South Sudan and the Ethics of Aid for Poverty & Suffering

South Sudan became an independent nation in 2011, but within the year, armed conflict began between warring clans and ethnic groups, who are affiliated with different presidential candidates. The conflict has been brutal with armies on both sides of the conflict committing genocide-like slaughter.

Not surprisingly, 3.6 million out of a population of 11 million have fled their homes and live in camps within the country and in adjacent countries, especially Ethiopia and Uganda. Notably, 60% of the refugees are children.

Over 5 million require aid to survive and most of those people are hungry from lack of food. Due to economic collapse and three years of poor agricultural conditions and drought, large areas of South Sudan now experience severe famine. One hundred thousand of these people live on the verge of starvation.

Because the humanitarian situation in South Sudan has been deteriorating rapidly, the UN and the NGO’s like Mercy Corps and MSF who are cooperating with the UN have not been able to raise funding for relief, much less developmental assistance.

On top of funding issues are the many threats to humanitarian aid workers. NGOs over the past two years reported a monthly average of 60 to 100 incidents where humanitarian aid transporters were attacked, and in some cases, robbed and killed, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. According to UN officials, the President of South Sudan himself ordered that the humanitarian food deliveries be blocked.

According to the Human Development Report, 2016, by the UN Development Program, South Sudan suffers from severe poverty, specific it indicates that 70% of the population lives in “severe multidimensional poverty.” Only one other country in the world, Niger, had higher poverty levels.

Extreme poverty is defined by UNICEF and many other organizations as a person living on less than $1.00 a day. Adding to that criterion, a state of starvation or lack of sanitary water, the state of severe poverty worldwide totals over 2 billion, which is about one fourth of the world population. The remaining part of this article discusses how different moral frameworks apply to South Sudan’s extreme poverty and suffering. Here is the orienting question that guides the discussion

What approach to moral motivations and incentives has the greatest chance of implementing major reduction in poverty and its associated suffering in South Sudan and other similar places around the world?

Moral philosophies or approaches each define specific bases for moral decision-making. Eight such moral philosophies, which are summarized in the appendix, illustrate the differences in suffering-alleviation decisions based upon each approach. These moral philosophies are virtue ethics, care ethics, social justice, negative utilitarianism, consequentialism, rights-based approaches, deontology, and relativism. They each represent different perspectives on moral purposes and strategies

Virtues ethics and the perceived duties of deontology help solve the challenge of world poverty through such attributes as altruism and generosity. Built into the requirements and expectations of many religions and cultures is the obligation to give alms to the poor. From early eras through medieval times, Christianity tended to define wealth as evidence of evil hoarding. Some denominations still ask their members to give at least 10% of their income to the church, which in turns assists the poor. However, in recent decades many Christians have adopted “prosperity theology,” which views wealth as a gift from God that one can hoard and enjoy without sharing it with others. This pathway toward greed may have been an outcome of the adoption of market economies, which legitimizes hording of wealth in order to succeed in the pursuit of economic growth.

The social justice movement emerged from the cultural and political neglect of virtues and the gross inequality that emerged from the victory of greed over the common good within the rush to capitalism. The rise of moral overtones of social justice gave new life to ethical priorities and helped boost the civil rights movement and the politics of the welfare state. But the strength of the social justice ethic seems to be weakening perhaps because so many contemporary social issues have been associated with social justice.

The weakening of social justice as the basis of the ethical argument that wealth should be shared may have been the result of the decline of support for civil society and the notion of the common good, all of which were seriously undermined by the rise of self-centeredness as a virtue rather than a vice.

Out of the negative utilitarianism philosophy has risen a logic that supports the generosity of ethical persons who help impoverished people that need help to survive. The logic is based upon the priority of the moral requirement to alleviate severe suffering. While many poor people report in surveys that their satisfaction with life is relatively high, they likely also suffer from short life spans, frequent illness, insecurity, and other things that degrade the quality of life.

Care ethics would seem to be relatively unimportant to the well-being of the poor, but research has found that low income persons are more likely to donate a proportionately higher amount to those who need help than the wealthy donate. The ability of the poor to empathize with other poor people may be the secret to their tendency to be more generous than the wealthy. However, the essential factor behind this phenomenon may be that the poor can more easily build relationships with other poor than with rich people. Some of these relationships could be the kind of human contact that reinforces care ethics and desires to help others.

Consequentialism applies to the poverty problem in that it emphasizes that no matter what activities or programs are employed to reduce poverty, the nature of the outcomes is what matters. The principal criterion for success is effectiveness of the intervention in reducing poverty in both the short and long run.

A human rights-based approach makes sense to those who consider human rights to be critically important. Not only do some rights lack consensus, but many people are not aware of the existence of these human rights. The official human rights within the category of political and civil rights specify rights to food and shelter and freedom from slavery. Among the social and economic rights is an official right to an adequate standard of living. Thus, officially declared human rights address poverty but by themselves they do not make the strongest argument for reducing it.

Finally, moral relativism advocates the moral supremacy of the individual or culture. Thus, no one person or culture is morally right. While this implies that people should be accepting of individual moral claims, the lack of a solid foundation for any given moral position is not only an oxymoron, but it takes away the responsibility of those leaders in South Sudan who perpetuate the suffering of the people so that only a few people benefit.

Looking at these moral foundations as a whole, the most immediately compelling may be negative utilitarianism because it designates attacking poverty-based suffering directly. However, many people have never been educated about this ethical principle. An appropriate approach in ethics education would be to emphasize both negative utilitarianism and consequentialism, which focuses us on ensuring that the interventions and development projects produce effective outcomes for both poverty and suffering reduction.

Prevention of Future Suffering

Commitment to alleviate poverty-based suffering, whether on moral grounds or otherwise, logically applies to not only the present time but to the future as well. This implicit understanding applies to future generations—which are rarely mentioned in any policy documents. As soon as we move to future tense, the scope of suffering-alleviation shifts to prevention of suffering.

Any project to alleviate suffering can be grounded in one or more time frames: past, present, or future. Humanitarian relief is delivered in the present for disasters rooted in the past. International development projects build capacities and prevention mechanisms in the present that will function as resiliencies in the future.

Climate mitigation advocacy and suffering-prevention better prepare us for both the present and the future. Increasingly the present is filled with victims of chaos that had been predicted for the future. We have often failed at suffering prevention from climate-produced catastrophes such as hurricanes, floods and fires.

We need attentiveness to the present in order to anticipate future needs. Specifically, we seek to alleviate the suffering of vulnerable populations such as the poor and the disabled in order to address the injustices of existing policies and practices of relevant institutions. The poor and neglected tend to be those who suffer the most. Giving them our greatest attention at this point in history will benefit them in the future.


After exploring moral obligations to help alleviate the suffering of impoverished people, we return to the question of what policies should be used in addressing the poverty of a particular country like South Sudan, which suffers not just from ordinary poverty but droughts and famines produced in part by global warming and by the combination of civil war and failure to respect humanness and the rule of law. Given the hostility that both sides of the civil war in South Sudan toward outsiders including humanitarian agencies, effective interventions to reduce poverty will require not only building new security forces but sending programs and people that are willing to learn local languages and culture and help the local people build their own institutions that reduce poverty, end needless conflict, and prevent major suffering.

Appendix A. Moral Philosophies in the Relief of Suffering

Moral philosophies specify the elements of moral decision-making. Eight such moral philosophies illustrate differences in suffering-alleviation decisions based upon each approach. These moral philosophies are virtue ethics, care ethics, social justice, negative utilitarianism, consequentialism, rights-based approaches, deontology, and relativism. They each represent a different perspective on moral purposes and strategies emphasizing virtues, care, justice, severe suffering, outcomes, human rights, duties and self-interest respectfully. These eight foundations of moral rhetoric use differing logical bases for action. In any given situation where suffering alleviation is considered, one or more moral arguments may apply

Virtue Ethics. In virtue ethics, virtues and vices form the basis for individual decision-making. This means that judgments regarding good and evil are the product of character, that is, dispositions toward acting virtuously and avoiding negative traits or vices.

Care Ethics. Care ethics arise from feelings of empathy and compassion and fosters interdependence among human beings and relationships in the pursuit of morality. Most care theorists argue that care ethics rests on a foundation of relationships (Held 2006).

Social Justice. This moral philosophy pioneered by Aristotle was re-examined and greatly elaborated in the last Century by John Rawls (1971). This approach to morality also has been referred to as justice, fairness and the common good approach to morality. This family of theories presumes that morality should be based upon contributions toward the good of all in a community or society. Institutions work together to achieve social justice in society.

Negative Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism promotes the well-being of the largest number of people possible. This form of utilitarianism was introduced by Karl Popper (1959) with the premise that reducing suffering has a far greater value than boosting happiness. Extreme suffering such as suffering from torture is often used as an example by proponents of negative utilitarianism. Few intuitively believe that boosting the happiness of a lot of people has a higher moral priority than the elimination of torture for even a small number of people, much less a large number of victims.

 Consequentialism. This family of theories focuses primarily on future outcomes. This approach to moral decision-making begins with the premise that actions are morally right, if and only if, the acts maximize desired outcomes, e.g., the total good minus the total bad. The approach applies to programs for “poverty reduction,” especially when the long-term results show major decline in poverty.

Rights-Based Approaches. While Rights-Based Approaches (RBA) to human suffering may not be considered philosophies, they advance our understanding of how best to frame the moral implications of different types of suffering. This approach shows how such challenges as disease often are the product of social and economic contexts rather than of natural or biological sources. Within the human rights rubric, suffering justifies the rights and arises from discrimination, poverty and other social or structural problems.

Deontology. This normative ethical position argues that moral decisions should be made on the basis of intentions or motives. Kant (1780) introduced the concept of duties and obligations based on social rules to, among other things, relieve suffering. Actions seen as obligations would typically be based upon perceptions of duty. Singer pioneered the idea that duties exists to alleviate suffering. However, with the exception of Buddhism, most religions do not explicitly define such a duty. The first ethical philosophy that children learn is deontological because they are taught to follow the rules defined by their parent(s).

Moral Relativism. This moral philosophy posits the absence of any absolute moral principles that apply to everyone. Instead, the assumption is that the best approach is to examine the desires and values of each individual and each culture as separate moral authorities each having their own moral framework. Thus, relativism is the opposite of universalism, and in many ways less compelling and socially useful.


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