On Eliminating Poverty

Eliminating Poverty - photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/stevenfernandez/

Recently, we’ve been discussing Peter Singer’s One World book. Last time we noted that most people think the U.S. devotes more of its budget to foreign aid than it actually does. And even when you include private giving, the U.S. is still last in giving among developed nations. Today, I want to focus on that idea of personalized giving.

I found the conclusion of One World to be extremely powerful, and I’d like to walk through it here. Singer paraphrases a dilemma presented by Peter Unger in Living High and Letting Die:

Bob is close to retirement. He has invested most of his savings in a very rare and valuable old car, a Bugatti, which he has not been able to insure. The Bugatti is his pride and joy. In addition to the pleasure he gets from driving and caring for his car, Bob knows that its rising market value means that he will always be able to sell it and live comfortably after retirement. One day when Bob is out for a drive, he parks the Bugatti near the end of a disused railway siding and goes for a walk up the track. Looking further down the track he sees the small figure of a child playing in a tunnel and very likely to be killed by the runaway train. He can’t stop the train and the child is too far away to warn of the danger, but he can throw a switch that will divert the train down the siding where his Bugatti is parked. Then nobody will be killed – but since the barrier at the end of the siding is in disrepair, the train will destroy his Bugatti. Thinking of his joy in owning the car, and the financial security is represents, Bob decides not to throw the switch. The child is killed. But for many years to come Bob enjoys owning his Bugatti and the financial security it represents.

First, you might notice the similarity to the Trolley Problem we’e discussed here before. Of course, this one seems a bit easier on the surface. Most of will initially react to this scenario by thinking Bob made a morally reprehensible decision. It seems easy for us to say that Bob should have saved the child, and that we would have done the same in his situation. But let’s think this through a little more:

The U.S. Committee for UNICEF says that a donation of $17 will provide immunization “to protect a child for life against the six leading child-killing and maiming diseases: measles, polio, diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, and tuberculosis,” while a donation of $25 will provide “over 400 packets of oral rehyrdration salts to  help save the lives of children suffering from diarrheal dehydration.”

That’s a start, but Peter Unger draws it ouf even further, and estimates that a single child’s life can be saved for about $200. 

Let me make this as clear as possible – for about every $200 that an organization like UNICEF receives in donations, they can save the life of one child and take steps toward pulling them out of poverty. Are you getting the picture yet?

He [Bob] must have thought how extraordinarily unlucky he was, to be place in a situation in which he must choose between the life of an innocent child and the sacrifice of most of his savings. But he was not unlucky at all. We are all in that situation.

Isn’t it wrong not to donate to an organization that could do this? In a sense, we’re all Bobs who are choosing not to pull the lever if we’re not donating our money to organizations working to save lives. Of course, the question then quickly becomes – just how much do we give? Do we keep giving until we’r ein poverty? Where do we draw the line? This is where a lot of people step out – this is difficult question to answer and when the problem isn’t right in front of you – it’s hard to be motivated to act. But Signer offers a proposal here that I find interesting:

A donation of about $100 per adult per year for the next fifteen years could achieve the Millenium Summit goals [of halving world poverty]… For someone earning $27,500 per annum, the average salary in the developed world, this is less than 0.4 percent of their annual income, or less than 1 cent in every $2 they earn.

A more useful symbolic figure would be 1 percent, and this might indeed be closer to what it would take to eliminate, rather than halve, global poverty.

Those who do not meet this standard should be seen as failing to meet their share of a global responsibility, and therefore as doing something that is seriously morally wrong.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this suggestion by Singer!

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