With an estimated 1.3 billion people globally still living in extreme poverty, is it ethically responsible for developing countries to have a national space programme?
With more developing countries looking to the success of India’s space programme as inspiration to launch their own, questions arise over whether such programmes can be deemed justifiable. When faced with the reality of high poverty rates and poor infrastructure prevalent in many developing countries, could the money be better spent elsewhere?
This article aims to outline the ethical arguments surrounding the growing interest in joining the race into space.
Who is affected?
The decision to undertake a national space programme lays primarily with that nation’s government, yet the consequences of such a venture will have a much wider impact. To evaluate the ethics behind this decision, the views and potential impact on the following groups; the country’s poorest citizens, educational institutions, engineering companies, and the skilled workforce, must be considered alongside those of the government.
The Optimism of the Government
For the governments of developing countries, a space programme would offer the potential of a profitable industry in a growing sector. This would lead to job creation, a growth in related industries and therefore a strengthened economy.
Investment in a technology based sector would also reduce the country’s reliance on the technologies of other countries. A notable example of this was India’s investment in satellite technology that greatly improved their weather prediction capabilities and directly saved thousands of people from extreme weather.
The Poorest Hit the Hardest?
With many developing countries still receiving foreign aid, heavy investment into a non-vital industry runs the risk of this aid being cut. Without concrete safeguarding of this vital income it is possible that those in poverty will suffer the most. This could lead them to question their government’s priorities and why none of the benefits from government investment ever seem to reach them.
Views from Inside the Industry
An increase in the number of space programmes does not only benefit existing space programmes through increased collaboration of knowledge in the sector but also benefits the engineering companies that serve the sector. Investment of the kind needed for a space programme could also increase both business and potential government grants for those companies involved.
There is also a dual benefit for the engineering companies and universities as both will profit from increased opportunities for research partnerships. With increased job opportunities for students in this sector there will be a growing demand for those skills to be taught at universities, driving improvements in the level of the workforce produced.
However, a focus on specific sectors can lead to a narrowing of skill sets which may come at a detriment to other vital engineering sectors such as agricultural. This can be seen in India where the rise of the technology sector has left a shortage of skills in its wake.
What are the Options?
- Investment by Developing Countries into a Space Programme
Technology is undoubtedly the industrial revolution of the 21st century with knowledge and information now being recognised as a key driver of economic growth. By following the trend set by developed countries, investment in high-technology industries offers a promising route to economic growth. Therefore, in the case of investment in a space programme, the means have real potential to justify the ends. In general, governments tend to make ethical decisions based on this consequentialism framework.
However, in reality more than a billion people still live in extreme poverty and the benefits of a space programme may never reach them. Especially in the short term, it can be argued that a space programme for a developing country cannot be justified as it will not benefit the greatest proportion of the current population.
The ethics of a decision however are almost always linked with the motive behind them. If the investment into a space programme is for political propaganda (arguably the case for the USSR Soviet Space Programme) it may be justifiable in the eyes of the government of the day. However, such an egoistic justification may come at the detriment of the country as the focus shifts from benefiting the majority to benefiting the few.
- Use the funding to invest in the vital sectors such infrastructure and health care
Arguably the first obligation of a government is to look after its people – an ethical concept first discussed by Kant. This can be more directly fulfilled through an increase in investment into vital services and infrastructure. Meeting this obligation in such a direct manner will benefit the whole population. This is in contrast to investment in technology whose benefits are biased towards the skilled workforce.
- Use the funding to invest in improving education
Further investment in education will provide and protect a right often saved for those with the privilege of living in a developed country – the right to an education. Taking an ethical standpoint based on protecting certain rights is often referred to as the Rights Approach. Education provides what investment into a space programme alone lacks – the potential for a direct and positive impact on the billions of people still living in poverty.
Well… is it Ethical?
Considering the ethics behind our research we believe investment into a space programme by developing countries can be ethically justifiable. However, this is of course under the condition that the country’s vital services are at a basic level so that financing a venture into the space industry will not detract from its primary obligations to its people. The development of a space industry for developing countries has the potential for a positive contribution towards GDP as well as job creation. Also, if outreach is viewed as an integral part of the programme, its development will also actively improve education. Knowledge has increasingly become a key factor in driving economic growth and the space industry can only fuel the aspirations of a nation as they look towards the stars.
Group 73: Rachel Yehzkel, James Morgan, Hazel Dearson, Philip Beauchamp