Book Review: A Plea to End Poverty by Giving to Charity
March 23, 2009, The Boston Globe — Peter Singer is on a crusade to convince Americans that they can play a vital role in ending world poverty, without undue sacrifice.
The Princeton bioethics professor's latest book, "The Life You Can Save," offers a stark indictment of extreme economic disparity in a world where 10 million children under the age of 5 die each year from starvation and treatable illnesses.
Americans are generous with their time and money, but little of it is directed at helping those outside US borders. Among industrialized nations, the United States ranks near the bottom in the proportion of national income given as foreign aid.
Like a veteran debater, Singer weighs the reasons why people do not give more, cites examples of noble generosity, and offers a voluntary plan that could raise $510 billion to combat poverty.
One of Singer's favorite examples of American excess is bottled water, which has become a staple in many households. Meanwhile, millions of people do not have access to clean water, sanitation, medical care, and enough food to maintain health.
Some people balk because they think the scale of extreme poverty is so great that small donations would not make a difference, or they are more likely to help the needy closer to home, or they wonder what happens to their donations.
Singer agrees that strong oversight is essential to determine which programs actually advance the goal of reducing poverty. For guidance, various websites such as Charity Navigator and GiveWell evaluate charities on their transparency and effectiveness.
The book cites inspiring case histories of extraordinary giving, such as the work of Paul Farmer, the Harvard-trained physician who founded Boston-based Partners in Health to provide medical care to the poor in Haiti and other Third World nations. Another example is the 50% League, whose members agree to donate either half of their wealth or half of their income to charity.
Singer suggests a sliding voluntary donation scale, beginning at 1 percent for those making up to $105,000 a year, and ending at 33 percent for income above $10.7 million. Under his plan someone earning $100,000 would pledge to give $1,000. If everyone went along, the plan would raise half a trillion dollars yearly in the United States alone.
One of Singer's most intriguing proposals involves the so-called opt-out system. Employers would announce their intention to deduct 1 percent of an employee's salary to fight world poverty unless the employee opted out of the plan. The book encourages readers to ask their employers to institute the practice.
Singer surely courts controversy when he suggests that philanthropy for the arts and cultural activities is "morally dubious" in the face of dire poverty. He notes that New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art paid $45 million for a painting, an amount that could have restored the sight of 900,000 people needing cataract surgery, a procedure that costs a mere $50 per person.
Singer is not new to controversy. He has written 20 books, including "Animal Liberation" -- his 1975 manifesto asserting that animals have rights, too.
It is fair to note that this latest book comes in the middle of the worst economic recession in recent memory, which undoubtedly will crimp charitable donations.
Singer has created a website, TheLifeYouCanSave.com, which invites people to pledge to give the minimum amounts he has suggested to reduce world poverty. Where to give? Singer has suggestions, including Boston-based Oxfam America. Many readers who finish this tightly written and well-argued book are likely to get out their checkbooks.
Bill Williams is a freelance writer in West Hartford and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.