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ABRAHAM: Altruistic policies can be difficult at times

Opinions Column: Unconventional Wisdom


Altruism has become enmeshed in our belief system as a society to the point where it has become a paragon of virtue. In the news, we hear how multi-billionaire philanthropists like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are pledging a greater part of their fortunes toward a number of noble causes. Intuitively so, these actions are seen as noble by the public. After all, nothing is objectionable about providing drinking water to every corner of the world.

Policymakers have also recently become fascinated by altruism. In September 2015, the United Nations unanimously agreed to ratify its most ambitious benchmarks for the next 15 years. The Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, contain goals which include the elimination of poverty, eradication of hunger and universal educational access. With righteous objectives like these, one might wonder why the SDGs were only ratified a couple years ago.

Suffice it to say, simply having good intentions is not enough to create a positive impact.

Altruistic experiments also face the incredible misfortune of potentially creating impacts that work counter to their intended purpose. Abstractly speaking, it is easy to see why: altruism involves a great degree of social engineering, a feat that is never as easy to manage as it sounds. At best, these experiments provide little assistance to their intended targets, and at worst, they induce negative effects on said targets.

From the local to the international level, recent history has given us ample warning about the dangers of pathological altruism. If individuals sincerely want to do a service to others, it pays to carefully hone in on these lessons.

One of the greatest social studies of the 20th century was the Cambridge-Somerville Youth Study, commissioned by Massachusetts physician Dr. Richard Cabot in the 1930s. The program proposed a system where 506 boys with records of juvenile delinquency were broken up into experimental and control groups. Boys in the experimental group were partnered with mentors that provided academic, social and medical services, whereas those in the control group were provided no services. Through early intervention, Dr. Cabot believed that he had a mechanism to decrease juvenile delinquency.

That is why it came as a shock to those compiling the data 30 years later to find that the experimental group was far more likely to commit crimes than the control group, with no significant increase in occupational, marital or life satisfaction. What's more, those who received more treatment experienced a dose effect: as an individual’s level of treatment increased, their likelihood of committing crimes during adulthood also increased. In essence, Cabot’s gesture of goodwill turned out to be an abject failure.

While many speculate over the causes of these outcomes, one point remains salient: meaning well is not enough, even if our altruism coincides with our intuition. As one would expect, it becomes increasingly difficult to produce these positive outcomes when the scope of altruism increases.

In 2016, Americans believed that anywhere between a quarter to a third of the federal budget was spent on foreign aid. While the actual number sits much lower, at about 1 percent, an overestimate might reflect the frustration millions of Americans feel about the billions spent annually on foreign aid — specifically development aid. This can be especially frustrating when one examines how ineffective development aid has been in the past 60 decades.

On the surface, foreign aid seems to make sense. As Earth Institute economist Jeffrey Sachs explains in "The End of Poverty," many countries face a “poverty trap”: a downward spiral in human development born out of poverty. To elevate countries from this trap, Sachs proposes that development aid be sent to these countries. In theory, at least, this initial push should help these countries experience a rise in human development and a point of sufficiency sans foreign aid.

Sadly, this is not the case. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the world’s largest recipient of foreign aid, $50 billion makes its way there annually while its inhabitants become increasingly poor. Setting aside extreme cases of carte blanche altruism in Africa (see Mobutu Sese Seko), serious maldistributions of foreign aid along class lines exist in there today. According to international economist Dambisa Moyo, 90 percent of Ethiopia’s government budget is comprised of foreign aid. Nonetheless, only a meager 2 percent of the Ethiopian population owns mobile phones. On top of this, recent literature finds that a country that receives development aid may be more prone to violence from its neighboring countries. These points considered, “foreign burden” seems like a more fitting name.

In Western society, our social structure encourages us to engage in voluntary acts of compassion. The platitude “every little bit counts” comes instantly to mind. This is not necessarily wrong: a little bit of help can go a long way in someone’s life. Nonetheless, the devil is in the details. On the policy level, the act of compassion is far more difficult than we realize it to be.

Nour Abraham is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in mathematics and economics. His column, "Unconventional Wisdom," runs on alternate Fridays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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