The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty | Chapter 21 of 25

Author: Peter Singer | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 4462 Views | Add a Review

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In the year since I sent the typescript of this book to press, two very significant events have occurred. One received immense publicity, and the other almost none.

The tragic earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010 killed more than 200,000 people—some estimates say the toll could be as high as 300,000—and destroyed the homes of millions more. Television footage of the dazed and grieving survivors and of rescuers hauling people out of the rubble of collapsed buildings dominated news services for several days and elicited a huge wave of public sympathy. Approximately half a billion dollars was donated to relief efforts—not as much as was given after the 2004 Asian tsunami, or after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, but still a very large sum for a disaster in a poor country, especially considering that the global economy was making a faltering recovery from the financial crisis that struck in 2007. In the United States more than 3 million Americans donated $10 each by texting “Haiti” to a phone number. Billionaire golfer Tiger Woods reportedly gave $3 million. In Rwanda, a group of community health workers making less than $200 a month raised $7000 for Haiti.

Many people took this response to the tragedy as an encouraging sign of the world’s compassion for those in need. Yes, it is … but a sign of an only modest level of compassion. Three million people amount to just one percent of the population of the United States, and $10 is less than the cost of a movie ticket. What the Rwandan health workers did was much more impressive.

There was far less media coverage of the announcement in September 2009 by UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, that the number of children dying from poverty-related causes is continuing to fall. As described in this book, in 1960 that number was estimated at 20 million. By 2007 it had fallen below 10 million. That is a remarkable achievement, given that in 1960 the world’s population was only 2.5 billion and by 2007 it had grown to 6.5 billion. Now, in the most recent available estimates, the annual number of children dying from poverty before their fifth birthday is 8.8 million. Hence the figure that I use in this book of 27,000 children dying every day should be reduced to 24,000. Saving 3,000 lives a day means that in 100 days, as many lives are saved as were lost in the Haitian tragedy. If we focus on the 24,000 lives lost we will of course feel dismay about the avoidable tragedy of so many children dying. Yet if we think about the progress made in just the last two years, we could greet the UNICEF data with rejoicing.

Because news based on statistics rather than on actual people does not get much media coverage, the myth that aid does not work still survives. This book has now been published in a dozen different countries, from Australia to Sweden and from Korea to Brazil, and I have done interviews about it and spoken to audiences around the world. Still the most common response to my argument continues to be that we are not under an obligation to give to the poor because if we do, most of what we give will not reach those who need it. The lack of attention given to the UNICEF data makes it difficult to inform the public that we are making progress and that aid, especially aid directed to improving the health of children, is a big part of that progress.

Ironically, given that so many people doubt the effectiveness of aid, aid targeted at saving the lives of children living in poverty is likely to be more cost-effective than emergency relief. Although emergency relief after natural disasters is certainly needed, in the chaos that prevails after a large natural disaster it is often unclear how much is needed, how it will reach the people who need it, and who will coordinate relief efforts. Longer-term aid, like making sure that there is greater preparedness for natural disasters (which, in an earthquake zone, includes rebuilding to a standard that will better withstand earthquakes) is likely to be a more effective use of our resources than pouring money in to help the victims afterwards.

The 8.8 million children who die from poverty each year are dispersed in villages and urban slums all over the world and there are no television cameras focused on them. It is more difficult to focus on the children who did not die but would have if there had been no aid-funded program to immunize them against measles, to bring them sanitation and safe water, to provide them with bednets against malaria, or to establish rural health clinics that can educate their parents on how to treat diarrhea.

Imagine that a million children are trapped by rising flood-waters on some high ground that is shrinking as the water continues to rise. We know that if we do not rescue them soon, they will die. Every news service would lead with the progress being made by the rescue efforts, there would be helicopters with television crews buzzing over their heads, and the networks would give the children 24-hour coverage. Our leaders would pledge to help them and we would all give generously until we knew that they were safe. Instead of this, the deaths of children in poor countries from diarrhea, measles, and malaria have become part of the background of the world we live in, and if we know about it at all, we are likely to believe that it is a problem that will always be with us. But that isn’t so. In the last two years, we have saved a million children. In the coming years, if we all give substantially more, we can save the entire 8.8 million.

I am often asked if I am happy with the response to this book; but how could I be happy with it, as long as aid from the rich of the world to those in extreme poverty remains at its present very modest levels?

The point of writing the book was not to get good reviews in the newspapers, or even to sell a lot of copies. The point was, and remains, to bring about change in how we live. The most pleasing responses are always from people who have done something positive because they have read the book, or heard about what it argues. Fortunately many people have told me—in reviews, newspaper articles, emails, and when they have come up to me after a talk—that the book has changed how much they give. And thousands have gone to and pledged to give in accordance with the standards set out in the final chapter of this book, and more are pledging all the time.

You can see many of the comments from people who have pledged, and photos of the people making the comments, on that website. Here are just a few examples:

I have a purpose in life, which is way more important than all the Porsches, margaritas, and flat-screen TVs. I would be ashamed not to give.—Yevgenijs Veinbergs

I am on an income of only £19,300, but I’m now making charitable donations of about 5% of this, as a result of The Life You Can Save.—Peter Bond

I decided to pledge because I wanted to be a tiny part of demonstrating a shared understanding of how we should help extremely poor people.—Kathryn Smith

I read Peter as a freshman in college. It helped me visualize my feelings and changed my direction in life.—Doug Bishop (who sent a photo of himself teaching school children in Ghana)

The ethical argument was just too compelling.—Nancy Kosinski

We were inspired to pledge after reading Peter’s book, as there is simply no logical reason not to.—Charles Gillanders and Anna Visser

Thank you for setting this [website] up; it helps me to remember how trivial my problems are in the greater scheme of things and how lucky I am.—Amanda Catching

It is my ‘atheist tithe’ towards the eradication of suffering related to poverty.—Erroll Treslan (who also donated a copy of this book to every member of the Canadian parliament)

I don’t have much to spare, financially. Now that I know how easy it is even for someone like me to save a life, however, I’ve never thought twice about giving what I can.—Cassandra Ingles

These, and many others too numerous to quote, are heartwarming evidence of the human capacity to respond to an ethical argument. But I have two special favorites. One is from Hugh Carnegy, the executive editor of the Financial Times. One might have thought that he would have already known all that there was to know about world poverty. Nevertheless, in reviewing the book for his paper, he described the argument in the final chapter of this book for a sliding scale of giving and concluded with these words:

Faced with this argument, it is hard not to ask yourself how your own giving measures up. Yes, I will go on buying things I do not really need. But, yes, this book has persuaded me that I should give more—significantly more—to help those less fortunate.

My very favorite response brings us back to the first chapter of this book, in which I asked you if you would rescue a child drowning in a shallow pond, even if doing so would ruin your new shoes. Christa Rogers sent the website a photo of herself with her family. She is wearing a fashionable pair of shoes. Her message said:

I pledged because I could relate so directly to the opening illustration of saving a child at the cost of a pair of shoes. Until recently I was a member of a service that sent me a new pair of designer shoes every month, yet I was not giving anything to end poverty or help those in need. I cancelled that service and am now giving this money to the poor.

You can join Hugh Carnegy, Christa Rogers, and thousands of others from dozens of different countries by going to and pledging to meet the guidelines for giving according to your income. Lend this book to others, encouraging them to read it and to sign the special pledge page found at the front of the book. If you run out of space, you can find a copy of the page on the website to print and circulate with the book. Your own pledge can make an important difference to a child, a family, even a village; but if the world is to change, the message needs to spread until the number who have pledged becomes a critical mass, changing attitudes in the affluent world so that we come to see helping those in great need as an indispensable part of what it is to live an ethical life.


June 2010


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Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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