Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Life You Can Save

The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty by Peter Singer is a book designed to make a difference in the world. Singer is known as the one who challenges comfortable assumptions such as animals do not feel pain when they are tested through reasoned argument and evidence. You might not have followed him all the way with his last book to make the headlines, Animal Liberation, where animal rights are taken to a bit of an extreme but there is no getting around the quiet persuasive power of this very accessible, more personal plea for global economic justice. Singer is Bioethics professor at the University of Princeton and what I admire and appreciate about his style is that it is not full of academic jargon and intimidating references. Singer write simply and compellingly about the world as it is and our responsibility to pay our part in helping to salvage a modicum of justice amid growing inequality and despair among large sections of the planet.

He starts his book with the story of a man who rescues a man who fell onto subway tracks and despite the lights of an oncoming train being visible, he pushed the man into a drainage trench, covering him with his own body. His story is documented in wikipedia as the subway hero and he became Time's Man of the Year in 2007 in addition to being invited to attend the State of the Union. Asked about all the fuss he just replied "I don't feel I did something spectacular. I just saw someone who needed help. I did what I felt was right."

We have a duty Singer argues to help our fellow man who as I write this and as you read this is dying. Unlike the Subway hero we don't need to risk our life doing this, nor do we need to complain if we have a bottle of water or a can of soda in our house that we cannot afford it. Having any of these things means we are willing to pay for something that is safely available from a tap when a billion people struggle to find clean drinking water and easily fall victim to to treatable diseases like diaarhea because they lack this basic necessity.

We live in a world where we can easily eliminate poverty if we had the will to do so. Economist Jeffrey Sachs estimates that extreme poverty can be eliminated by the middle of the century. The time frame could be even shorter if defense budgets were cut by less than one percent but still as Singer points out 9.7 million children under five die annually of preventable diseases. There has been undoubted progress--Singer compares our struggle against poverty as climbers who are now in sight of the summit finally after being in the clouds and can see the route through the mist. Some notable people are now stepping up to the plate--Warren Buffett most notably has pledged to give $31 billion and Bill and Melinda Gates $29 billion--but as Singer points out they are but a small fraction to the effort that needs to be made. The effort needs you and I to contribute as well as the three or four billion of those that live in relative comfort in the western and northern hemispheres.

While we are now mostly familiar with the statistic that one billion people live on less than one dollar a day--the real number is closer to 1.4 billion since the extreme poverty has to be revised upwards to mean $1.25 dollars a day given the rise in inflation. We then need to understand the meaning of this number--it means that this huge group of people are at risk for early death--including 9.7 million children who die each year from poverty related causes. Singer points out the incredible affluence of the west--where most of us are wealthier than generations before us reaching back even to Louis XIV--we have health care they could only dream about and a variety of foods, entertainment and opportunities for travel. Our magazines and TV are full of offers for products we don't need, are pure fantasy status symbols such as Rolex watches and fast cars, priced tens if not hundreds of times beyond what any person living in a developing economy might earn in a life time. Singer points to research that shows that $10 billion of food is simply wasted in the US every year.

Then Singer hits you with an unavoidably direct ethical argument --If it is in your power to prevent something--someone dying unnecessarily--without you having to sacrifice anything very much, it is wrong not to do so. The problem we run into here is that although we may be convinced without too much trouble to save the life of one person--how about the hundreds, thousands if not millions who could also be helped? What would the cost be then and maybe at that point the sacrifice would mean not having much money to spend on our own family and communities. We then tend to think that giving a very marginal amount to helping one child or a few beyond our community is a good thing--it is not wrong to ignore or avoid our responsibility altogether.
But each of the world religions--Judaism, Christianity and Islam teaches us to give to the less fortunate. But perhaps the Confucian tradition puts the obligation more squarely--in one of the teachings recounts a visit to the king where Confucius says:

"There are people dying from famine on the roads, and you do not issue the stores of your granaries for them. When people die, you say, "It is not owing to me; it is owing to the year." In what does this differ from stabbing a man and killing him, and then saying "It was not I, it was the weapon?"

The US likes to consider itself a generous country but according to one definitive report on US giving fully a third of what Americans give goes to religious institutions where it pays for salaries of clergy and maintenance of buildings--only about 10 percent is passed on as aid to developing countries. The US is near the bottom of the list of industrialized countries in terms of proportion of income given as foreign aid. The average national effort was "46 cents of every $100 of gross national income--the US gave only 18 cents of every $100 it earned."

Singer burrows deep into the arguments as to what kind of foreign aid is best--emergency relief? development aid? advocacy work for a fairer global system? There is also a problem that Singer does not go into much which is the corruption that makes it very difficult in some countries to make progress in any area and the problem of much of the development aid going into the pockets of western contractors. There is also a feeling about the role of government in all this that Singer does not deal with here (Arguing that all he wants to address is the personal responsibility we all should feel) but individual's view of the proper role of government does determine their level of giving. This last point brings up the larger issue related to a diffusion of responsibility that lets people off the hook since we can always shrug off our individual duties to others by pointing to others' role.

But Singer is relentless about bringing the question back to individual morality. In 1999 Singer wrote a memorable piece in the New York Times Sunday magazine that basically recites the major arguments advanced in this book. As a result of that article Oxfam America and UNICEF brought in about $600, 000 more than they usually took in. The point is that people can be persuaded to do more. Here is the power of the pen in action. Singer is willing to stake at the heart of all the handwringing we go through in terms of whether and how much to contribute is the concern with the other--it is as he says "much harder to love the children of strangers than to love your own children." The two he accepts must be in tension--but he argues more defiantly "this doesn't mean that parents are justified in providing luxuries for their children ahead of basic needs of others."

When asked how much is the fair share we should pay--he estimates that according to Jeffrey Sachs the number should be $124 billion in 2001 to raise everyone above the poverty line. The combined gross national income of the OECD nations was $20 trillion--therefore the number should be about 0.62 percent of incomeor 62 cents of every $100 earned. A person earning $50,000 would owe $300, compared to the $116 billion Americans spend of alcohol--this is not a huge number--in my estimate it is $25 a month or $6 a week or the price of a McDonalds meal. Singer wants all of us to commit to giving five percent of our income for those who are comfortable rather than rich and would not involve in sacrificing anything much--you might even find yourself becoming healthier in the process. He names names in terms of those billionaires who could be doing a lot more with their money. Paul Allen co-founder of Microsoft recently did announce that he will be donating half of his funds to charity--perhaps pushed a bit by Singer, but Larry Ellison the highest paid CEO of Oracle has yet to rise to the challenge spending his cash on trophies like a $200 million dollar yacht burning more in a single hour of diesel fuel than a car in seven years of use.

In terms of ethical standards for living it is hard to beat Fair Share International (an Australian community based organization) 5/10/5/10 formula:

+ 5 percent of income to help the disadvantaged
+ Reduce your environmentally harmful consumption by 10 percent each year until you can do no more.
+ Giving 5 percent of your time to helping people in your community
+ Take democratic political action at least 10 times a year --such as contacting your political representatives.

You don't have to agree with everything that Singer says to agree that we could all do more. The book is valuable as a refresher for the key arguments as well as focusing on the question of how to give so you can maximize your contribution and not have it sucked up in administrative costs. Singer refers to the excellent website Charity Navigator that studies the ratio of administrative costs to actual charitable outlays to reassure people that there is transparency and other non profits such as Give Well and Clear Fund study the most effective ways funds are used to help. The ones that come up top of the list are--Population Services International (PSI) that reduces malaria in Africa, Partners in Health and Interplast.

Singer's book has managed to add a huge shot of clarity to the often murky field of what is appropriate and right in the area of charitable giving. It deserves wide readership and as importantly will hopefully spark continuing discussion and debate.

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