Book review: The Life You Can Save | Acting Now To End World Poverty
THE LIFE YOU CAN SAVE: ACTING NOW TO END WORLD POVERTY Peter Singer Picador £14.99
IF YOU believe world poverty is far too big a problem to solve, this book will convince you otherwise. If millions give a small amount, millions of lives can be saved.
So why does poverty persist? And why do we give so little? Peter Singer, a professor of bio-ethics, has written more of a homespun 'can do' lifesaver than an academic treatise on the persistence of poverty. It is just one or two steps along the evolutionary tree from Nudge, the political bestseller on the art of guiding and nudging individual behaviour toward sensible lifestyle choices, rather than fines and punishments.
Singer's is a Nudge solution: if millions of people each give a small percentage of their income toward the care of desperately poor children, we could shrink the problem of world poverty to something more manageable.
The World Bank defines extreme poverty as not having enough income to meet the most basic human needs for food, shelter, clothing, sanitation, healthcare and education. The World Bank updated its calculations last year to set the poverty line at $1.25 per day. The number of people whose income puts them under this line is now 1.4 billion.
Singer's solution is a donation system in which all earning more than $100,000 give 5% of their salaries to poverty relief, with the percentage rising to 33% for those earning over $10.7m. Such a scheme would raise more than $471bn for the world's poorest billion people – this from just 10% of America's top earners.
So why has this not happened? There are many reasons. Americans already give substantially to charitable causes. There is a public scepticism about the efficiency and heavy organisational costs of aid agencies. There is a well-embedded belief that poverty is in many cases the result of human action: corrupt governments, oppressors such as Mugabe and failed development policies.
The problem here is that unless you tackle the deep-seated causes of poverty we are faced with the problem of filling a bath with the plug pulled out: the money we pour in won't make much difference to that overall level of poverty while we keep pursuing policies that make it inevitable.
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