South Sudan’s Famine and the Moral Relevance of Distance

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, as well as South Sudan’s National Bureau of Statistics, recently declared that certain area of South Sudan are no longer in famine, but “but almost two million people are [still] on the brink of starvation.” According to an April 4, 2017 BBC article, the famine in South Sudan started in February 2017, during which 100,000 people faced starvation. This was reportedly the first time in six years that a famine had been declared in any part of the world. The main reason for the South Sudan famine is the current violence precipitated by political disagreements between the president and vice president of the country. The president fired the vice president in July 2013, who he later accused of wanting to take power, and forces loyal to both sides escalated the political dispute into armed conflict.

The United Nations defines a situation as a famine when (1) At least 20 percent of the population doesn’t have enough food for the average person to lead a healthy life (2,100 kilocalories a day); (2) There is acute malnutrition in more than 30 percent of children; and (3) There are two deaths per 10,000 people every day, or four child deaths per 10,000 children every day. As such, famine is clearly a moral catastrophe of the highest proportions. People in South Sudan are not starving to death because of uncontrollable natural events; there is plenty of food in the world, and we have the means to get it to the people who need it. The people of South Sudan are starving because of political failures. No one would deny this. However, it is a more difficult and contentious issue to determine who is responsible for responding to this moral catastrophe.

In “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” the ethicist Peter Singer was concerned with a similar humanitarian catastrophe threatening the lives of the people of East Bengal in 1971. Noting that the governments and citizens of the affluent West spent much more money on other projects than they did on aid to East Bengal, Singer claimed that “the whole way we look at moral issues…needs to be altered.” The West had the means to respond to the needs of the people of East Bengal, but they chose to spend most of their money on other things. Singer argued that the affluent West failed to meet its moral obligation to the people of East Bengal. It is not just good or altruistic for us to give some money to relief efforts for the people suffering from famine. Rather, it is morally required of us to give substantial sums of money to end famines and other humanitarian catastrophes as soon as possible. Our lack of action in response to the current crisis in South Sudan suggests that the West does not think it has such a strong moral obligation.

Singer relies on what seems to be a non-controversial moral thought experiment to bolster his radical moral claim that the West is morally responsible for alleviating famines. He claims that “if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it.” Consider that you are walking by a shallow pond and see a young child drowning in the pond. You ought to wade into the pond to save the child, even though it means you get your nice clothes muddy. If a relatively modest sum of money can be donated to a relief effort to feed a child (or adult) suffering from famine conditions, then you ought to donate that sum of money. Comparatively, if a relatively small percentage of a government’s national budget can be used to end a famine in another country, that government ought to allocate that money to famine relief.

The strength of Singer’s argument rests on how comparable the drowning child situation and the phenomenon of famine really are. One major difference is distance. The child in the pond is nearby. The child in South Sudan is very far away. Singer denies the notion that proximity and distance should matter to our moral assessment of a situation. For him, impartiality is a key component of morality, and discrimination based on geographical proximity violates this impartiality. There may be reasons to prefer aiding someone nearby, rather than someone far away, but these reasons usually concern something other than the distance per se.

For example, it may be the case that my help will be more effective if I provide it to someone suffering nearby because I know more about what this person needs than what starving Sudanese people need. However, this reason is tangential to the issue of distance and arguably irrelevant to the question of aiding those in a famine situation. Even if I don’t know what the Sudanese people need, competent international aid organizations like the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization do know, and I can funnel my aid to them.

It is hard to argue that geographical distance per se matters. However, some have challenged the notion of impartiality underlying Singer’s conception of morality. We owe our very moral sensibilities—our sense of right and wrong—to the communities in which we were raised. It seems plausible, then, that our moral obligations are stronger to our fellow community members than to distant others. The drowning child situation does not neatly address this moral difference, though it is central to the question as to whether the affluent West is obligated to help those suffering from famine in South Sudan.

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Daniel Beck is a recent PhD graduate from Michigan State University’s Department of Philosophy. He has presented on topics in bioethics, environmental philosophy, moral philosophy, and political philosophy at both national and international professional conferences, and his scholarly work on bioethics methodology has been published in a peer reviewed academic journal.