Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty

Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty

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by Peter Singer

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For the first time in history, eradicating world poverty is within our reach. Yet around the world, a billion people struggle to live each day on less than many of us pay for bottled water. In The Life You Can Save, Peter Singer uses ethical arguments, illuminating examples, and case studies of charitable giving to show that our current response to world…  See more details below


For the first time in history, eradicating world poverty is within our reach. Yet around the world, a billion people struggle to live each day on less than many of us pay for bottled water. In The Life You Can Save, Peter Singer uses ethical arguments, illuminating examples, and case studies of charitable giving to show that our current response to world poverty is not only insufficient but morally indefensible. The Life You Can Save teaches us to be a part of the solution, helping others as we help ourselves.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Part plea, part manifesto, part handbook, this short and surprisingly compelling book sets out to answer two difficult questions: why people in affluent countries should donate money to fight global poverty and how much each should give. Singer (Animal Liberation) dismantles the justifications people make for not giving and highlights the successes of such efforts as microfinance in Bangladesh, GiveWell's charitable giving and the 50% League, where members donate more than half their wealth. Singer alternately cajoles and scolds: he pillories Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, who has given less than his former partner, Bill Gates, and lives far more extravagantly: "His toys include a large collection of vintage military aircraft and a 413-foot oceangoing yacht called Octopus that cost him over $200 million and has a permanent crew of sixty." Singer contrasts Allen's immoderation with the work of Paul Farmer (a cofounder of the international social justice organization Partners in Health) and the cost of basic health services in Haiti ($3,500 per life saved), or malaria nets ($623-$2,367 per life saved). Singer doesn't ask readers to choose between asceticism and self-indulgence; his solution can be found in the middle, and it is reasonable and rewarding for all. (Mar.)

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Kirkus Reviews
Controversial philosopher Singer (Bioethics/Princeton Univ.; The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush, 2004, etc.) lays out the haves' moral obligation to the have-nots. The author's goal is to reduce, if not eliminate, extreme poverty in the world. He presents life-and-death situations that pose moral dilemmas, then leads the reader through arguments stemming logically from these dilemmas to arrive at the conclusion that it is morally wrong not to give aid to those suffering from lack of food, shelter and medical care. Subsequent chapters counter the arguments commonly made against giving aid, e.g., that philanthropy undermines real political change, and that giving food or money makes people dependent. Next Singer investigates the psychological factors that work against giving to the distant poor: parochialism, a sense of futility, diffusion of responsibility. He seeks to make readers think seriously about their obligations to the world's poor and to increase their charitable donations. To that end he considers what can be done to create a culture of giving. He examines the positive effects of specific actions by corporations, organizations and individuals, noting that a corporate nudge in the right direction can increase employees' philanthropy and that speaking openly about giving encourages others to do the same. To help prospective donators, Singer introduces GiveWell, which investigates the work of charities and ranks them by their effectiveness. Returning to his introductory question-what is one's moral obligation to others?-he answers that to save the lives of those in extreme poverty, people should give until it hurts. However, acknowledging that a morerealistic approach is needed, he proposes that for most Americans, five percent of their income is a reasonable starting point, with a sliding scale for the rich and super-rich. Persuasive arguments and disturbing statistics, laced with stories of some generous and selfish people. Author tour to Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle
George Scialabba
Five hundred years ago, slavery was the most natural thing in the world. So was the torture of criminal suspects, convicts, and heretics. So was the virtual ownership -- and regular physical chastisement -- of women by their fathers or husbands. Most of us (I hope) now abhor these things, but anyone time-traveling back to that era who informed a slaveowner, torturer, or wife beater that his behavior was shameful would have been met with incomprehension, perhaps even indignation.

If someone traveled back from the 26th century to 2009, what would he or she upbraid us for? In what respects would our behavior seem shameful to him or her, as slavery and torture seem abhorrent to us? If you don't know already, you will after reading Peter Singer's The Life You Can Save. Much of this valuable little book is devoted to detailing how much suffering there is among the world's poor, how easily it could be remedied by the world's nonpoor, and how little the latter can be bothered. Our 26th-century visitor would give us an earful.

Singer, a philosophy professor at Princeton, is probably as much of a celebrity as a philosophy professor can be in unphilosophical 21st-century America. His 1975 book, Animal Liberation, launched the animal rights movement, and several of his subsequent books on applied ethics have been bestsellers. Singer is, like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, a radical utilitarian, a useful busybody who challenges metaphysical and theological rationalizations of human pain. In particular, he is notorious for contending that human life, although precious, is not sacred; hence the legitimacy, in most circumstances, of abortion and, in extreme circumstances, infanticide. What matters is to minimize unnecessary suffering.

Preventing unnecessary suffering among the global poor is hardly controversial, of course; just the opposite. And yet, compared with abortion or infanticide, Americans are not very excited about foreign humanitarian aid. We are also not very well informed about it. Ninety-five percent of Americans think the United States is more generous with aid than other rich countries, when the opposite is true by a large margin. Most Americans think that between 15 and 20 percent of federal spending goes for such aid; the correct figure is less than 1 percent. Most Americans think their country does too much to help the global poor and should only dedicate 5 to 10 percent of government spending to this purpose -- which, as I've just noted, is 5 to10 ten times more than we actually do spend on it. Measured against national income, the percentages are even lower. For every $100 dollars of America's national income, our government spends 18 cents on foreign humanitarian assistance; individuals spend another 7 cents.

But why should Americans give more? Does foreign aid do any good? Much of it, Singer acknowledges, does not. A good deal is simply stolen by corrupt foreign elites or squandered on poorly conceived mega-projects. And many economists object that aid does not help poor people nearly as much as economic growth.

Nevertheless, Singer makes a convincing case that money wisely spent can save many lives. Smallpox killed several hundred million people in the 20th century, but thanks to the World Health Organization, an agency of the UN, it will not kill anyone in the 21st. Measles, river blindness, malaria, and diarrhea, all easily treated and prevented, still strike millions every year, but there has been progress. Some of the most affecting pages in The Life You Can Save describe the low-tech, low-cost programs that have restored sight to a million people blinded by cataracts and have rescued many thousands of women and children from lives blighted by cleft palates or obstetric fistulas. All this through simple surgical procedures costing between $50 and $400 each. So little money, apparently, can do so much good.

Singer has heartening stories to tell about some of the exemplary people who've made a difference. A few are famous, like Paul Farmer, the Harvard doctor who moved to rural Haiti and was the subject of a New Yorker profile. Most are not: They are obstetricians and ophthalmologists who visited poor countries and could not forget what they saw; or they are hedge fund employees or real estate developers or Silicon Valley entrepreneurs on whom it dawned one day that there must be more to life. He also "outs" a few of the super-rich who spend unconscionable amounts on luxury consumption -- "hyper-consumption" would be more accurate. With admirable restraint, Singer refrains from calling for the expropriation and disemboweling of such people, a fate they undoubtedly deserve.

Instead, he asks what the rest of us can do, and why we don't. We don't because inertia is easier than initiative. However generous we are, if it takes some effort to give and no effort not to give, we probably won't give. This is the insight underlying a well-received recent book, Nudge, by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler. They suggest (and Singer agrees) that, when possible, giving be made the default option: that is, one would have to opt out rather than opt in. This system works extremely well for organ donation; and if 1 percent, or even less, were deducted from most people's paychecks (unless they opted out) and donated to a nonprofit organization of the employee's choice, it could begin to make a dent on global poverty.

For those willing to do more than this bare minimum, Singer has worked out a detailed chart specifying how much everyone at every income level should give each year in order to make possible a minimally decent life for all our fellow humans. To simplify: His proposal comes to 5 percent of gross income for the nonpoor but nonaffluent (i.e., most of us), 10 percent for the affluent, 15 percent for the rich, and 20 to 25 percent for the super-rich. Is this unrealistic? Maybe. But if we don't do it, our 26th-century descendants will be heartily ashamed of us. --George Scialabba

George Scialabba is an essayist and critic working at Harvard University. He was the very first recipient of the National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in reviewing.

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Chapter 1
Saving a Child

On your way to work, you pass a small pond. On hot days, children sometimes play in the pond, which is only about knee-deep. The weather’s cool today, though, and the hour is early, so you are surprised to see a child splashing about in the pond. As you get closer, you see that it is a very young child, just a toddler, who is flailing about, unable to stay upright or walk out of the pond. You look for the parents or babysitter, but there is no one else around. The child is unable to keep his head above the water for more than a few seconds at a time. If you don’t wade in and pull him out, he seems likely to drown. Wading in is easy and safe, but you will ruin the new shoes you bought only a few days ago, and get your suit wet and muddy. By the time you hand the child over to someone responsible for him, and change your clothes, you’ll be late for work. What should you do?

I teach a course called Practical Ethics. When we start talking about global poverty, I ask my students what they think you should do in this situation. Predictably, they respond that you should save the child. “What about your shoes? And being late for work?” I ask them. They brush that aside. How could anyone consider a pair of shoes, or missing an hour or two at work, a good reason for not saving a child’s life?

In 2007, something resembling this hypothetical situation actually occurred near Manchester, England. Jordon Lyon, a ten-year-old boy, leaped into a pond after his stepsister Bethany slipped in. He struggled to support her but went under himself. Anglers managed to pull Bethany out, but by then Jordon could no longer be seen. They raised the alarm, and two auxiliary policemen soon arrived; they refused to enter the pond to find Jordon. He was later pulled out, but attempts at resuscitation failed. At the inquest on Jordon’s death, the policemen’s inaction was defended on the grounds that they had not been trained to deal with such situations. The mother responded: “If you’re walking down the street and you see a child drowning you automatically go in that water . . . You don’t have to be trained to jump in after a drowning child.”1

I think it’s safe to assume that most people would agree with the mother’s statement. But consider that, according to UNICEF, nearly 10 million children under five years old die each year from causes related to poverty. Here is just one case, described by a man in Ghana to a researcher from the World Bank:

Take the death of this small boy this morning, for example. The boy died of measles. We all know he could have been cured at the hospital. But the parents had no money and so the boy died a slow and painful death, not of measles but out of poverty.2

Think about something like that happening 27,000 times every day. Some children die because they don’t have enough to eat. More die, like that small boy in Ghana, from measles, malaria, diarrhea, and pneumonia, conditions that either don’t exist in developed nations, or, if they do, are almost never fatal. The children are vulnerable to these diseases because they have no safe drinking water, or no sanitation, and because when they do fall ill, their parents can’t afford any medical treatment. UNICEF, Oxfam, and many other organizations are working to reduce poverty and provide clean water and basic health care, and these efforts are reducing the toll. If the relief organizations had more money, they could do more, and more lives would be saved.

Now think about your own situation. By donating a relatively small amount of money, you could save a child’s life. Maybe it takes more than the amount needed to buy a pair of shoes—but we all spend money on things we don’t really need, whether on drinks, meals out, clothing, movies, concerts, vacations, new cars, or house renovation. Is it possible that by choosing to spend your money on such things rather than contributing to an aid agency, you are leaving a child to die, a child you could have saved?

Poverty Today

A few years ago, the World Bank asked researchers to listen to what the poor are saying. They were able to document the experiences of 60,000 women and men in seventy-three countries. Over and over, in different languages and on different continents, poor people said that poverty meant these things:

•You are short of food for all or part of the year, often eating only one meal per day, sometimes having to choose between stilling your child’s hunger or your own, and sometimes being able to do neither.

•You can’t save money. If a family member falls ill and you need money to see a doctor, or if the crop fails and you have nothing to eat, you have to borrow from a local moneylender and he will charge you so much interest at the debt continues to mount and you may never be free of it.

•You can’t afford to send your children to school, or if they do start school, you have to take them out again if the harvest is poor.

•You live in an unstable house, made with mud or thatch that you need to rebuild every two or three years, or after severe weather.

•You have no nearby source of safe drinking water. You have to carry your water a long way, and even then, it can make you ill unless you boil it.

But extreme poverty is not only a condition of unsatisfied material needs. It is often accompanied by a degrading state of powerlessness. Even in countries that are democracies and are relatively well governed, respondents to the World Bank survey described a range of situations in which they had to accept humiliation without protest. If someone takes what little you have, and you complain to the police, they may not listen to you. Nor will the law necessarily protect you from rape or sexual harassment. You have a pervading sense of shame and failure because you cannot provide for your children. Your poverty traps you, and you lose hope of ever escaping from a life of hard work for which, at the end, you will have nothing to show beyond bare survival.3

The World Bank defines extreme poverty as not having enough income to meet the most basic human needs for adequate food, water, shelter, clothing, sanitation, health care, and education. Many people are familiar with the statistic that one billion people are living on less than one dollar per day. That was the World Bank’s poverty line until 2008, when better data on international price comparisons enabled it to make a more accurate calculation of the amount people need to meet their basic needs. On the basis of this calculation, the World Bank set the poverty line at $1.25 per day. The number of people whose income puts them under this line is not 1 billion but 1.4 billion. That there are more people living in extreme poverty than we thought is, of course, bad news, but the news is not all bad. On the same basis, in 1981 there were 1.9 billion people living in extreme poverty. That was about four in every ten people on the planet, whereas now fewer than one in four are extremely poor.

South Asia is still the region with the largest number of people living in extreme poverty, a total of 600 million, including 455 million in India. Economic growth has, however, reduced the proportion of South Asians living in extreme poverty from 60 percent in 1981 to 42 percent in 2005. There are another 380 million extremely poor people in sub-Saharan Africa, where half the population is extremely poor—and that is the same percentage as in 1981. The most dramatic reduction in poverty has been in East Asia, although there are still more than 200 million extremely poor Chinese, and smaller numbers elsewhere in the region. The remaining extremely poor people are distributed around the world, in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Pacific, the Middle East, North Africa, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia.4

In response to the “$1.25 a day” figure, the thought may cross your mind that in many developing countries, it is possible to live much more cheaply than in the industrialized nations. Perhaps you have even done it yourself, backpacking around the world, living on less than you would have believed possible. So you may imagine that this level of poverty is less extreme than it would be if you had to live on that amount of money in the United States, or any industrialized nation. If such thoughts did occur to you, you should banish them now, because the World Bank has already made the adjustment in purchasing power: Its figures refer to the number of people existing on a daily total consumption of goods and services—whether earned or home-grown—comparable to the amount of goods and services that can be bought in the United States for $1.25.

In wealthy societies, most poverty is relative. People feel poor because many of the good things they see advertised on television are beyond their budget—but they do have a television. In the United States, 97 percent of those classified by the Census Bureau as poor own a color TV. Three quarters of them own a car. Three quarters of them have air conditioning. Three quarters of them have a VCR or DVD player. All have access to health care.5 I am not quoting these figures in order to deny that the poor in the United States face genuine difficulties. Nevertheless, for most, these difficulties are of a different order than those of the world’s poorest people. The 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty are poor by an absolute standard tied to the most basic human needs. They are likely to be hungry for at least part of each year. Even if they can get enough food to fill their stomachs, they will probably be malnourished because their diet lacks essential nutrients. In children, malnutrition stunts growth and can cause permanent brain damage. The poor may not be able to afford to send their children to school. Even minimal health care services are usually beyond their means.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
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eyeday More than 1 year ago
Don't read this book unless you want to forever change the way you see the poorest of those in the world and are willing to be challenged to change the way you use and give your money. Do read it if you would like to take on Oliver Sach's challenge (quoted here) to "end extreme poverty in the world by 2050." Read it and you are in danger of having every flimsy excuse for not helping desperate people overseas shredded again and again. Read it, form a book study and get your friends to read it. Do what it suggests and just maybe, together, we might change the world.
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Peter Singer has always made controversial yet compelling statements with his books, but this one is hugely important. it brings the ethics of being a global citizen "up close & personal", and said to me "you're doing the right thing, do more."
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was an assigned reading for a college Sociology class. The comments the author made were very rude and hurtful, especially when he does not know your own situation. This was definitely not a popular book in our class and during our discussions of it I learned only 2 people out of 33 students liked it. The book was very preachy and not persuasive at all. Oh and by the way, according to Singer, if you buy this book you are killing a child because you spent money on it instead of sending your money to an organization since you don't need this book just like you don't need any money for retirement.
KDH-RegisteredDietitian More than 1 year ago
I just heard Peter Singer talk about his book in Seattle, and while I haven't read it yet I am so inspired and I plan to read it soon. This is a fine example of how if each person in the "developed" countries took personal responsibility for helping uplift the poor we would eradicate hunger from our vocabulary. This is a must read.