I’ve just finished reading Peter Singer’s new book, The life you can save – Acting now to end world poverty. In it he presents his arguments for why we ought to be acting to help those below the poverty line, discusses the obstacles and suggests methods for making sure that the money you give is effective.
Singer is a philosopher and an ethicist and, as such, presents a robust case for the need for charity as well as the wrongness of withholding aid when it is within our means.
He sets the scene with a scenario where you are passing by a pond and notice a toddler drowning in it. Most of us would be prepared to ruin our new shoes and clothing as well as make ourselves late for work in order to save the toddler. This would indicate that we actually value the life of this child over the cost of our clothing and over the interruption to our everyday lives.
But why don’t we act with the same urgency when we know for a fact that for a similar cost and/or inconvenience we would be able to save the life of a real child in, say, Africa?
Here Singer addresses many of the psychological issues that surround immediacy, perceived unfairness when others don’t give, balancing our legitimate selfish urges, being more vocal about our charity to create a better culture of giving and much more.
Having established that if we are able to help and we have no good reasons not to he then goes on to examine how to invest your aid wisely and ensure that your money is being used for what you intended. (I’ve often chosen my charities based largely on how little is wasted on administration – he deals with this and shows that it is more complicated than that).
The last part of the book is dedicated to establishing how much it is reasonable to expect us to give without turning us all off. Singer holds himself to his own standards and admits that even he can’t live up to them (he doesn’t mention it in the book but according to a radio interview I listened to he gives around 30% of his income). Think of it; if you can afford to buy a coffee when you could have had tap water then you have diverted potential aid from those who clearly need it more than you. Instead, he suggests a more realistic scale of percentages which, for most reading this, would be between 1-5% of our incomes before tax.
And all is not lost as he points out: in 1981 there were 1.9 billion people below the poverty line whereas today there are only 1.4 billion. Those numbers may seem close but consider that the fact that the world population has increased in the time and what this amounts to is that we have almost halved the percentage of people living below the poverty line in 30 years. Ending world poverty is achievable.
I thoroughly recommend you read this book.