Monday, March 23, 2009

The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty by Peter Singer

When we returned from our trip Texas on Friday, I found appeals from CARE and Feeding America (formerly America's Second Harvest) on my nightstand. It was fitting for I had just finished reading The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty by Peter Singer on the flight from Dallas to Chicago. The subject of charitable giving was already on my mind.

Should I even mention that we give to charitable causes? Isn't that boasting? Not at the level we give. Even if we did give until it hurt, Singer argues that we should tell the world, encouraging others to join us. Many people need reassurance that it is right and just to give to counter proclamations from naysayers who hold that people who are poor deserve to be poor.

Singer goes to great lengths to argue that we owe help to world's poor. He holds that highly-industrialized nations have caused much of today's world's suffering. He is most direct in this paragraph from page 31:

"In their dealings with corrupt dictators in developing countries, international corporations are akin to people who knowingly buy stolen goods, with the difference that the international legal and political order recognizes the corporations not as criminals in possession of stolen goods but as the legal owners of the goods they have bought. This situation is, of course, profitable for corporations that do deals with dictators, and for us, since we use the oil, minerals, and other raw materials we need to maintain our prosperity. But for resource-rich developing countries, it is a disaster. The problem is not only the loss of immense wealth that, used wisely, could build the prosperity of the nation. Paradoxically, developing nations with rich deposits of oil or minerals are often worse off than otherwise comparable nations without those resources. One reason is that the revenue from the sale of the resources provides a huge financial incentive for anyone tempted to overthrow the government and seize power. Successful rebels know that if they succeed, they will be rewarded with immense personal wealth. They can also reward those who backed their coup, and they can buy enough arms to keep themselves in power no matter how badly they rule. ... If we use goods made from the raw materials obtained by these unethical dealings from resource-rich but money-poor nations, we are harming those who live in these countries."

Singer's assessment of the current political and economic situation is pretty harsh, but he does not dwell on this beyond the introductory section. Most of the book examines the ethics and philosophy of giving, emphasizing accountability and results. Microfinance and delivering aid straight to villages, not to governments is emphasized. The final sections lay out several models for giving.

In the end, Singer is quite realistic, admitting that few people will rise to a call to turn every dollar that they might spend on luxuries into aid for the poor. He also points out how fair shares from every fortunate wage-earner will not be sufficient. He seeks middle ground, encouraging people of all faiths and no faith to tithe.

With the world economic crisis spreading, philanthropic spending is expected to fall at the same time that the need is greatest. The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty is highly-readable candidate for issues-based book discussions. Libraries should add this book.

Singer, Peter. The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty. Random House, 2009. ISBN 9781400067107


Gary Baumgarten said...

Peter Singer will be my guest on News Talk Online on at 5 PM New York time Friday March 27.

Please go to my blog then at and click on the link to join the chat to talk to him.



Sarah said...

This sounds interesting. I don't need to be convinced to give, but the thing that makes me put it off is having to choose where to give - there are so many worthy organizations out there and it is so hard to pick just a couple to give my money to. From what you say it sounds like Singer suggests some criteria to use (e.g. direct aid rather than government) - how much into depth on that does he go?

ricklibrarian said...


Singer spends much more text on arguing for giving than on the analysis of the causes. His emphasis does, however, stress causes that help the truly needy and suggests that you check out the missions of the causes to which you give.

You can check some national charities at or if you want to see how charity observers view their effectiveness.

Thanks for asking.