A life to save: direct action on poverty

Peter Singer
13 May 2009

Imagine you come across a small child who has fallen into a pond and is in danger of drowning. You know that you can easily and safely rescue him, but you are wearing an expensive pair of shoes that will be ruined if you do. We all think it would be seriously wrong to walk on past the pond, leaving the child to drown, because you don't want to have to buy a new pair of shoes - in fact, most people think that would be monstrous. You can't compare a child's life with a pair of shoes!Peter Singer is professor of bioethics at Princeton University, and laureate professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (CAPPE), University of Melbourne. His website is here

Peter Singer's most recent book is The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty (Random House, 2009). For more information, click here

Peter Singer's many books include Animal Liberation (1975; HarperCollins, 2001), Practical Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition, 1993), Ethics (Oxford University Press, 1994), Writings on an Ethical Life (HarperCollins, 2001), One World: The Ethics of Globalization (Yale University Press, 2002), and Pushing Time Away (HarperCollins, 2003)

Yet while we all say that it would be wrong to walk past the child - and probably nearly all of us really would save the child in the pond - there are other children whose lives we could save just as easily, and yet we are letting them die. The United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) estimates that nearly 10 million children under 5 years old die each year from causes related to poverty. That's 27,000 a day - a sports-stadium full of young children; and the number is exceeded by thousands of older children and adults who die from poverty every day as well. Some children die because they don't have enough to eat or clean water to drink. More die from measles, malaria, diarrhoea and pneumonia - diseases that don't exist in developed nations, or if they do, are easily cured and rarely fatal.

One man described a case in Ghana to a researcher from the World Bank: "Take the death of this small boy this morning, for example. The boy died of measles. We all know he could have been cured at the hospital. But the parents had no money and so the boy died a slow and painful death, not of measles but out of poverty."

Unicef, Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), and many other organisations are working to reduce poverty and provide clean water and basic healthcare, and those efforts are reducing the toll. If the groups had more money, they could do more, and more lives would be saved. Most people living in affluent nations - including amid the current "hard times" - have money to spare, money that they spend on luxuries like clothes they don't need, vacations in exotic places, even bottled water when the water that comes out of the tap is safe to drink. Instead of spending money on these things, we could give the money to an organisation that would use it to reduce poverty, and quite possibly to save a child's life.

It's not hard

True, the situation in which you can rescue the child in the pond is not exactly the same as that in which you can donate to an aid organisation to save a child's life. There is only one child in the pond, and once we have saved him, we have solved the problem and need not think more about it. But there are millions of children in poverty, and saving one of them does not solve the problem. Often this feeling - that whatever we do will be merely "drops in the ocean" - makes us feel that trying to do anything at all is futile. But that is a mistake. Saving one child is not less important because there are other children we cannot save. We have still saved a life, and saved the child's parents from the grief that the parents of that boy in Ghana had to suffer.

Emotionally, we are more likely to help a child we see in front of us, and less likely to save one very far from us, especially if we cannot even put a face or a name to that child. We have evolved in small face-to-face communities, and our compassion is rarely evoked by statistics and words without images. But today we live in a different world, and we are able to help people thousands of kilometres from us. The facts about human psychology do not justify us in ignoring the plight of those who are far from us.

It is also true that saving a child drowning in a shallow pond is a simple thing to do, whereas reducing global poverty is complex. But some aspects of saving human life are not so complex. We know that providing clean water and sanitation saves lives, and often saves women hours each day that they previously spent fetching water, and then boiling it. We know that providing bed-nets reduces malaria, and immunising children stops them getting measles. We know that educating girls helps them to control their fertility, and leads them to have fewer children.

We can at least help people to have these things. Beyond that, we can try a variety of bold and enterprising ideas for reducing poverty, from microcredit to higher-yielding seeds to a basic-income grant. We need to experiment, and to assess the results of the experiments, so that we learn what can work, and what does not work. In that way, even though not every aid project will be a success, each one will contribute to greater knowledge about how to create the successful aid projects of the future.

People with more than enough have a moral obligation to help those who, through no fault of their own, are living in extreme poverty. It's not hard to do.


Also in openDemocracy on world poverty and global justice:

Rajeev Bhargava, "Poverty and political freedom" (12 August 2003)

Ehsan Masood, "The aid business: phantoms and realities" (18 July 2006)

Farida Khan, "Muhammad Yunus: an economics for peace", (25 October 2006) 

Stephen Browne, "Whatever happened to 'development'?" (18 April 2007)

Paul Collier, "The aid evasion: raising the ‘bottom billion'" (11 June 2007)

Paul Rogers, "The world's food insecurity" (24 April 2008)

Simon Maxwell, "Development in a downturn" (4 July 2008)

Lyndall Stein, "Ethiopia: the tears and the rains" (23 July 2008)

Andrew Shepherd, "The anti-poverty relay: a progress report" (24 September 2008)

Anita Sharma, "The core crisis: standing with the poor" (30 October 2008)

Michael Edwards, "Philanthrocapitalism: after the goldrush" (19 March 2008)

Michael Edwards, "Philanthrocapitalism: old myths, new realities" (14 November 2008)

Paul Rogers, "A world on the edge" (29 January 2009)

Göran Therborn, "The killing-fields of inequality" (6 April 2009)

Patrice de Beer, "Esther Duflo: the new French intellectual" (9 April 2009)

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