Development ideas are brought into debate which question whether

Development Aid and Environmental Degradation: A
Utilitarian Approach


December, 2017

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I. Introduction

“It is
generally the poorest who are left with no alternative but to ignore the future
to survive the day, and thus attack their own and their country’s vital
environmental balances in their desperate bid for survival” – Brian Johnson


paper describes the ongoing issue of environmental degradation in developing
nations as a result of development aid projects. The relationship between aid, development
economics and utilitarianism will be examined to analyze the contradiction in well-being
that arises from the issue. Environmental degradation is one of the largest
threats to life on earth at a time where every nation strives for economic
growth. This topic is important as it is crucial that we adopt greener aid
strategies to avoid the deterioration of the environment in emerging economies.


will review the literature on foreign aid, economic development and the
environment. This is a widely researched topic, and the link has been referred
to as a ‘curse’ by Cao and Tamer (2013). Contemporary
and longstanding ideas are brought into debate which question whether
international development funding agencies are really concerned about the
environmental impact of their development projects (Johnson, 1979).


rural road rehabilitation development aid project in South Sudan will be
presented to supplement the literature and to illustrate the ‘curse’ that aid projects
may have on the environment. The Southern Sudan project has not been thoroughly
reviewed or discussed, but interestingly The World Bank have published an assessment
(2013) that reports the environmental impact of the project and acknowledges
relevant socio-economic factors.


these considerations must be reflected ethically. I will interpret, analyze and
evaluate the case study, and the wider topic, from a utilitarian perspective. If
development aid projects do not maximize well-being, it is not ethical to
implement them according to utilitarianism. An ethical stance that opposes
development aid may appear paradoxical and controversial; after all, aid seeks
to improve the social conditions and economic prosperity of human life. I mean
to conclude with an act utilitarian assessment of the projects in South Sudan,
weighing total well-being and applying this to wider ideas about development
aid, the environment and utilitarianism.  


II. Literature
Review: Foreign Aid, Economic Development and the Environment

It is
often presumed that economic development is a certain outcome of foreign aid;
observed through improved economic and social conditions. However, the
literature has evidenced examples which suggest this link can be disputed. Sahoo
and Sethi (2016) explored the empirical link between foreign aid and economic
development in Sri Lanka and the Maldives. They concluded that higher amount of
foreign aid inflows led to higher economic development in Sri Lanka; but not in
the Maldives. Another study in Pakistan indicates there can be both positive
and negative effects of foreign aid on economic development (Jamil, et al., 2012).


and Ueta (2009) recommended aid effectiveness ought to be primarily measured
against the level of poverty reduction and improvement in the Human Development
Index (HDI) rates. The rising levels of HDI (a composite index that measures
the education level, life expectancy, literacy, and standards of living of
developing economies over the past few decades) suggest that the increase in
flow of foreign aid has improved the overall standard of living (Sethi & Sahoo, 2016). The HDI index is a
good measure for well-being and will be considered later in the utilitarian


Edwards (2012) offers a historical perspective on the effectiveness of foreign
aid on economic development; he addressed three distinct camps that have
divergent views. The first camp believe aid is ineffective and harmful, creating
dependency and fostering corruption. According to this group, aid is a tool
that leads to the misallocation of resources and nurtures corruption. The second
camp believe that greater sums of aid would be effective, whereas the third
camp claim that current international aid is not being implemented effectively.
The latter two perspectives are optimistic but nevertheless suggest that
improvements in strategy are necessary.


A significant
improvement is the adoption of good policy. Burnside and Dollar (2009) estimate
the impact of aid for a country with average policies is zero. Therefore, it
can be argued that aid is far more effective for economic development if the
recipient nation has good policies. Official Development Assistance on its own
? without certain preconditions, policies, and institutions in place ? cannot
achieve its goals (Rotarou &  Ueta,
One policy objective that is crucial to economic development is environmental
sustainability. Arndt and Tarp (2017) recognized that developing
countries, with their high climate sensitivity and relatively low adaptive
capacity, are likely to be particularly vulnerable to climate change (Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change (IPCC), 2014; Parry, et al., 2007). Though,
environmental degradation is a much wider issue.


Cao and
Tamer (2013) hold the view that many developing countries suffer from severe
environmental degradation which threatens their long-term prosperity; moreover,
environmental degradation often entrenches poverty in the poorest countries in
the world. There is an empirical link between environmental degradation and
foreign aid. Arvin, Dabir-Alai and Lew (2006) suggest that since environmental
degradation in many poorer countries can be related, inter alia, to lack of
funds for environmental clean-up and preservation, aid has a role to at least
decelerate such degradation. Furthermore, the impact of foreign aid on
environmental quality depends upon the methods by which the recipient
government spends aid money which in turn is a function of government’s
survival strategies (Bueno de Mesquita, et al.,
Therefore, the recipient government may promote environmental degradation
through bad policy and consequently harm aid effectiveness. Likewise, it seems
reasonable to believe that development aid and aid institutions have the
potential to become important catalytic actors in achieving interlinked
developmental and global environmental objectives (Arndt & Tarp,
This contradiction suggests that development institutions are not reflecting their
potential and may also be responsible.


and Sethi (2014) also investigated foreign aid and its environmental implication
in India from 1970 to 2011. They asserted that the purpose of foreign aid
programs is to accelerate the process of economic development up to a point where
a satisfactory rate of growth can be achieved on a self-sustaining basis (2014).
However, economic growth stimulates further environmental degradation, which
can perhaps never be ‘self-sustaining’. They concluded that a rise in
industrialization, deforestation and economic growth lead to higher amount of
environment pollution in India. E.F Schumacher would argue that the problem
lies in the idea of unlimited economic growth; as the capacity of the
environment cannot cope with the degree of interference implied (1973). On the
other hand, the Environmental Kuznets curve hypothesis implies that further
economic growth is expected to overcome the environmental degradation occurred
in earlier phases of development (Kaika & Zervas, 2013). Improved technologies
that lead to greater efficiency may explain this trend.


debate on how development aid influences the environmental quality of the aid
beneficiary nation stands still more unsettled than the initial debate
surrounding aid’s influence on economic development itself.   With regards to environmental quality, can
this be considered either a normal good or an inferior good? If it were a
normal good, foreign aid inflows would encourage better environmental
standards; whereas if it were an inferior good, foreign aid inflows would have
detrimental effects on the environment.  The
Environmental Kuznets curve is explained if the environment is an inferior good
at low income levels, but becomes a normal good at higher income levels (Aravossis, et al., 2006).


III. Road Rehabilitation in
South Sudan

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) published an environmental
assessment of Sudan (now South Sudan) in 2007. The report revealed a range of
unintended environmental impacts of aid programmes and aid effectiveness.  Two projects were classified as Category A,
in other words, ‘likely to have significant adverse environmental impacts’ in
South Sudan. One of these projects was a regeneration of the nation’s roads
which had been dilapidated after years of civil unrest.  


The Ministry
of Transport, Road and Bridges in South Sudan (MTRB) produced an Environmental
and Social Assessment of the Rural Roads project in Sudan, available online via
The World Bank (2013). The purpose of the project was to improve transport
infrastructure to promote economic development. The report claimed this would: reduce
poverty; enhance livelihoods; stimulate trade; resolve isolation of local
communities and thereby gain basic inputs and services to improve productivity
– enhancing livelihood and improving well-being. However, their report also
underlined the environmental costs of the project, including; impacts on water
resources; dust generation and air quality impacts; waste generation impacts
and borrow pit exploitation. These costs have significant adverse effects on
livelihood and well-being.


IV. Utilitarian Analysis of Case Study

The central
belief of utilitarianism is that one should do whatever maximizes overall well-being.  It demands that we measure the value of
consequences in terms of their total utility. The meaning of utility itself is
divergent between economists and philosophers. An economist may say ‘utility’
is the value of a function that represents a person’s preferences (Broome, 1991) whereas a moral
philosopher may claim ‘utility’ is interchangeable with well-being, understood
in hedonic terms as pleasure and absence of pain.


If an
action is morally right based on the utility of its consequences, we may evaluate
whether the projects implemented in South Sudan are right by forming a
utilitarian calculation of the social utility produced; i.e. the total well-being.
Value monism, makes this calculation simpler; the only intrinsically valuable
thing is well-being.  Moreover, everybody’s
utility is accounted for. In this instance, act utilitarianism is the basis of
the calculation in that we are judging the individual act directly in terms of
utilitarian criterion (Harsanyi, 1977).


It is
reasonable to begin with an assumption that foreign aid, through means of
development, is morally right. The thesis of utilitarian Peter Singer’s
argument in his 1971 paper (published in 1972) ‘Famine, Affluence and Morality’
applies directly to development aid. Singer assumes, like any other rational
being, that suffering from lack of food, shelter and healthcare is bad. We can also
assume from the literature that development aid often promotes improved
infrastructure and institutions, which subsequently foster better access to
food, shelter and healthcare. Singer argues that it is morally right to prevent
suffering “without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance” (1972).
Therefore, we can reason that we ought morally to be providing development aid
by Singers standard.


argument is not truly utilitarian, in that it doesn’t demand we maximize
overall well-being. However, it is utilitarian in the sense that it is an
argument against relieving suffering that is happening now, because of a belief
about what might happen in the future (1972). Harsanyi subscribes to the view
that the most fundamental source of uncertainty in our moral decisions will
always lie in our uncertainty about the future (1977). A utilitarian
calculation must consider the well-being of future generations to obtain an
accurate measure of social utility; and in Singers case, a measure of suffering.
Thus, a utilitarian must consider the environmental impacts of development aid
projects, as they have direct consequences upon the utility of future


approach the utilitarian calculation for the projects with a purely hedonic
methodology; contrasting pleasure and pain. This calculation is difficult
because we have no access to the intrinsic well-being of anybody else but
ourselves, as Harsanyi explains, we can only produce an interpersonal utility
comparison based on information and effort to make good estimates of the
utility that others will experience (1977).  A relationship between ethics and economics
may be drawn here to provide an objective and convincing measurement of social
utility or well-being. The HDI index, which accounts for a long and healthy
life, knowledge and a decent standard of living (United Nations
Development Programme, 2016) may be a
satisfactory measurement of the potential ‘pleasure’ a society may yield. The
maximization of all three factors can surely improve the social utility of any
given society.  


roads rehabilitation project has a direct influence on poverty alleviation. This
draws us to analyze the relationship between money and pleasure in which John
Stuart Mill did so justly. Money is desired not for the sake of an end but as
part of the end, from being a means to happiness it has come to be itself a
principal ingredient of the individual’s conception of happiness (Mill, 1861).
Mill does not deny that money can bring about pleasure, but money in itself is
not inherently pleasurable. In the case of South Sudan, the road project was
credited for falling public transport costs, rising domestic employment and
greater access to markets. Relieving society from absolute poverty with these
factors does not bring pleasure; it is the comfort and security that money
brings which lead to the prevention of suffering. Poverty alleviation may not
demand that we maximize pleasure or well-being but avoidance of pain is
considered valuable from a hedonistic approach. Additionally, the improvements
of roads in South Sudan have a direct impact on healthcare delivery, in terms
of access to hospitals, which should see a decrease in maternal and child
mortality rates. The HDI index should improve with a greater life expectancy at
birth and accordingly, greater social utility appears to be promoted.


as we have learnt from the literature and the case study, environmental
consequences are important; and they are not ignored in a utilitarian
calculation. The South Sudan roads project has many consequences, as mentioned
in the case study. Focusing on two, dust pollution and exploitation of borrow
pits, may sufficiently demonstrate the detrimental effects on overall social


The ‘excavation, loading and emptying of dump trucks will generate dust;
exhaust emissions from vehicles moving between sites will also contribute to
air pollution; excessive dust is known to cause upper respiratory diseases and
aggravate allergies like asthma.’ (Ministry of Transport, Roads
and Bridges, Government of Republic of South Sudan., 2013).


Furthermore; ‘The principal environmental concerns
related to the exploitation of borrow pits are: loss of vegetation, farmlands,
dust, health, public safety. When unprotected during usage and if it is not
reinstated after use it would become a hazard for children and animals and
becomes breeding ground for disease vectors. Construction in reserves can
affect the wildlife population.’ (Ministry of Transport, Roads
and Bridges, Government of Republic of South Sudan., 2013).


One may
begin this discussion by reasoning that the air nor the land can experience
pain or pleasure. Environmental quality may be parallel to Mill’s idea of money
in that it is not intrinsically pleasurable, it is the means to the ends, which
ultimately is the social utility. The pleasure or pain that is a result of the
environment is experienced by producers, consumers and third parties. A policy
or project that contributes towards respiratory disease or loss of vegetation
must disrupt overall well-being. This conclusion could have been drawn from the
outset; the underlying intricacy for the utilitarian’s is the measurement,
weighing up pleasures and pains.


explained how a utilitarian could measure the value of a lot of pain or
pleasure. For the purpose of estimating the tendency of any act (in this
instance, the development aid project) by which its produced, Bentham offered 6
circumstances (1789): intensity; duration; certainty or uncertainty; propinquity
or remoteness; fecundity; and purity. He then encourages us to add all the
values of pleasure and all the values of pain; whichever sum is greatest
reveals the propensity of the act.


This framework
can be applied to the road rehabilitation project in South Sudan. We may use
Bentham’s measurement tool in order to build an act utilitarian evaluation of
the project and reason whether it is morally right based on the utility of its




of Borrow Pits


§  High intensity of suffering caused by human health
impacts; higher risk of lung and heart problems.
§  High intensity of suffering caused by effects
on wildlife: higher risk of disease and reproductive failure.

§  High intensity of suffering caused by loss of
vegetation; leading to climate change, flooding and destruction of habitats.
§  High intensity of suffering caused by health
impacts; breeding ground for disease vectors.


Long duration of suffering.
Vehicle exhaust emissions continue even after road network has been

Long duration of suffering if
unprotected. Hazardous for children and animals after usage.

Certainty or Uncertainty

§  Certain adverse effects on well-being.

§  Likely adverse effects on well-being.

Propinquity or Remoteness

Suffering may not occur
instantaneously, but over time will be overwhelming.

Suffering may occur
instantaneously through habitat destruction. 


§  High fecundity of suffering caused by
environmental impacts; contributor to global climate change, ozone depletion.


§  High fecundity of suffering where borrow pit
construction affects wildlife population.


No pleasures.

§  No pleasures.


The table
above shows how Bentham, a classic utilitarian, may total the value of pain
suffered as a result of the environmental impacts of the road project.  The logical next step is to total the value of
pleasures and find the tendency of the act. However, for the purposes of analysis,
I must note the value of the consequences at this point are impossible to
assign quantities to. Instead, we may apply the table above to prove the great absence
of pleasure as a result of environmental degradation. Subsequently, as utilitarianism
is a form of consequentialism, we may conclude that the project is only morally
right if there is no alternative project that has greater total social utility.
That is to say, if any other alternative can yield the same pleasures that
poverty alleviation and access to healthcare may achieve, and at the same time
diminish the pains suffered through air pollution and borrow pit exploitation,
the current road rehabilitation project will be deemed morally wrong.


first alternative would be a ‘no project’ scenario. This follows Singer’s idea
that it is occasionally morally right to allow suffering to continue for a
belief about what may happen in the future (1972). Still, the fecundity of pain
that may be experienced without the project, including increasing maternal and
child mortality rates, suggests this alternative is shameful by any other moral
standard. But, there is one alternative that would permit the reformation of
the roads in South Sudan, without inhibiting the well-being of its inhabitants;
greener aid strategies.


are various measures this may entail for the project. The MRTB (2013) offered
some procedures that can be adopted, they are as follows: To lessen the effects
of dust pollution, regular water steeping of roads by low emission vehicles should
be an adopted practice; To lessen the effects of air pollution, any materials which
produce harmful gases or dense smoke when burned should instead be recycled; To
avoid the exploitation of borrow pits, they must be continuously managed and
protected; and the area restored so as to enable regrowth of vegetation. Fundamentally,
these are only mitigating circumstances and true green aid strategies would
entail an entire regeneration of the project; an expensive and timely solution,
although an alternative that would ensure the maximization of social utility.


V. Conclusion

the literature review on development aid, economic development and the
environment; I have reached certain conclusions. Firstly, specific
prerequisites are necessary for foreign aid to further economic development.
This includes good environmental policy, as degradation has empirical links to
rural poverty. Secondly, further research must be conducted to provide an
accurate measurement of the impact development aid strategies have on the
environment; it is vital for the well-being of future generations. I have
related this to the case study in an attempt to demonstrate the economic
benefits and environmental costs of a single development programme; and what
that means ethically.


I have developed some conclusions about utilitarianism itself as a tool for analyzing
foreign aid policy. Firstly, a utilitarian calculation is too difficult in
response to analyzing any form of economic policy which has many variable
factors. The calculation requires us to do what is right based on expected
consequences for other people, but the factors are too unpredictable and
sometimes expected consequences are just speculations; basing our moral code on
speculation could only produce highly inconsistent outcomes. The calculation also
requires us to measure values of pain and pleasure, applying numbers to the social
utility of populations as well as future generations and wildlife is simply
impossible. Nonetheless, the utilitarian calculation may still be useful on a
smaller scale when resolving personal moral problems which have clearer
expected utility and fewer biases.


makers are better advised to adhere to rules (Hausman & McPherson,
Rule utilitarianism may provide a much simpler and improved means of generating
greater social utility than act utilitarianism could. The latter suggests we
should always be questioning whether the ‘no project’ solution would maximize social
utility. On the other hand, rule utilitarianism suggests we find a moral rule that
would ensure vast social utility from development aid projects; and any policy
in accordance of this rule should ultimately be morally right. This rule may be
implementing greener aid strategies so as to maximize social utility, without
thereby sacrificing any pleasures
that would be lost without aid.