Yes, we can end world poverty

the American editor of Granta magazine

For a number of years now, social scientists have been saying it’s not only possible to alleviate extreme poverty, but to end it altogether. Princeton philosopher Peter Singer is often ahead of the curve, so he has been in this camp for almost 30 years. As he reminds in his stirring new book, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty, the proportion of people who cannot meet their daily needs in the world is the lowest it has ever been. There are also more people in the world than ever with excess.

And yet 27,000 children die every day of preventable diseases. It is an unacceptable horror. In 10 years, this failure to creatively attack poverty has piled up more deaths than all the wars of human history combined. It is this figure—not the more hopeful equation mentioned above—which Singer uses as a powerful rhetorical wedge. We can solve extreme poverty now, he argues, not just because new technology will enable us to do so; we can solve it because as moral beings, we have to.

The Life You Can Save makes a powerful argument about the connectivity of every decision humans make, primarily through thought experiments that would sit well in an Introduction to Ethics class. Here’s one: Say you are walking by a pond where a child is probably drowning. Saving the boy will make you late for work and most certainly ruin your new Italian loafers. Do you run into the water or walk by? Saving the life will cost you money.

These are very black-and-white stories, but their effect on this little book is powerful and clarifying. Here’s another one: The average American can meet their basic food needs by working two hours a day. As a result, a large portion of what the middle and upper classes do make is spent on discretionary items. When we buy a coffee on the street, then, rather than make it at home, we are effectively making a moral choice not to help a starving child.

Make no bones about it, Singer has set up a demanding ethical compass for human behavior in The Life You Can Save.

He also writes clear and lucid prose of a teacherly bent by first making a statement and then anticipating the reader’s questions. In this fashion, The Life You Can Save is an effective sally into this urgent problem. Singer debates and dismisses, quite handily, so much of the resistance to radical new solutions to poverty without ever belittling the circumstances of those caught up in its grip.

He also ends with a very sensible plan for how to raise the necessary capital to meet the Millennium Development Goals without resorting to the same kind of aid packages which have arguably kept developing countries poor. It’s not a tax or a tithe, but a graph which shows how just 10 percent of American families could eradicate extreme poverty. For almost everyone involved, the pinch would barely be felt, and it gives a new meaning to the currently embraced phrase, “Yes, we can.”