Economics and compassion

Written by on July 21, 2009 in Helping Without Hurting, Notes By The Way with 1 Comment


William Easterly has a thought provoking post comparing an two analyses of food security in Africa from 1938 and 2o05.  He points out that the technical solutions proposed today are, in many cases, the same ones highlighted 70 years ago.

So why haven’t the technical recommendations been applied adequately after 70 years and untold billions of dollars? Here’s Easterly’s opinion:

Technical knowledge needs people to implement it – people who have the right incentives to solve all of the glitches and unexpected problems that happen when you apply a new technology, people who make sure that all the right inputs get to the right places at the right time, and local people who are motivated to use the new technology. The field that addresses all these incentives is called economics.

Economics isn’t the study of greed (as opposed to the study of compassionate aid). According to Lionel Robbins (1932), via Wikipedia, economics is “the science which studies human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.”

It’s a practical science that studies how things get done and how people work together in the real world. Considering the history of attempts to save the world, perhaps more economics are in order. Yesterday I wrote about my respect for the “new school” of aid epitomized by investing in entrepeneurs. This is a school fo thought the recognizes the power of simple economics to create change.

I know it’s a consolation to think that we help others by our compassion. But isn’t that just a way of elevating ourselves? Perhaps the poor don’t want our compassion so much as freedom and fair playing field to succeed. Compassion has it’s time and place, to be sure, but compassion that witholds freedom and opportunity is servitude in disguise.

About the Author

About the Author: Andy Gray is a writer and photographer living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and working with Alongsiders International. You can find him puttering around the streets of Phnom Penh on his Suzuki Viva 125, running stoplights and driving on the wrong side of the road or on the sidewalks like a local. If you see him in a coffee shop, he'll be the one typing and deleting the same line over and over again. .


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  • Dear Andy!

    Interesting text you refer to! I have just been to a conference in Zurich on Altruism in Economic systems, discussing the same questions around the issue, the motivations behing it (the “good” feeling we get when giving to charity: is that REAL altruism?) and modern expressions….I blogged about the conference at, so have a look! I know this post of yours is from already a long time ago, but maybe you’re still interested in the topic!

    Best wishes,