Moral Obligations and Development Assistance


The topic being debated by Lincoln-Douglas debaters in November and December is a timely one. Since The Great Recession’s onset in 2007, American discourse has been rife with questions and opinions on or about inequality. So too has the field of economics itself been jolted into addressing causes and effects of inequality in contemporary economic systems, with new popularity afforded accorded to those who can do so in a compelling and persuasive way. The November/December resolution also beholds inequality at its root. Specifically, the resolution attempts to resolve the inequality of outcomes that has plagued modern statehood since its inception by affirming that wealthy states have an obligation to transfer resources from themselves to those states who have not. There are several features of this resolution, therefore, that debators must attend to carefully in order to be thorough and to avoid the pitfalls that so often befalls public discourse.

Interpreting Terms/Agent of Action – “wealthy” “nations”

For the November/December resolution, two terms must be clearly delineated in order to be as thorough as possible” “wealthy;” and “nations.” “Wealth” may be understood as being “characterized by abundance.” In order to be wealthy, therefore, one must possess an abundance of something. But what must that abundant something do in order reasonably deliver its possessor as “wealthy?” The fields of economics, political economy, history, political science, and other disciplines concerned with “wealth” at some level would likely suggest that the abundant possession could not be characterize as “wealth” if it did not provide access to other desired resources or goods – needs and wants in economics. So perhaps a more specific definition is better. For example, the Oxford Dictionary defines “wealthy” as “having a great deal of money, assets, or resources.” Which ever definition you choose, be aware of how its specificity, or lack thereof, can open your argument up to criticisms, and prepare blocks. Similarly, listen for vague or broad definitions of “wealthy;” they can provide an access point to criticism of your opponent.

If we accept that “wealthy” refers to the possession of a resource that provides a means to satisfy needs and wants, then one must also consider the types of resources themselves. Generally, “resources” are assumed to always be plural. For example, a nation rich in mineral deposits is not likely to only have one deposit where that mineral can be mined from or just one mineral to mine. Instead, they would likely have many deposits for that mineral to be mined out of, and/or many minerals to mine. In either case, the possessor has access to an abundance of it, which provided them with a means to satisfy other needs and wants that cannot be satisfied with those mineral deposits alone. That distinction between which resources one possesses an abundance of is an important one. Is it fair to characterize a person, family, or nation-state as wealthy if it only has an abundance of one resource; say corn? Perhaps we may do so if the abundance of that resource provides for all of the possessor’s needs and wants. If that resource cannot offer access to the satisfaction of the possessor needs and wants, is it still fair to characterize that possessor as “wealthy?” In other words, the wealth derived from the possession of an abundant resource depends on the demand for that resource, and/or the ability of that resource to be adapted to meet the various needs and wants of the possessors of it, and the demanders for it. As such, in your arguments you should take care to be clear what “wealthy” is referring to. For if “wealthy” is not specified clearly, your argument is open to challenges, and your conclusions potentially undermined.

Resolution Structure – the moral confinement of “an obligation to.”

The definitions of individual terms above carry downfalls and upsides for the debater; downfalls and upsides that each should take seriously. To generalize, however,  individual definitions may fail to gain enough traction for certain resolutions – including this one. For if one considers the larger clause within which these terms are placed, there emerges a larger question over the nature of the resolution itself. To be more specific, the resolution appears to not question that obligation of wealthy nations to transfer their resources to the non-wealthy. The resolution instead states it as if it is a fact. As such, the resolution as a whole must be considered from a positive perspective, as well as evaluated if it has the potential for being a normative statement grounded in moral or ethical considerations. The fruit of such analysis lay with the phrase “an obligation to.”

According to Merriam-Webster, to “obligate” means “to bind legally or morally: constrain.”

When “obligate” is operationalized for this resolution, therefore, it may by understood to mean a moral or legal expectation that constrains one to a course of action. To rephrase the resolution with these definitions in mind, it is reasonable to interpret it as saying that regarding their relationship to other nations, wealthy nations are morally and/or legally  expected to constrain themselves to activities that provide development assistance to these nations. Interpreting the resolution in this way has the further advantage of incorporating a normative element; morality. As such, most cases will rely on morality as their value criterion, setting up the clash of values expected of an LD debate round.

Analyzing the Action – “provide development assistance”

According to Merriam-Webster, to “provide” means to “supply something for sustenance or support.” Classifying such aid as “official development aid), the Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development limits such supply to that provided by “official agencies, including state and local governments… which is administered with the promotion of economic development and welfare of developing countries as its main objective, [and is] concessional in nature [conveying] a grant element of at least twenty-five percent.” This particular definition has the benefit of specifying an amount of aid that qualifies as ODA without limiting the amount that qualifies. In doing so, the OECD admits into its definition the possibility of providing an amount of ODA that is somehow returned back to the provider. This possibility opens up several new avenues we must consider regarding the moral nature of the ODA. Most importantly, this definition appears to embolden the limit that our understanding of “an obligation to” above asserts. Specifically, that ODA must be limited to assistance provided by governments (national, state, and local are all acceptable), and for the promotion of economic development and the general welfare of developing nations. The emphasis must, therefore, be placed on what is considered to be a “developing” nation, and what is not. For if assistance were not specified and left alone instead, then all nations would qualify since all are generally under constant development in some way.

In order to engage the moral constraint imposed by our definition of “obligation” above, we have to clarify, therefore, which developing nations should receive such assistance. This will present a potentially fruitful avenue for debaters in cross-examination because defining “developing” uniformly has proven illusory. As is helpfully reviewed by Marc Silver from National Public Radio (NPR) in 2015, “developing” is fraught with differences depending on the organization producing the data about it.  The World Bank, for example, refines its development research and activities to three areas it determines essential to improving the welfare of those people in need of aid: human development; social development; and rural and urban development. The United Nations’ Human Development Index (UN HDI) identifies four areas it determines as essential to development: life expectancy at birth; expected years of schooling; mean years of schooling; and Gross National Income (GNI) per capita. The World Health Organization (WHO) focuses its metrics for development on health measures instead, such as child mortality and communicable diseases. In other words, “development” is rife with dissension. Debaters should thus choose wisely, and be prepared with some of the statistics provided freely by the sites above.

Deontology or Utilitarianism?

For our purposes in this overview, we will consider development to be aid given by the official agencies of a nation in the upper quarter of the HDI to one in the lower quarter of the HDI for the improvement of economic and health outcomes. With this refined definition, we can assess the current state of development assistance.

The status quo of contemporary development assistance is as multi-faceted as its terms are. According to Yumeka Hirano and Shigero Thomas Hatsubo of the World Bank, “Aid is Good for the Poor.” In their article, they claim that the results of their research about whom aid benefits most prove that development plays an important role in assisting developing countries to find the optimal mix of economic and social aid to achieve poverty reduction and effectively share prosperity.” By improving the likelihood that increased prosperity and decreased poverty result from developmental aid, the moral conditions of “an obligation to” appear to be met.

Contemporary wealthy nation-states seem to agree that there lies a moral obligation to provide development assistance to other nations. A report by the OECD in 2013 illustrated an increase in developmental aid from the members of its Developmental Aid Committee (DAC) – a committee comprised of the 28 largest nation-state contributors to developmental aid. In 2013, 17 of its members increased their aid, including five who contributed seven percent of their gross domestic product (GDP). This increase equates in real terms to approximately twenty-nine billion dollars to the African continent alone. According to the World Economic Forum, the largest ten contributors to ODA contributed approximately 116 billion dollars in ODA.

The normative reality of ODA, however, is but a sliver of the larger issue debaters are expected to address in this resolution. After all, the resolution should not be read as a mere statement of fact –  a misread of generous proportions. Instead, the resolution is asking if nations should provide aid; if they have a moral obligation to provide aid.

How does one judge whether one is morally obligated to perform a specific act? Kant has a useful answer and is thus likely to find favor for those arguing in the affirmative from a deontological position. Kant’s categorical imperative asserts that every possible or potential agent is unconditionally (i.e., categorically)  obliged to act (imperative) toward a specified end if that end can be justified as good by their rational will. Though fraught with potential counterarguments, it is not unreasonable to understand “good” herein as those ends that we naturally desire or expect for ourselves. Rational beings, in other words, do not naturally seek ends that are not good for themselves and are therefore constantly compelled by their will to seek those ends out. As such, aid to another actor is natural and good if it is sought out by and performed because of the actor’s rational will. Since this principle is unconditionally applied to all with rational wills, and since Kant understands all humans as possessing a rational will, then any end sought by said will is simultaneously good and assumed to be a universal end by all humans on account of their rational will. Because the actor in the resolution is “nations,” we have to consider further if it is reasonable to extend the label of “individual” with a rational will to nations themselves. According to University of Pennsylvania Professor Thomas Donaldson, Kant “sees the state as analogous to a human person and subject to most if not all of the obligations to which individuals are subject to.”  ( Ethics and International Affairs, “International Deontology Defended: A Response to Russell Hardin”, pg. 147-154). Nation-states, therefore, are required to provide development assistance because they are possessed with a rational will that obligates them to act in ways that could simultaneously be expected of all others, including themselves. For this framework to be operationalized, the debater need only prove that the aid provided by one nation to another is aid given freely by its rational will (perhaps the concept of “the general will” a la Rousseau will be useful here too), is considered good since the providing nation does not ostensibly discriminate between recipients (hence unconditional), and willfully accepts similar aid in return if and when in the same position as the receiving nation (again, in order to affirm the act’s unconditionally. For if the act is unconditional, all states benefit from the unconditionally applied acts of free willing nations)

If operationalizing a deontological framework, however, one will likely have to contend with the theory of soft power – an ascendant theory in the professional theoretical literature of political theory, foreign policy, and international relations. According to International Relations scholar John Ikenberry, soft power refers to “the ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion.” In short, winning hearts and minds is just as important to a nation’s standing as its ability to win a war is. Under this conceptual umbrella, Kant’s deontological framework for international relations cannot be understood as entirely normative. That is, no rationally willed act is done without some benefit accruing to the providing actor. Within the context of this resolution, no ODA can be entirely benevolent. Peter Singer, a bioethicist from Princeton University, emphasized this very point in a piece written for Project Syndicate in 2017. “All US aid [is not] directed to those in greatest need,” says Singer, and are instead “based on what are perceived to be US geopolitical interests.”

Another useful framework to pursue moral obligation for this resolution is through the utilitarian principle. Utilitarianism asserts that any action or policy that maximizes the benefits conferred onto individuals is the most morally appropriate action or policy. In other words, does the policy proposal under view make more people happy than are currently under the status quo? Utilitarianism thus has the benefit of inviting a more quantitative analysis – an important benefit for a resolution so pregnant with possibilities for quantitative data. From a utilitarian perspective, it might be hard to argue that the status quo is not enough to satisfy the moral component of this resolution. After all, as is noted above by the OECD, most of the wealthy nations have increased their contributions in recent years. More people, therefore, are arguably happier under this arrangement than in years past, thus satisfying the moral obligation the resolution commands. Any attempt to further entrench this moral obligation could reverse these increases, leading to less happiness, and falling short of the utilitarian rubric.

Several other attendant and valid issues arise from both perspectives that either criterion must resolve. One such issue is the historical legacy of contemporary developed nations within these needy nations today. From both perspectives, today’s developed nations owe a debt to the native peoples of these needy nations. For their legacy of extractive colonialism rendered these nations unable to develop sufficiently as independent nations. Deontologically, providing aid satisfies the categorical imperative since the developed nations might reasonably demand such aid were the situation to be reversed. The Marshall Plan, for example, might be cited on these grounds as sufficient evidence to justify a deontological value since the aid provided by the United States under the Marshall Plan inaugurated a bi-lateral aid relationship that has persisted into contemporary time in various forms (including several I have cited in here, such as the OECD).

Neither of these values need not be the only ones invoked. Justice will also play its own role, for example, if the debater chooses to highlight the historical relationship between developed and under developed nations. Another area of particular strength for a justice value might even cite terrorism as a cause for affirming the resolution. There is a rich body of literature attempting to causally link deteriorating economic, social, and political conditions to the creation of extremism. Providing aid is thus just since it corrects a historical wrong that has since caused harm.


These are but a few of the many directions this resolution may take. Because of the resolution itself and the way it is constructed, it is important to seriously consider the terms under use and their explicit and implicit effects on the major action being suggested: providing developmental assistance. From there, the debates should be highly engaging without losing its analytical edge.

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