The Life You can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty, Peter Singer. Random House, 2009.
There are enough statistics in this little book to make one's head spin. The most telling statistic, of course, is that there are 1.4 billion people in the world who are living on $1.25 or less per day (the poverty line as set by the World Bank). Despite these daunting figures, Peter Singer wants to convince us that 1) global poverty can be eradicated and 2) we are all capable of giving more to accomplish that goal without really depriving ourselves.
Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University, and author of some 30 books on various aspects of ethical behavior. He is perhaps best known for his work in the animal rights movement and his book, Animal Liberation.
In The Life You Can Save, Singer has produced a compelling case for why people in rich countries (especially the U.S.) should be giving more to eradicate poverty in poor countries, and he provides practical tips on just how to do that.
It took me a lot longer to read this book than most, even though it is a bare 176 pages long. That is because it is nutrient rich. There is so much information packed into each page that I had to put it down frequently so I could digest what I had just read. Singer covers a lot of ground. Here is my own take on the highlights of this convincing book.
Humans have evolved to be suspicious of helping strangers.
Singer basically tells us to get over it. He says:
"The long-running debate about whether humans are capable of genuine altruism is, in practical terms, less significant than the question of how we understand our own interests. Will we understand them narrowly, concentrating on acquiring wealth and power for ourselves? Do we think that our interests are best fulfilled by a lifestyle that displays our economic success by our ostentatious consumption or as many expensive items as possible? Or do we include among our interests the satisfaction that comes from helping others?"
People living in rich countries do not give nearly enough to charity.
If you think our government's international aid lets us off the hook, Singer says you are flat wrong. First, our government doesn't really give that much, and most of it is misspent on political aims that have little to do with helping the poor. Singer flatly states that the work of eradicating global poverty will have to be accomplished through private donations to NGOs (Nongovernmental Organizations, also known as charities).
Singer proposes that wealthy Americans should give significantly more (starting at 5% and up according to income), and that the rest of us can give more (perhaps 1% of gross income) without impairing our standard of living or depriving our families. He provides a chart of proposed giving on his website and gives us a 7-point plan to follow to become part of the solution to world poverty.
We worry too much about the "efficiency" of charities.Organizations that rate charities focus on how much a charity spends on overhead and fundraising. These measures are useful, Singer says, but don't get at whether a charity is effective in meeting its mission.
Singer provides some clues about charities that are doing a reasonable job of measuring effectiveness; points us to organizations that are looking for effective charities; and reminds us that some things really can't be measured very well.
The bottom line for Singer is that saving a life in a third world country is inexpensive compared to saving one in a rich country, and thus is a bargain that we should support even if there is some leakage. Singer concludes that the cost of saving a life through a reasonably effective charity working in a poor nation ranges between $200 and $2000; while the median cost of saving a life in the U.S. is $2.2 million. Singer says:
"There are many organizations doing good work that offer opportunities worth supporting and not knowing which is the very best shouldn't be an excuse for not giving to any of them."
Most of us don't often ponder how to live an ethical life, so Singer's little book gives us a taste of how to do that. You will be moved to tears by the stories of outstanding people who have given their lives as well as their fortunes to helping others; twist your brain around the ethical dilemmas posed by philosophers throughout history; and be intrigued by stories from Singer's classroom at Princeton as he opens young minds to the intricacies of ethical behavior.
You may, also, set off on your own philanthropic journey.