Friday, September 25, 2009

The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty, by Peter Singer

In this book Peter Singer argues that we should all as a minimum give 5% of our income to charities that assist people suffering dire poverty in developing countries.

Quite reasonably, Peter Singer goes through the psychological reasons that bar us from assisting people who are for the most part out of sight and out of mind. Because we don't rub shoulders with starving children on our streets everyday, it means we can neatly compartmentalise this poverty as an abstraction. We are more likely to help people who are in our vicinity, people with whom we are sympathetic.

To try and overcome this inbuilt aversion to giving away money to people a half world away, Singer appeals to the more rational side of our nature. With an array of ethical examples, he shows how spending money on useless Western frivolities could be money employed to actually save lives, or greatly increase quality of life for many.

A tragic example is the women who suffer fistulas due to becoming pregnant too young, or having bodies not well enough developed due to poor nutrition. They leak urine or faeces and no matter how much they wash themselves they cannot get rid of the smell. They become ostracised from their communities, until they can get an operation for the fistula. Reading about this sort of terrible misfortune really is heartbreaking.

The offputting thing about this book is that Singer does seem to frame most of his ethical arguments around numbers. This amount of money could save this many lives or perform this many operations. Even those who give huge amounts of money, like Bill Gates, still get some criticism. Singer goes over the value of Gates' property and some of his expensive toys. Is it right, Singer asks, for Gates to have these expensive toys when he could save so many more lives by selling his luxury goods and donating the money. It leaves you with the feeling that no matter how much you give away, there's still more you could give, still more economies you could make in your life to make way for giving to others.

Also, Singer seems to be saying that the economies of these poor countries can be fixed purely through charity. Would we almost be turning them into welfare dependencies? Singer looks at the argument from a rather narrow perspective. Issues like how developing countries feel about receiving so much welfare come to mind.

But these are small points. I'm a fan of Singer, and some of these examples of Western waste juxtaposed against the suffering of poor countries are startling.

For me, the most engaging parts of the book highlighted the creativity people used to solve the problems of poverty. I think this is a way where people can really become engaged in a problem and feel a part of the solution. Like the two people who started up the GiveWell website, that does assessments on how well charities use their money.

If I’d been writing this book, I’d have taken it from that point of view. Show people things they can help to build and make which would improve lives and then I think you’d get more people involved. Giving money on a regular basis reminds me of my Catholic upbringing, where the collection plate was passed around.

But then again, I don’t know much about this topic. There are billions of people around the world in desperate want. Locating a charity that you know does good, and then giving them money, will obviously help poorer people. The task is how to make this an activity that people can genuinely feel an integral part of, rather than as someone who merely holds a pen that writes a cheque.

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