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June 19, 2006

You Can Save More Lives Without Killing People

By Neil the Ethical Werewolf

This may sound a lot like those ads for charities that make you change the channel and feel bad about doing so, but do you know how much a single dose of the measles vaccine costs? A mere fifteen cents. For the lack of enough fifteen-cent measles shots, a hundred thousand children die each year in India. Fortunately, people are trying to vaccinate more children and solve this problem. The Measles Initiative, a partnership including the UN, charities, and health organizations, has already succeeded in reducing the global measles rate by 39%. To reduce the measles rate by 90%, they say they’d need $479 million, only $147 million of which has come into their hands.

Which brings me to the price of the Iraq War.

The Congressional Budget Office has calculated that the war costs about $9 billion per month. That’s about $300 million per day. In other words, saving 90,000 Indian children, and goodness knows how many kids in other parts of the world, would cost less than two days' expenditures from Iraq.  It makes you think -- if we'd spent our money on saving lives in the cheapest ways possible, rather than by replacing Saddam with Shiite fundamentalists, how many lives would we have saved?  And -- for those who always think of the national interest -- how highly would America be regarded in the world? 

I'm not a radical enough pacifist to say that wars are always unjustified.  Sometimes wars need to be fought for self-defense.  Also, if there's a genocide going on, and we can use our military to stop it at a low cost in lives, we should give serious thought to doing so.  Because of my utilitarian view of just warfare and the badness of Saddam, I had to seriously consider the humanitarian justification for the Iraq War in early 2003.  But it's amazing how expensive it is to save lives through war, and how cheap it is to save lives through peaceful foreign aid.  Another nice thing about saving lives by vaccinating children, as opposed to saving lives through war, is that it doesn't actually involve killing anybody. 

To quote Matt Yglesias, who provided the measles information above,

Recent years have seen an admirable increase in the American elite's commitment to "idealism" in foreign policy, the rejection of the view that morality is and should be irrelevant to a nation's conduct on the world stage. Bizarrely, however, this has been paired with an increasing sense that the true measure of one's high ideals is one's willingness to kill people.

As Matt asks, "why not help the wretched of the Earth by finding the easiest ways to be helpful?"  Really, why not?

June 19, 2006 in Foreign Policy | Permalink


Some good ideas go wrong. Save the kids and shortage of food can increase starvation. Drilling for water in the Sahel depleted the aquifer and accelerated desertification.
I'm not sure about your line on willingness to kill people being part of moral criteria unless you mean lack of it. Take a look at this for stark contrast with what you run into day-to-day : http://www.cbc.ca/news/

Posted by: opit | Jun 19, 2006 7:57:18 AM

Im all for the spending of dollars in a more productive enterprise then the Iraw 'war'. (occupation)

I don't know that I like funneling money to India in particular however. The soft-hearted among us still has the view of India as a backward 3rd world country in need of assistance to just make it by.

They do have a disturbing amount of poverty, it is true. But they also have a huge amount of wealth now which they are funneling directly into the high tech sectors. With that money the continue to import US tech industry and tech jobs that we seem to be happy to send over to them.

You posit the question, what would the world think of us if we sent them that $400 million? Im sure the world would continue to think that we hadn't done enough. India in particular would think of us like a great big bag of money that they could continue to milk from both sides.

Surely it is in our interests to help eradicate communicable disease anywhere in the world. In combining that interest with a wider view of the issues however, we need to start convining India to begin investing in its own population as well.

Posted by: david b | Jun 19, 2006 9:54:38 AM

Dude, what are you talking about?! I'd much rather spend half a trillion on guns and oil than on your sissy medicines and schools.

Kill! Kill! Blood makes the grass grow!

The Hindsight Factor

Posted by: urthwalker | Jun 19, 2006 9:54:58 AM

opit has a valid point.

Many of the well intentioned and good hearted efforts can backfire and make things worse. I'm not advocating doing nothing, but the habit of very liberal people is to myopically focus only on the immediate problems and not on the larger picture.

Ezra (Heh, almost called Ezra Jesse), one of the issue that you didn't bring forth with the Indian vaccine initiative is the cultural and religios resistance to vaccines. Throwing money at the vaccine availability problem alone is not effective. Many will not vaccinate their children under any circumstance. Then there's this problem:


I also think your statement of equivalency of saving lives through war or vaccines is a crock. What's the point of saving lives if they have no quality? Vaccines have their place in the world just as war does. I can't think of many borders that haven't been decided directly or indirectly through war.

Posted by: Fred Jones. | Jun 19, 2006 10:37:28 AM

Many of the well intentioned and good hearted efforts can backfire and make things worse

You don't say? It's times like these I suspect the "Fred Jones"/"Robert Zimmerman" persona is just an elaborate piece of performance art.

Posted by: Constantine | Jun 19, 2006 10:55:59 AM

Hey Jesse I mean Ezra I mean Neil,

Nice sentiments, but you have to remember that consequences are unpredictable, so we should be wary of risky schemes like increasing funding for measles vaccination that could easily backfire and focus more on safe, dependable humanitarian interventions like starting massive wars.

Posted by: Blar | Jun 19, 2006 11:15:05 AM

You don't say? It's times like these I suspect the "Fred Jones"/"Robert Zimmerman" persona is just an elaborate piece of performance art.

When you have something important to say, let us know.

Posted by: Fred Jones. | Jun 19, 2006 12:04:22 PM

Couldn't India just pony up the money?

Posted by: Kevin | Jun 19, 2006 12:17:18 PM

This sounds like a good project for the French to fund.

Posted by: Ray | Jun 19, 2006 1:10:27 PM

So, that means you're going to finally become a big advocate of DDT and GM crops, eh?

Because if you're really looking to save lives, that's where the numbers are.

My guess is, that wasn't your point. You just wanted another opportunity to tell us that War Is Not Healthy For Children And Other Living Things. It's a false dichotomy.

Posted by: Assistant Village Idiot | Jun 19, 2006 2:16:55 PM

"What's the point of saving lives if they have no quality? Vaccines have their place in the world just as war does."

Possibly the most ghoulish remark of the day.

Posted by: Matt | Jun 19, 2006 2:28:23 PM

Sorry that it disturbs your liberal make-believe world, but most of the borders we have today are the result of war and at any one time there are many wars occurring.

I don't like it either, but that is reality.

Posted by: Fred Jones. | Jun 19, 2006 4:59:55 PM

Ah, Fred, where would you be without your penchant for projection and your complete lack of self-awareness? That's why we love you. :)

Too often, as I thik those arguing with Neil here make clear, it's assumed that the Iraq war is "obviously" justifiable, whereas any other initiatives that would save lives require the advocate to explain in minute detail why this is a good idea. In fact the opposite is the case. Initiatives to supply developing countries with vaccines and potable water are "obviously" justifiable, and the burden is on the dissenters to explain why resources should be diverted elsewhere, whereas it is those who demand war as the most efficient means of saving lives who are the ones that need to justify their position to the dissenters.

Posted by: Constantine | Jun 19, 2006 6:17:38 PM

Ummm....measles vaccine has been around for thirty years. If it was merely a matter of money, it would have been done.
And why do you blame this on Bush?
The Iraq war has not been around that long.
Why didn't Clinton offer India the funding?
Why doesn't Bill Gates give a half a billion to do it (whoops he did).
The dirty little secret is that a lot of UN and government to government "development" money ends up in the Swiss bank accounts of crooked politicians.
Let me fill you in as a doc whose been involved in such things.
Measles is not the only vaccine that prevents children from dying. You don't just go in and give measles shots. If you do, some of the kids will get high fevers from the MMR shots, and you may end up with riots.

You have to start with grass roots. People have to trust you. You get locals to cooperate with those doing the baby clinics/shot. And it works best when combined with basic medical care (Under fives clinics, where village health workers give out WHO Rehydration fluid and monitor weight, and give protein supplements to those whose weight is low. And this has to be combined with family planning and prenatal care. All of these are low tech, and can be done with nurses or medical assistants who come from nearby and are trusted).

The reason that only giving Measles shots is not the answer is this: One of the dirty little secrets about measles deaths are that healthy kids don't die of measles. You see, most kids who die of measles are below the 5% desireable weight.
Giving these at risk kids measles shots mean they won't die of measles, but they will probably die of something else, usually diarrhea.

Posted by: Nancy Reyes | Jun 19, 2006 6:57:33 PM

every time this stuff about foreign aid comes up, ezra and other liberals make the implicit assumption that its the SOLE AUTHORITY OF THE USA to fund all of these projects.

when GWB ponied up 20 billion for AIDS, more than all other nations combined, what was the response? You guessed it: "its not enough money, we need more, the USA is rich, waaaahhhh"

And then there's the dubious "GDP percentage" argument. "400 million is only 0.00000001% of GDP so we should just spend it" type of nonsense that people use to excuse the rest of the world from paying their fair share and just leaving the USA as the only "uncle moneybags" on the planet.

I tell you what. The govt should just give each american 1 million dollars because its only 0.000001% of the GDP.

I'm all for that.

Posted by: joe blow | Jun 19, 2006 9:00:11 PM

Then why not forget the percentages and fund modest, sustainable aid operations through the most efficient agencies ? I'm ideologically neutral here and just think any effort has to be based on consultation and has to operate over a period of years while focussing on achievable objectives.
Why the U.S. ? Beats the hell out of me. Aren't most international service organizations also international in their support base ?

Posted by: opit | Jun 20, 2006 5:11:06 AM

Then why not forget the percentages and fund modest, sustainable aid operations through the most efficient agencies ?

That would be private agencies who don't have the political baggage, polticial correctness and red tape, most likely religiosly based.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Jun 20, 2006 8:42:33 AM

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