Due to a lack of donations, the World Food Programme, an arm of the UN and the largest hunger-fighting agency in the world, had to cut back on rations to Syrian refugees and residents twice in 2015. Back in September, they had to cut one third of the 1.4 million refugees from the voucher program, which refugees use to buy food. The individual value of those vouchers has had to be reduced, too. Now, the WFP claims, most refugees are living on around 50 cents per day. Food aid to the 4 million Syrians the organization assists has been dramatically reduced as well.
Last month, Oxford University Press published Famine, Affluence, and Morality, a thin volume of essays written by Aussie ethics philosopher, Peter Singer, who is famous for writing infuriatingly airtight moral arguments that challenge traditional ethical notions that guide our lives. You might know Singer, for instance, from his convincing essay “Animal Liberation,” which argues against using animals purely for human ends.
The new collection includes the book's eponymous essay, which contains a pretty simple argument: People who live in affluent countries have a moral duty to donate money to people who are experiencing acute crises in poorer countries. His basic thesis: "If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it."
The example he uses to support this point is that of a child drowning in a pond. It goes like this: If you're walking around and you see a child drowning in a pond, you ought to wade into the water and save the kid even if it means ruining your $200 shoes. ($200 is not a random number, by the way, it's the amount of money that NYU philosopher Peter Unger says one would need to spend to save the life of a child in some developing countries.)
For Singer, distance doesn't matter. The fact that Syrians, say, live far away from most Americans might make it less likely that we "shall" help them, but that has no bearing on whether we "should" help them. Moreover, fancy contraptions like the internet allow us to donate money to people who are in a position to assist the dispossessed, effectively extending the reach of our influence.
But okay so, is something bad happening in Syria? Yeah, hundreds of thousands of Syrians are under siege—and that’s not a metaphor. Siege. They're under siege. Siege like a medieval castle would be under siege. A straight-up siege-siege. The Syrian American Medical Society reports that since 2012 Assad’s government has been denying “food, water, and medicine as a part of a cruel tactic of war,” in addition to barrel bombing and gassing his own people.
As for Syrians outside of Syria, the suffering and the needs of refugees have been well-documented. They're fleeing on foot, by boat, and some people are braving arctic passes on bicycles. They've been met with resistance and pain all along the way. So yeah, bad things are happening.
But can you prevent some of that bad stuff from happening without doing harm? Well, you can’t do anything to shield the barrel bombs falling on the heads of Syrians, but you can do something to counteract deaths and suffering due to starvation and dehydration. However, there have been some legitimate concerns that money contributed to food aid organizations sometimes ends up in the wrong hands.
I called up Gerald Bourke, senior communications officer at World Food Programme, and asked him what kind of security provisions they put in place to make sure the food gets to the right people. Bourke told me the WFP's monitoring apparatus is "rigorous as possible." Their main cooperating partner inside Syria is the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, who have to meet several reporting obligations (i.e. how much food has been moved where, who moved it, who got it, etc.), and Bourke insists that WFP requires the Red Crescent and their other partners to adhere to those obligations very strictly.
Granted, getting food to people in a war zone with over 1,000 different fighting factions isn't as easy as driving down the street with a red crescent on your truck. “The efforts that our people go to inside of Syria to move a convoy of trucks down the road—across battle lines—are heroic,” Bourke told me.
Trying to move food from a warehouse in Damascus to villages or locations that are controlled by opposition forces is a logistical nightmare. ”Negotiations can take days, weeks, months,” Bourke said. “All parties to the conflict in that particular area have to agree to allow these trucks through. Some of [the factions], many of them, may not see any advantages for themselves in allowing for deliveries to take place. It’s a very painstaking building of trust, building of confidence, and making the case that the folk for whom the food is intended are innocent, very needy, and very deserving. And that can take a while, given the nature of that conflict.” Despite these issues, the WFP has been able to deliver staple food items to four million Syrians within the country.
And yet there may be some question about the efficacy of food aid in general. Giving people food won't end the underlying political issues related to Syria, so why give money toward that effort? Bourke, again: “The refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey Iraq, and the folk in Europe: These are desperate people who have been through hell," he said. "Food handouts aren’t going to solve the Syrian refugee crisis or the conflict within Syria itself, but food handouts are what people need to survive, and to have hope.”
Bourke told me that the US is actually doing a pretty good job in the hope department. The US is by far the largest donor to the WFP's operations inside and outside Syria, having contributed a total of $1.223 billion since the efforts were launched in 2011-12. But from 2013 to 2014, US contributions dropped pretty substantially. In 2013, we gave $516.5 million to both efforts. In 2014, we gave $335 million. We're still leading the pack in terms of the financial response to this crisis, and other affluent countries—especially those within the region—should also be contributing much more than they have been, but, dang, we dropped $181.5 million in a single year.
The unmet requirement for WFP’s operation in support of Syrian refugees in countries neighboring Syria (Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt) amount to $130 million for the period of Jan-March 2016. The requirement for operations inside Syria for that time period is $192 million. That means the org needs $322 million in order to feed the Syrian people.
Again, you can donate to the WFP's efforts to help fight hunger right over here.
I’m consciously posting this argument after the close of the fiscal quarter, when most people give to charity so that they can write it off on their taxes. But, as Singer argues, this kind of giving isn't charity. It's duty. In his essay, Singer acknowledges that the duty-not-charity notion is a little hard to swallow. He's right. It means we have to change our life.