Episode 90      23 min 37 sec
The Cost of A Life: Peter Singer on Ending World Poverty

Philosopher and ethicist Peter Singer puts forward his vision of how individuals can take an ethical and just approach to tackling world poverty. With host Jennifer Cook.

"We have to get beyond the idea of giving to those close to us if those close to us are already reasonably secure, reasonably comfortably off, and there are others who are strangers to us but who are so much needier." -- Prof Peter Singer




           



Peter Singer
Peter Singer

Peter Singer is Laureate Professor at the Centre of Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne, and Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University.

Prof Singer's many published works include Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for our Treatment of Animals, Practical Ethics and One World: Ethics and Globalization.

In his book, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty,  Prof Singer Singer uses ethical arguments, provocative thought experiments, illuminating examples, and case studies to demonstrate that our current response to extreme poverty is not only inadequate but ethically indefensible.

Credits

Host: Jennifer Cook
Producers: Kelvin Param, Eric van Bemmel
Series Creators: Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param
Audio Engineer: Ben Loveridge
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink

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The Cost of A Life: Peter Singer on Ending World Poverty

VOICEOVER
Welcome to Up Close, the research, opinion and analysis podcast from the University of Melbourne, Australia.

JENNIFER COOK
Hello, I'm Jennifer Cook, thanks for joining us. Today, in the first of two episodes on aid efforts to alleviate poverty, we're talking with philosopher and ethicist Peter Singer about creating a new culture of giving, which he says has the potential to end extreme poverty. In his book The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty, he calls to our collective conscience, in which he tells us that not acting to help a person in extreme poverty across the other side of the world is the ethical equivalent of standing by and watching a child drown. He says something as simple as spending money on bottled water is a clear indication that we have more money than we need, an argument he drives home by telling us around the world a billion people are struggling to live each day on less than we paid for that drink. But just who is Peter Singer to tell us such things? The New Yorker described him as the world's most influential living philosopher. Time Magazine voted him as one of the 100 most influential minds of our time. He's Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, and Laureate Professor at the Centre of Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, University of Melbourne. His book Animal Liberation helped launch the animal rights movement in the '70s, and he's controversially argued that the euthanasia of disabled infants may be justified in some circumstances. In Melbourne to speak at the 2010 One Just World forum, organised by World Vision Australia, the University of Melbourne and AusAID, Peter Singer joins us to discuss his blueprint for living an ethical life, where 18 million people die each year from preventable causes. Peter Singer, welcome to up close.

PETER SINGER
Thank you Jennifer. It's good to be with you.

JENNIFER COOK
Now let me begin by asking you to give us an idea of just how desperate the situation is.

PETER SINGER
Well we're living in a world in which there are over a billion people living on the purchasing power equivalent, not the currency equivalent, of US$1.25 per day. So that's as much as you could buy in the United States for $1.25. It's incredibly little, really. The result of that of course is that many of them don’t get enough to eat or don’t get the right nutrients, an adequately nourishing diet. They very often don’t have safe drinking water. If they get sick they don’t have even the most basic health care. Of course the result of that is that many people do die from poverty and the avoidable diseases that are related to poverty. So UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, estimates that close to 10 million children die each year from poverty-related causes. It just dropped a little on their latest report to around 9 million. Plus adults as well of course, so a total of maybe 18 million people are dying each year from avoidable poverty-related causes. If you break that up on a daily basis, just the children alone are going to come to something like 24,000 or 25,000 children dying every day unnecessarily.

JENNIFER COOK
From causes such as hunger, measles, malaria and diarrhoea.

PETER SINGER
That's right. Of course hunger can be prevented if people get more food, and all of those diseases that you mentioned are either preventable or treatable. We can prevent measles by immunisation programs; we can prevent malaria by the distribution of bed nets; we can prevent diarrhoea by providing safe water. And where we can't prevent diarrhoea we can treat it, if only we can get very basic, minimal, very inexpensive health care to children suffering from diarrhoea, we can save their lives. But because people are so poor they can't travel to the nearest town, they just sometimes can't get it.

JENNIFER COOK
Now when we hear these figures it can be extremely overwhelming and we can think what can the individual do? But you're saying there is a lot that one person can do, and that is what your book is talking about.

PETER SINGER
There is in fact a lot that people can do. Of course people are doing some things, and we are making progress. It's wrong to think of this as a hopeless situation that's always been with us. But there are a lot of good organisations, effective organisations, that people can contribute to that will do the things that I mentioned. They will provide safe drinking water for rural villages; they will provide basic health care clinics; they will provide education too, which of course can help people get out of the poverty trap; and a whole lot of other things that have been shown to be effective in relieving poverty.

JENNIFER COOK
And you talk about those good organisations. I notice you've set up your website, haven’t you, where you have a directory of those organisations. How have you judged those?

PETER SINGER
That's right, I have a site with the same name as the title of the book, so thelifeyoucansave.com. You can go there and you can find a list of organisations. There are actually different lists. There's a list of organisations that I have some personal knowledge of, like Oxfam, which is an international coalition, exists in many countries. And people in Australia or the United Kingdom or Canada or the United States can donate to Oxfam. I've been working with Oxfam in various ways, had different forms of contact with the different Oxfams for more than 30 years now. I'm confident that they are using money well, for the right purposes. Then there are some other organisations that are recommended by a group called Give Well, which you can also go directly to on the net at givewell.net. They do pretty rigorous scrutiny of aid organisations, so they've screened about 400 organisations and they've come up with about half a dozen or so that they are really recommending. So those two I think we can be very confident of. Then I've got a long list of organisations recommended by people who've been to the website and recommended organisations that they have some experience of.  And I don’t personally vouch for them, but I'm sure many of them are good organisations as well.

JENNIFER COOK
I was quite fascinated in your book about this gap between the perception people have, people in developed countries like Australia and the United States, the gap between what they think their government is giving, what the government is actually giving, and what they think the government should be giving. Could you explain that to us?

PETER SINGER
Yes, the figures that I have are from the United States and they are really quite amazing. So you ask Americans do you think the government is giving too much foreign aid or about the right amount or too little. And quite a lot of them, roughly half of them, say too much. And then you ask them so what percentage of federal government spending, of the government's budget in other words, do you think we should give for foreign aid. Most of them say around 10 per cent or 10 or 15 per cent of federal government spending. Well in fact the federal government in the United States gives less than one per cent for foreign aid. So here are these people saying on the one hand look we're giving too much foreign aid, then you ask them how much do you think we should give, and they obviously are completely under a delusion about how much we are giving. If you ask them how much they think we should give, they name a figure that's several times as much as is actually being given.

JENNIFER COOK
There is that argument that charity does begin at home and we should look after our family and our friends, and say in Australia our own indigenous community, before we look to others. Now this in your book you explore, and it goes to the heart of the idea of the distant stranger, doesn’t it?

PETER SINGER
It certainly does. Of course you can't really ask anyone to give to the child of a hungry stranger if their own child is hungry. I think it's part of human nature that we will satisfy the needs of our children. But it's different if we're not satisfying their real needs, but we're making sure that they have the latest computer gadget or something of that sort, and there are other children starving. I think we should recognise that there's a point at which the idea of saying charity begins at home comes to a point of saying well this isn’t really charity anymore, it isn’t really meeting the needs of those close to you. It's indulgence or something of that sort. And so we have to I think get beyond the idea of giving to those close to us if those close to us are already reasonably secure, reasonably comfortably off, and there are others who are strangers to us but who are so much needier.

JENNIFER COOK
This is Up Close, coming to you from the University of Melbourne, Australia. I'm Jennifer Cook, and our guest today is philosopher and ethicist Peter Singer. Now Peter you're very clear, aren’t you, on what constitutes extreme poverty? These are people who are hungry for most of the year; they often don’t have easy access to clean drinking water. If a disaster befalls them, like illness, they have to pull their child out of school. It's not a case of we don’t have a second television or we don’t have a second car.

PETER SINGER
No, definitely not. I'm talking about extreme poverty, as defined by the World Bank. It's sometimes called absolute poverty, to distinguish it from relative poverty, because of course in Australia or the United States we have many people who are relatively poor. That means that they're poor compared to the norm or the average or the mainstream in their society. But people who fall below the poverty line in Australia or the United States for instance are still likely to have a colour TV set, they're likely to have a car, many of them may have air conditioning. They will all have safe drinking water; they will all have some access to health care. People in the developing world don’t even have that basic security.

JENNIFER COOK
I'd like to talk to you a bit more about why we don’t give more in foreign aid, and I'm talking about governments. But I'd like to briefly turn to Dambisa Moyo's book Dead Aid. And she talks a lot in that about aid money supporting dictators, and she's talking about government money and loans from the World Bank. So surely when we hear that Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko stole US$5 billion US, which was the equivalent of his country's national debt in his time as president, can we be blamed for thinking that we're throwing good money after bad?

PETER SINGER
We certainly can't be blamed for being critical of the aid that was given to Mobutu and Zaire, but I think we can be critical of regarding that as a description of aid today. We're going back... When we talk about Mobutu we're going back to the Cold War era, 1970s and '80s, when the United States and other countries were basically saying well yes he's a dictator but he's our dictator, he's not a communist. They were prepared to support him on that basis, to keep him from going communist. They knew he was putting money into his Swiss accounts, and really they didn’t care. I think aid has improved since then, so I think if we're talking about the World Bank or government aid, it is stricter than it was then. It's still by no means perfect, and since you've brought up Dambisa Moyo's book, it's important also to say that she explicitly says in the opening pages she's not talking about aid given to non-profit organisations. She's talking about government and World Bank aid. So the criticisms that she does make, some of which are more recent of course than the Mobutu case, the criticisms she does make should not lead anyone to think if I give my donation to Oxfam or to CARE or to World Vision or The Hunger Project, it's going to end up in the pockets of a corrupt dictator. Because Moyo is not saying that, and nobody could say that, because those organisations just don’t give money to dictators of course.

JENNIFER COOK
Yes she's very clear on that distinction, and she's a big proponent of microfinance as a way of empowering local communities, and that's something you've supported as well. Just speaking to someone in the community development field, Professor Rob Nabben, he expressed concern that microfinance does also have its own inherent problems, in that we are taking a western way of making money and dragging people into the money market, and overlaying it in communities, and saying that it's not always the answer. Are you saying it's a positive way forward, it's at least making inroads?

PETER SINGER
I think microfinance is generally positive, but I would accept that it's not suitable for every culture and every people. I think, when you say it's a western culture, I don’t think it's only western. I mean trading, entrepreneurship, small business; it's very common in many parts of Asia for instance. That's where the whole microfinance thing got started, in Bangladesh. It wasn’t a western idea; it was Muhammad Yunus who started it in Bangladesh. It thrived in Bangladesh and it obviously suited the culture there. It does in many other countries as well. It may not suit every culture. I support it but I certainly don’t think it's a panacea. I don’t think microfinance is going to alone solve global poverty. I think there's some evidence that while microfinance does reach people who are very poor, it doesn’t always reach the poorest of the poor. Sometimes they just don’t have the capacity, the skills, whatever it might take, to get a small loan and start a small business and grow their fortune with it. So we need other things as well.

JENNIFER COOK
You mentioned Muhammad Yunus of the Grameen Bank. He advocates the need for social businesses, which he fascinatingly describes as this need to capture the essence of humanity in economic theory. Do you think it's possible to bridge that gap between the economists, such as Moyo and her argument, and the humanitarians? Is this all just part of a big dialogue?

PETER SINGER
I think it's possible. I think it really depends on what people want. Capitalism, business serves consumers. So if you have consumers with high ethical standards who want to buy products, for example fair trade products, where they know that if they buy something that's come from a developing country a decent percentage of that has gone to basically the poor people who produced it, the peasant farmers or low income craftspeople. If we had enough people doing that, then capitalism would serve that need and would therefore provide a living wage to the people in developing countries. The problem is of course that capitalism floods us with such an array of different messages. It tells us that we can feel good about something if we buy this fairtrade product, but it also tells us that this product will make us look better, feel sexier, be cleaner, fresher, whatever else it might be. And so the ethical message can very easily get lost in the appeal to a whole lot of other instincts and desires that we have.

JENNIFER COOK
You're listening to Up Close, and on this episode we're speaking about eliminating extreme poverty with ethicist Peter Singer. Now Peter, I was really interested to read your analysis of people who downplay their philanthropy. They say things like “Oh I've got to do something with my time, Charity work it gets me out of the house.” Why do you think this is?

PETER SINGER
We've developed a kind of attitude that we don’t want to blow our own trumpets, we don’t want to make ourselves seem too good, too virtuous, too saintly. If you say that you're doing something for altruistic or compassionate reasons, people may get the idea that you're saying you're better than they are. So I think that's why, in many cultures anyway, we tend to downplay this and to pretend we have other motives. Psychologists who've studied it call it the norm of selfishness. It's kind of paradoxical almost, that it's become like a moral standard or a norm to say yeah of course basically I'm acting just in my own interests but I want to get out of the house so I might as well volunteer for this charity or whatever. I think we need to try to get away from that. I think it's a good thing if we talk a bit more about our giving and our volunteering and what we're doing, because other psychological studies show that one of the powerful factors in getting more people to give is seeing that other people are giving. Nobody wants to be the only one who gives. We have a feeling like well if I'm giving and nobody else is, there must be something wrong, I must be a fool or something, or a sucker. I don’t know. Why would I give if other people don’t give? But if I see that other people are giving then I think yeah well that makes sense. Yeah, I'll do my bit as well.

JENNIFER COOK
That's that culture of giving you are talking about.

PETER SINGER
That's right yeah, and that's what I'm trying to encourage on the website that I've set up. I'm trying to get people to go there and to pledge to give so that they can do that publicly and people can see. You can go to the website now, thelifeyoucansave.com, and you can see oh more than 5000 people have already pledged to give to this standard. So I think people are more likely to join those 5000 people than they would if they went there and they saw oh three people have pledged. That would seem a bit harder, I guess, to give.

JENNIFER COOK
So Peter, how do we take this from the theory to the practice? Is it as simple as clicking on your website?

PETER SINGER
It's almost as simple, but of course clicking on the website doesn’t actually deliver any aid to anyone. All it does is indicate that you've pledged that you will give, but I hope people will do that, and they'll look at some of the organisations that I recommend. They'll also of course look at the scale that I set up, because, as we said, I don’t want to make it too hard for anyone. So for most people I'm suggesting somewhere in the range of one to five per cent, starting with what you feel comfortable with. If it's only one per cent of what you earn, okay you can still pledge. Then you can work up, and of course if your earnings go up beyond something over $100,000 then the percentage should also go up. Not just that you give more because five per cent of $100,000 is more than five per cent of $10,000 but also I think you can afford to give more. So the percentage goes up as you get over a certain amount. But for most people it's not very much. The idea is rather to get people doing it, to get them talking about it, and as you said to change this culture of giving so that we start to see that if you're comfortably off, if you're a middle class citizen of a country like Australia or the industrialised countries of Europe or the United States or Canada or New Zealand, then you can afford to give and you're not really being a good person if you just sit there on what you've got and say well too bad for those 1.4 billion people in extreme poverty; I'm not prepared to do anything to help them.

JENNIFER COOK
So Peter I notice with your book, The Life You Can Save, you're practicing what you preach and that all the royalties are going to be donated to Oxfam and Give Well. What else are you doing on a daily basis to support your own philosophy?

PETER SINGER
Well apart from the royalties of course, I have for many years going back to the time when I started thinking about this, which was when I was a graduate student in the 1970s, I've been giving a percentage of my income. I started off with 10 per cent and have been working up beyond that, to some of these organisations. Also of course I'm talking about it; I'm talking to you about now and to people who are going to listen to this. I give a lot of talks, wherever I might be in the world, if it's in Melbourne or in the United States, about the issue, essentially to try to raise awareness. I've been involved on advisory boards or advisory councils of a number of the organisations that worked in this area, but let me say I don’t get paid by any of them.

JENNIFER COOK
In the spirit of this culture of giving and talking about how philanthropy does make you feel, how has it benefited you?

PETER SINGER
I think this is a very important point to make. I feel that it's made my life a lot better to be giving. It's made me feel that I'm doing something fulfilling and worthwhile, and helping others. It's also I think really improved my attitude to money. I think before I started giving I was actually a pretty stingy sort of person and worried a lot about money. Was I wasting it; could I get this something or other; could I afford this. I think when you start to give away it actually makes you more relaxed about that and makes you realise that you don’t need that much and that it doesn’t have much to do with the quality of your life, some of the things that previously you were thinking oh can I afford that, and really wanting. There's plenty of psychological research showing that people who give are actually happier and more content with their life than people who don’t give. There was this family that published a book in the United States, called The Power of Half, who sold their luxurious mansion, gave away half of the money they got for it to The Hunger Project I think it was, working in villages in Ghana, and then bought a much smaller house for the other half of the money. They say that they're actually happier in the smaller house. They're closer as a family, they spend more time together; they didn’t need that large house to roam around in. I think that's quite common that people who are wealthy actually find that the money they're keeping for themselves is not making them happier.

JENNIFER COOK
Peter Singer, thank you so much for joining us on Up Close today. You've given us so much to think about.

PETER SINGER
Thanks for the chance to talk to you Jennifer.

JENNIFER COOK
I'm Jennifer Cook and I've been speaking with ethicist and philosopher Peter Singer about how each and every one of us can and indeed should be helping eliminate extreme poverty. You can get his book, Peter Singer, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty, and you can also get on his website, thelifeyoucansave.com, www.thelifeyoucansave.com for more information. You've been listening to Up Close. Relevant links, a full transcript and more info on this episode can be found at our website at upclose.unimelb.edu.au. We also invite you to leave your comments or feedback on this or any other episode of Up Close. Simply click on the add new comment link at the bottom of the episode page. Up Close is brought to you by marketing and communications of the University of Melbourne, Australia. Our producers for this episode were Kelvin Param and Eric van Bemmel. Audio engineering is by Ben Loveridge. Up Close is created by Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param. I'm Jennifer Cook and until next time, goodbye.

VOICEOVER
You’ve been listening to Up Close.  For more information visit upclose.u-n-i-m-e-l-b.edu.au.  Copyright 2010 The University of Melbourne.


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