Acton Commentary

Solidarity, Charity and Government Aid


Of all Christ’s teachings as reflected in the gospel accounts, there is none as consistent as his defense of the poor and downtrodden. This teaching applies also to international relations and individual and societal responsibilities toward the poor and marginalized beyond one’s own borders. The Christian desire to assist the economic development of poorer peoples is founded on the principle at the heart of the Christian life: love. To be concerned about and act in favor of the poor around the world is to practice the virtue of charity.

However, in this context, it is a mistake to equate charity with government aid. When the Church talks about solidarity and the preferential option for the poor, it usually refers to these concepts in the context of charity: the service of love in providing for one’s neighbor without expecting anything in return. In his 2009 World Peace Day message, for example, Pope Benedict XVI said: “[I]t is timely to recall in particular the ‘preferential love for the poor’ in the light of the primacy of charity, which is attested throughout the Christian tradition, beginning with that of the early Church.”

This is not to say that there is no role for governments in providing aid for poor nations. However, such aid does not fulfill our duty of solidarity, and it is for individual Christians to make prudential judgments as to whether government aid is effective in aiding the poor. That government provision of any good, service, or assistance does not discharge our duties and cannot bring the world to perfection was made clear by Pope Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate: “Solidarity is first and foremost a sense of responsibility on the part of everyone with regard to everyone, and it cannot therefore be merely delegated to the State” (no. 38).

Political authorities play their part in bringing about the common good. To do this, they set the framework of laws within which individuals, families, and communities operate. The state may also enact laws where sins of omission are of sufficient seriousness to prevent people from participating in the common good. Thus if charity is not sufficiently generous to allow people to have the basics of life (such as food, clean water, and healthcare) the state may step in. It may do this on an international basis if the capacity of individual national states is insufficient. The state may also provide certain infrastructure that is necessary to promote the common good.

These guidelines leave a wide area for judgment in four respects. First, if government aid actually does more harm than good, it would be imprudent to use aid to try to promote the common good. Second, we may wish to use government policy to encourage more voluntary support. Third, there is the question of how much aid should be provided and how it should be delivered. Finally, especially if it is shown that aid does not raise the living standards of a recipient country, we may wish to pursue other policies to try to bring about long-term and fruitful change in the political and economic character of a country.

In Caritas, aid is mentioned 19 times and development over 250 times. That Pope Benedict has not abandoned papal exhortations to governments to provide aid is clear. He states: “Economically developed nations should do all they can to allocate larger portions of their gross domestic product to development aid” (no. 60). This passage must be read in context, however. It is the only point in the encyclical where more aid of this type is explicitly recommended. On 15 of the 19 occasions on which the word aid is used, the Holy Father is critical of aid agencies, the way in which Western governments provide aid, or of the way in which recipient governments use aid.

Benedict writes: “International aid has often been diverted from its proper ends, through irresponsible actions” (no. 22). He reminds us of the “grave irresponsibility of the governments of former colonies.” Those responsible have a duty—a very serious duty given the historical record—to ensure that aid is provided in a bottom-up way that genuinely leads to development for the poor.

The pope also stresses the importance of “institution building” for development (e.g., no. 41). Caritas suggests that a main focus of development aid should be to ensure that institutions exist so that the rule of law, protection of property rights, and a properly functioning democracy thrive. “The focus of international aid, within a solidarity-based plan to resolve today’s economic problems,” Benedict writes, “should rather be on consolidating constitutional, juridical and administrative systems in countries that do not yet fully enjoy these goods” (no. 41).

Benedict criticizes tied aid (assistance that must be spent in the nation providing it) and warns about aid dependency; he also demands a removal of developed-country trade barriers, which stop underdeveloped countries from selling their goods and produce. Indeed, he links the two points and suggests, in keeping with the tradition of Catholic social teaching, that aid should be temporary and that trade is the “principal form of assistance” to be provided to underdeveloped countries. In other words, countries should not be dependent on aid but move away from aid toward self-supporting economies.

Caritas also has advice for those involved in distributing aid, including agencies and charities. As the pope says: “International organizations might question the actual effectiveness of their bureaucratic and administrative machinery, which is often excessively costly” (no. 47). He calls for complete financial transparency for all aid organizations. He blames both providers of aid and recipients for diverting money from the purposes for which it was intended. He expresses concern that aid can lead to dependence and also, if badly administered, can give rise to exploitation and oppression. This can happen where aid budgets are large in relation to developing countries’ domestic budgets and the money gets into the hands of the rich and powerful rather than the poor and needy.

This analysis leaves open, however, the issue of how we should respond if the political, legal, and economic environment is not only hostile to economic development but also such that aid will be wasted and may be used to centralize power within corrupt political systems. Aid, in the wrong political environment, might do significant harm. Indeed, there is no substantial economic evidence that aid does significant good and a lot of evidence to suggest that it might harm the citizens of the countries that receive it.

Philip Booth is editorial and program director at the Institute of Economic Affairs in London. This article was excerpted from Booth’s new Acton monograph International Aid and Integral Human Development.