Rethinking Robin Hood

MADRID – International development aid is based on the Robin Hood principle: take from the rich and give to the poor. National development agencies, multilateral organizations, and NGOs currently transfer more than $135 billion a year from rich countries to poor countries with this idea in mind.

A more formal term for the Robin Hood principle is “cosmopolitan prioritarianism,” an ethical rule that says we should think of everyone in the world in the same way, no matter where they live, and then focus help where it helps the most. Those who have less have priority over those who have more. This philosophy implicitly or explicitly guides the aid for economic development, aid for health, and aid for humanitarian emergencies.

On its face, cosmopolitan prioritarianism makes sense. People in poor countries have needs that are more pressing, and price levels are much lower in poor countries, so that a dollar or euro goes twice or three times further than it does at home. Spending at home is not only more expensive, but it also goes to those who are already well off (at least relatively, judged by global standards), and so does less good.

I have thought about and tried to measure global poverty for many years, and this guide has always seemed broadly right. But I currently find myself feeling increasingly unsure about it. Both facts and ethics pose problems.