This evening I joined several hundred others attending a lecture by the philosopher Peter Singer. Singer was speaking at a Brisbane 2009 Ideas Festival event at the State Library of Queensland. The event was timed to launch his new book "The life you can save: Acting now to end world poverty". The book is about what people in the Western world should be doing about the crisis of the extreme poor.
The 62 year old Australian born Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University's Centre for Human Values. He also lectures at the University of Melbourne's Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics. Introducing him tonight, the Vice Chancellor of Griffith University Professor Ian O’Connor described him as “one of Australia’s greatest thinkers” and someone who in his 25 books has set the agenda in ethics and causes his audience to ponder their own role in the global community. O’Connor said there was a congruence in his material and the way Singer lives his own life and all royalties from the sale of the new book were going to Oxfam.
Singer then took the stage and said he was honoured to speak at the first public event of this year’s ideas festival. He said his contribution would be a discussion of what our obligations are to those people living in extreme poverty. Singer said this was something he had thought about all his professional life. He tackled the subject in one of his earliest articles “Famine, Affluence and Morality” (ppt) which was published in the journal Philosophy and Public Affairs in 1972 and said it was a “novel idea at the time” for philosophers to tackle the issues of the day.
The article was published just twelve months after the crisis in what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) which was agitating for independence from the western wing. Millions fled the violence into India which at the time did not have the resources to feed them. The richer nations were not giving nearly enough to sustain them. At the time Singer was living in Oxford and employed by the University. He felt that by giving money to Oxfam, he personally could do something to help the Bangladeshi people who were in “desperate straits”. This began a lifelong commitment of giving to the aid agency.
Meanwhile the 1972 article began to be discussed and its ideas reprinted elsewhere. It kicked off a debate that Singer followed closely. He returned to the topic in his 1979 book Practical Ethics. More recently he realised that the issue had risen in the public consciousness and that given the amount of recent literature he would devote an entire book to the subject. Singer said “the time was right” to bring attention to the matter as the capacity of the developed world to combat poverty had drastically increased in the last 30 years.
Singer then challenged the assumption that think global poverty is always going to be with us and there is not much we can do about it. However the World Bank (which defines extreme poverty as living on $1.25 or less a day) says that in the last 30 years the proportion of the world’s poor has halved from 40 percent of the total population to 20 percent.
These people have no buffer for when things go wrong. All it takes is a poor harvest or an illness in the family to push them over the edge. The most heartbreaking aspect of this poverty, said Singer, is knowing a child is sick and a cure is available but not being able to afford it, or travel to where the cure is available. The lack of a small amount of money can ruin lives. This is where the West can make a difference, says Singer. Everyone he meets in the US or Australia has spare resources. “If you drink bottled water or juice wherever there is a tap, then you are spending money on luxuries,” he said. "We all have the capacity to contribute to organisations that promote sustainable development and help people get out of poverty in their own ways".
Singer then addressed the question of how much money people should donate. Should they donate all of their discretionary spend, or keep going until they themselves are on the poverty line? That would be heroic, he said, “but not something I would do myself”. Singer suggested that those earning up to $105,000 a year should donate one percent of their income. Above that it should be scalable; beginning at five percent while those above $250,000 should donate 10 percent. He said that if this scale was commonplace, it would easily raise the amount economist Jeffrey Sachs said would be needed for the world to meet the UN Millennium Development goals established in 2000 which aimed to halve world poverty by 2015.
Singer urged Australians to go to the website associated with the new book where they could pledge to meet the standard donation based on their income bracket. Singer said a hundred people had already pledged (and there were 149 at the time of writing a few hours later) and he expects this number to grow exponentially as the book is released in the US next month and Europe in the months after. By pledging, Singer said, people will also help change the public standard of what is involved in living an ethical life in a world of great affluence and extreme poverty.
Singer concluded his talk by taking questions from the floor. One person asked why he concentrated on individual donations and not those of governments. Singer responded by saying that while Australia’s aid budget had gone up from 30c to 32c in every $100 under the current government, it was still below the pre-election pledge of 50c, and well below the $1 donated by the likes of Sweden. Government aid is often also tied to conditions or goods and services purchased in the country and is also usually locally directed. Australia, for example, gives hardly any aid to sub-Saharan Africa. By contrast, individual aid to NGOs is usually better targetted.
Another good question related to motivation: why should I donate? Singer said that some people donate because “it is the right thing to do”. Others want to prevent bad things from happening the world. He also cited Henry Sidgwick’s “point of view of the universe” which enables people to lift themselves out of their own perspective. Finally he acknowledged an egoistic element in that helping others gives people’s own lives meaning. Singer called this practice “enlightened self-interest”.
Another questioner asked Singer whether anyone in Australia qualifies in the category of “extreme poverty”. Singer said no, even the poorest here are entitled to financial support. There is a social security net that provides a certain standard of health care, safe drinking water, and shelter. Together these entitlements put them above the extreme poverty line. The extremely poor are mostly in Africa (50 per cent of the total population) and also in the South Asia sub-continent (33 per cent – but largest overall in absolute numbers). The very poor, as UNICEF states, “die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world.” Singer is on a mission to change that.