Is aid really a moral duty?

Through Roving Bandit, I spotted this coverage of Andrew Mitchell’s defense of aid as a moral duty:

In a direct riposte to those in the media and on the Tory right who have attacked the government’s decision to spare the aid budget from George Osborne’s austerity programme, Mitchell said: “It is a stain on all our consciences that a girl born in South Sudan today is more likely to die having a baby than to complete primary school.

“When we know what life – and death – is like for over a billion people living on less than 80p a day, and we have the wherewithal to do something about it, then, yes, I do believe we have a moral imperative to do so.”

I agree with Peter Singer’s basic argument: that we do have a moral imperative to help the poor out of poverty. Many, including Singer himself, have used this to argue that overseas aid is a moral duty.

Yet this argument is conditional on aid being the most effective means of reducing poverty, or at least the most effective way you can reduce poverty. It’s not clear, when stacked up against trade, immigration, investment, etc, that aid really is a moral duty. It’s a bit like arguing that baking cakes is a moral duty, but choosing to focus just on the icing.

Readers would be reasonable to point out that the average person can’t do much about these other paths out of poverty, at least not in expectation. This is also Singer’s argument – aid is the easiest way for people to ease suffering in the short term. Still, this isn’t true for Andrew Mitchell – he’s in the cabinet of a major government. If he’s going to argue that we have a moral imperative to give aid, he should also spend more time arguing for other policies that might have equal or even greater success in reducing poverty.