Empathy and the veil of ignorance

Now, before I flip the coin and determine whether you'll be rich or poor, how do you feel about redistribution?

The Roving Bandit wonders why he feels more guilty about living near poverty in the United States than in South Sudan:

Driving through my neighbourhood in Juba, an American once asked if I felt guilty living in the midst of such poverty. I didn’t. At least no more than I had done living in England, being equally aware of the existence of such poverty. Physical proximity shouldn’t really have much to do with it.

I do though feel guilty about the guy who sleeps in the bus shelter in my New Haven neighbourhood. What is that?

One common explanation is that relative poverty should be, in theory, more manageable in more developed countries, so it seems more outrageous to us that there are people who have managed to slip through the net.

I have another theory: that we we’re more likely to empathize with those who suffer outcomes we might have (however unlikely) also endured.

It is connected to the concept of the veil of ignorance, introduced by John Rawls: we should design policy as if we were ignorant of what role in society we will take. For example, if the poverty rate is 25%, I should make decisions about redistribution while assuming there is a one in four chance I’ll be poor.

We may judge relative deprivation as a failure of these basic principals of fairness – I am bothered by poverty in the US or UK because I recognise that a roll of the dice might have placed me in a similar position.

Yet one’s subjective probability of being poor may be limited to the country of birth. While I may consider the 25% poverty rate at home when deciding how I feel about local poverty, I might consider my probability of being Sudanese to be strictly zero. As a result, I might feel less empathy towards poor Sudanese, because my subjective social contract only extends across possible outcomes.

Any other thoughts on why we find poverty in our home countries more distasteful (that fall outside the typical `same tribe’ arguments)? Is the `veil of ignorance’ argument discernable from more traditional `us versus them’ arguments?

Dealing for Darfur

Apparently bingo wasn’t enough to save Africa -the Enough Project runs poker sessions to raise money to end genocide in Darfur. As John Prendergrast, co-chair, awkwardly puts it:

It takes time… this isn’t changing a traffic light this is stopping a genocide. Because of your support, both your financial support by losing in this poker tournament and also the fact that you’re engaging in the issue….

If people are expected to lose, why not just have a regular old-fashioned fundraiser, or is Matt Damon getting Darfur fatigue already? Hat-tip to the Roving Bandit.

Bibles and lions, oh my!

Aid Watch occasionally features entries by NGO-worker Dianne Bennett. Her previous post on DFID’s Douglas Alexander’s inability to distinguish between self-promotion and accountability was well-argued and thoughtful. Her more recent post is a bit harder to swallow:

A small team was dispatched to assess and prioritize the needs of internally displaced people (IDPs) resettling in a corner of South Sudan…..

….Our team was horrified when we learned that lions actively hunted in this area, killing children daily without protection of shelter or family….

True to our word, our NGO brought in emergency food supplies, then seeds and agricultural tools. A year later, insufficient rain created a temporary food crisis and we again brought in supplemental food supplies to help them get through….

Within a short time of our first visit, there were no more lion attacks on helpless children and we never heard another word about the hundreds of orphaned children.

Is it just me, or are they claiming credit for the lack of lion-related deaths in this village? What sort of people does this NGO employ? There’s no mention of any direct attempt to protect the villagers from the attacks or kill the lions….. so how is it that they get the credit for this?

It’s odd that Easterly, usually a hound for good evidence, allows for the occassional bit of shameless promotion – Bennett’s article is titled “Respecting local values: Western confusion about African orphans,” yet her article deals very little with local culture, aside from a brief discussion of ubuntu (despite the fact that ubuntu is a bantu-based, south-east African concept, far from the culture of southern Sudan).

The story gets stranger, and a fair bit ickier when a commenter revealed this story on the website of Bennett’s NGO, Servant’s Heart Relief, titled “Going into the War Zone – Because They Care.” This is the part that struck me:

“…I made a commitment to them to bring in some food, bring in some bibles and I thought that was going to be the end of my involvement. Instead what happened was, that was almost 3 years ago now, and we’re still involved,” she said.

What was that about respecting local culture? I think this Onion article sums it up properly: Poverty-Stricken Africans Receive Desperately Needed Bibles.