsequential and finally because we need to take into account the passions and skills that individuals have to determine where they can best be placed to help the human rights cause.

Thomas Pogge (2007). ‘Moral Priorities for International Human Rights NGOs,’ in Ethics in Action: The Ethical Challenges of International Human Rights Nongovernmental Organizations, Daniel Bel and Jean-Marc Coircard, eds. Cambridge UP.

Marx K. and Engels, F. 1969 [1848]: ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’ in Feuer, L. Marx and Engels: Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy, London, Fontana, pp 45-82

Amnesty International, “Statute of Amnesty International,” and Peter Baehr, “Amnesty International and Its Self-imposed Limited Mandate,” in International Human Rights in Context: Law, Politics, Morals, Henry Steiner and Philip Alston, eds. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp.480 – 86

Jack Donnelly, Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice, 2nd edition (Cornell Univeristy Press, 2003), ch. 13, pp. 225-241

Scott Long, ‘Hall of Shame’ Shows Reach of Homophobia, May 2006, Human Rights Watch


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About Saúl A. Zavarce

Venezuelan-Australian journalist and international relations academic.

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