San Jose State University Technological Solutions to Poverty Discussion

Answer the following questions in 1 or 2 paragraphs each (1-1.5 pages long length in total). You can refer to any sources assigned. Your answers should be in your own words.

1) Summarize Peter Singer’s argument that we are obligated to help those living in poverty. Do you agree or disagree? Explain your answer.

– Sources: The Life You Can Save.pdf download(read pages 26 to 258) see attached

2) Explain why Kentaro Toyama believes that technology alone cannot solve the problem of poverty.

– Sources: Can Technology End Poverty?

3) Explain one of the examples given in any of the readings, videos or podcasts for this module of how technology HAS been successful in alleviating poverty.

– Sources:

Initiatives to close the digital divide must last beyond the COVID-19 pandemic to work (Links to an external site.)

10 Technological Solutions to Poverty (Links to an external site.)

U.N Study: Digitization of Kenyan Farmer Payments Helps Tackle Poverty

Peter Singer was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1946 and
educated at the University of Melbourne and the University of
Oxford. He has taught at the University of Oxford, La Trobe
University, and Monash University, and has held several other
visiting appointments. Since 1999 he has been Ira W.
DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at the University Center for
Human Values at Princeton University and since 2005, Laureate
Professor at the University of Melbourne, attached to the School
of Historical and Philosophical Studies.
Singer first became well-known internationally after the
publication of Animal Liberation in 1975. His other books include
Practical Ethics, Rethinking Life and Death, One World Now,
and The Most Good You Can Do. Three collections of his writings
have been published: Writings on an Ethical Life and Ethics in
the Real World, which he edited, and Unsanctifying Human Life,
edited by Helga Kuhse. He was the founding president of the
International Association of Bioethics; and, with Paola Cavalieri,
of The Great Ape Project. In 2005, Time magazine named him one
of the 100 most influential people in the world, and in 2009,
The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age included him among
the most influential Australians of the past half century.
Following the publication of the first edition of The Life You
Can Save, Singer founded the organization bearing the same
name to help alleviate suffering and poverty in low-income
countries. By recommending highly effective charities at, the organization aims to make it easy
for people to do “the most good” with their donations.
Singer is married and has three daughters and four
grandchildren. His recreations, apart from reading and writing,
include hiking and surfing.
The Life You Can Save relies on voluntary contributions to spread
Peter Singer’s ideas on donating to effective charities and thus to
reduce global poverty.
Praise for
The Life You Can Save
“A persuasive and inspiring work that will change the way you
think about philanthropy … and that shows us we can make a
profound difference in the lives of the world’s poorest.”
“Mr. Singer is far from the world’s only serious thinker on
poverty, but with The Life You Can Save he becomes, instantly, its
most readable and lapel-grabbing one.”
—The New York Times
“Faced with [Peter Singer’s] argument, it is hard not to ask
yourself how your own giving measures up. Yes, I will go on
buying things I do not really need. But, yes, this book has
persuaded me that I should give more—significantly more—to
help those less fortunate.”
—Financial Times
“Powerful and clarifying … Singer sets up a demanding ethical
compass for human behavior.”
—Sunday Star Ledger
“This short and surprisingly compelling book sets out to answer
two difficult questions: why people in affluent countries should
donate money to fight global poverty and how much each should
give… . Singer doesn’t ask readers to choose between asceticism
and self-indulgence; his solution can be found in the middle, and
it is reasonable and rewarding for all.”
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Be warned: reading this book may be dangerous to your
definitions of morality, charity, and how to be good. That is why
you must read it.”
—The Christian Science Monitor
“If you think you can’t afford to give money to the needy, I urge
you to read this book. If you think you’re already giving enough,
and to the right places, still I urge you to read this book. In The
Life You Can Save, Peter Singer makes a strong case—logical and
factual, but also emotional—for why each of us should be doing
more for the world’s impoverished. This book will challenge you
to be a better person.”
—HOLDEN KARNOFSKY, co-founder, GiveWell
“Peter Singer challenges each of us to ask: am I willing to make
poverty history? Skillfully weaving together parable, philosophy,
and hard statistics, he tackles the most familiar moral, ethical,
and ideological obstacles to building a global culture of
philanthropy, and sets the bar for how we as citizens might do our
part to empower the world’s poor.”
—RAYMOND C. OFFENHEISER, president, Oxfam America
Democracy and Disobedience
Animal Liberation
Practical Ethics
Animal Factories (with Jim Mason)
The Expanding Circle
The Reproduction Revolution (with Dean Wells)
Should the Baby Live? (with Helga Kuhse)
How Are We to Live?
Rethinking Life and Death
Ethics into Action
A Darwinian Left
Writings on an Ethical Life
Unsanctifying Human Life (edited by Helga Kuhse)
One World
Pushing Time Away
The President of Good and Evil
How Ethical Is Australia? (with Tom Gregg)
The Ethics of What We Eat (with Jim Mason)
The Point of View of the Universe (with Katarzyna de LazariRadek)
The Most Good You Can Do
Famine, Affluence and Morality
Ethics in the Real World
Utilitarianism: A Very Short Introduction (with Katarzyna de
Copyright © 2009 by Peter Singer
Tenth Anniversary edition revisions © 2019 by Peter Singer
All rights reserved.
Tenth Anniversary edition edited by The Life You Can Save
Cover design by W. H. Chong
Released throughout the world by The Life You Can Save, Bainbridge Island,
Washington, USA & Sydney, Australia.
Previously published and distributed in the United States by Random House, an imprint
of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., 1745
Broadway, New York, New York 10019; in Australia and New Zealand by Text
Publishing, Melbourne; and in the United Kingdom by Picador, an imprint of Pan
MacMillan, London.
First edition published March 2009; Paperback published September 2010
Tenth Anniversary edition published November 2019
ISBN 978-1-7336727-1-9
Although the author and publisher have made every effort to ensure that the
information in this book was correct at press time, the author and publisher do not
assume and hereby disclaim any liability to any party for any loss caused by errors or
omissions, whether such error or omissions result from negligence, accident, or any
other cause.
The Life You Can Save is a not-for-profit entity, founded by Peter Singer and established
in the United States and Australia.
For more information, please visit
To Renata, without whom …
Foreword: “I’ve never looked at it that way before.” Michael
Schur, Creator of The Good Place
1. Saving a Child
2. Is It Wrong Not to Help?
3. Common Objections to Giving
4. Why Don’t We Give More?
5. Creating a Culture of Giving
6. How Much Does It Cost to Save a Life, and How Can You
Tell Which Charities Do It Best?
7. Improving Aid
8. Your Child and the Children of Others
9. Asking Too Much?
10. A Realistic Standard
What One Person Can Do
Afterword: From Contemplation to Action. Charlie Bresler,
Executive Director of The Life You Can Save
Appendix: The Giving Scale
Foreword: “I’ve never looked at it
that way before.”
Michael Schur, Creator of The Good Place
I first came across Peter Singer in 2006, via an article he wrote in
the New York Times Magazine. He was discussing the “Golden
Age of Philanthropy.” Warren Buffett had just pledged $37 billion
to the Gates Foundation and other charities, which on an
inflation-adjusted basis, Singer noted, was “more than double the
lifetime total given away by two of the philanthropic giants of the
past, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, put together.”
Singer posed some simple questions: What should a billionaire
give to charity? What should we (non-billionaires, ostensibly)
give? And how do we calculate these numbers?
What struck me about Singer’s arguments was that the amount
in question, for him, wasn’t theoretical. It was calculable. There is
an amount of money one needs to live a decent life—to pay for a
reasonable amount of rent, clothes, food, and leisure. And if you
have more than that amount, he posited, you should give it away—
because you don’t need it, and someone else does.
The bluntness of it made me chuckle. It was a straight-faced,
matter-of-fact shrug of an argument, and even as I formed my
own responses to him in my head, I kept having the same thought,
over and over:
“Well, geez. I’ve never looked at it that way before.”
Ten years later, I was researching various topics in moral
philosophy for a TV show I was developing, called “The Good
Place.” As I drifted into utilitarianism—a philosophy arguing that
the moral worth of an action is based on its consequences—Singer
popped up again and again. With each of his articles or books that
I read, I found myself reacting with the same mix of fascination,
dismay, excitement, and disbelief. His writing was clear,
unambiguous, uncompromising, and, at times, shocking.
Arguments I at first found to be absurd would wind up seeming
eminently reasonable … and vice versa.
But what stuck with me the most as I read his work—
particularly about charitable giving—was how often I came back
to that original thought: “I’ve never looked at it that way before.”
And the power of that thought has stayed with me.
Living even a modest life in a wealthy, (relatively) stable
country like America can provide a level of comfort—and this is
not an exaggeration—greater than that of King Louis XIV in his
palace at Versailles. Chances are you have most or all of the
following: running water, indoor plumbing, air conditioning, a
refrigerator, a TV, internet access, and a washing machine. (Read
up on 18th-century hygiene some time: Louis XIV would’ve given
half his wealth for a mechanical washing machine.) Even today,
measured on a global scale, these simple comforts are absurdly
luxurious, and they are also—relatively speaking—cheap. But the
most common commodity that life in a wealthy country can
provide you is also the most insidious: complacency. It is easy,
even for a person of average income, to take the basic comforts of
life for granted. And for the wealthy, it is absurdly commonplace
to do so.
Which is not to say most people’s lives are easy. Far from it.
Most people’s lives, even in the wealthiest nations, are full of
economic stress, painful moments, personal and professional
disappointment, medical trauma, difficult decisions, trials and
tribulations, anxiety, and suffering. Which makes it even harder to
remember that having three dollars to buy a hamburger is a
luxury that hundreds of millions of people living in extreme
poverty cannot conceive of.
Enter Peter Singer, and The Life You Can Save.
At its core, Singer’s book asks us to consider a very simple
truth: a life is a life, no matter where that life lives. A human being
over there is no less valuable than a human being over here. It
then asks us, given that simple transitive property of inherent
human value, to consider treating that life over there with the
same care and attention we give to lives over here. That’s all.
That’s the “ask.” If you want the Cliff’s Notes version of the ideas
within these pages, you now have it.
In these pages, you’ll read some extreme examples of how
people approach the conclusion that all lives are equally valuable.
You’ll read about people who gave away their entire fortunes—
tens of millions of dollars—because they concluded that having a
single dollar more than they needed to live was morally
problematic. You’ll read about people who voluntarily gave away
their kidneys after reading that the chances of dying due to having
only one kidney are 1 in 4,000, and thus not giving away their
“extra” kidney would have meant valuing their own life 4,000
times more than someone else’s.
If you’re like me, you’ll read these stories, and you’ll feel a lot of
things in rapid succession. You’ll feel awe and admiration for
people who can be so devoted to helping others. You’ll feel shame
for not being one of those people. You’ll feel like those people are
nuts, because wandering into a doctor’s office and saying, “Please
take my kidney and give it to a stranger who needs it,” is not the
kind of thing you have ever imagined doing. You may even feel
like a terrible hypocrite, because even though you already do a
great deal to help other people in need, you also own a large flatscreen TV, and a soft comfy bathrobe, and an autographed
baseball bat signed by your favorite player that cost $300—none
of which, technically, you “need.” And then you may feel anger,
because you think of yourself as someone who tries to do the right
thing whenever you can, and you like your comfy robe—it’s comfy,
dammit!—and who is this guy to tell you that you shouldn’t buy
that robe, anyway, and also he’s talking about giving away your
kidneys, and how is that any kind of reasonable standard?!
But this is exactly the point. Because more important than what
you feel when you read this book is what you will not feel:
You will not feel like other people don’t matter. You will not
blithely scroll past reports of disasters, whether abroad or close to
home, without considering—even if just for a moment—the
impacted lives of those affected. Instead, you will have, bouncing
around in your head, the thought that there may be something
simple you can do to help, something that does not disrupt your
life or put you or your family’s well-being in peril.
So don’t worry, prospective reader: you do not have to give
away your kidney, or bankrupt yourself to improve the lives of the
extremely poor, to abide by the tenets of this book. You merely
have to ask yourself a few questions: what am I doing, as a human
being on earth, to help the less fortunate? Can I, perhaps, do a
little bit more? And if so, how?
Which are questions worth asking.
July 2019
When he saw the man fall onto the subway tracks, Wesley Autry
didn’t hesitate. With the lights of the oncoming train visible,
Autry, a construction worker, jumped down to the tracks and
pushed the man down into a drainage trench between the rails,
covering him with his own body. The train passed over them,
leaving a trail of grease on Autry’s cap. Autry, later invited to the
State of the Union Address and praised by the president for his
bravery, downplayed his actions: “I don’t feel like I did something
spectacular. I just saw someone who needed help. I did what I felt
was right.”1
What if I told you that you, too, can save a life, even many
lives? Do you have a bottle of water or a can of soda on the table
beside you as you read this book? If you are paying for something
to drink when safe drinking water comes out of the tap, you have
money to spend on things you don’t really need. Around the
world, over 700 million people struggle to live each day on less
than you paid for that drink.2 Because they can’t afford even the
most basic health care for their families, their children may die
from simple, easily treatable diseases like diarrhea. You can help
them, and you don’t have to risk getting hit by an oncoming train
to do it.
I have been thinking and writing for more than 40 years about
how we should respond to hunger and poverty. I have presented
this book’s argument to thousands of students in my university
classes and in my online course on effective giving, and to
countless others in newspapers, magazines, a TED talk, podcasts,
and television programs.3 As a result, I’ve been forced to respond
to a wide range of thoughtful challenges. The first edition of this
book brought more discussion and challenges, and the rise of the
effective altruism movement has stimulated extensive research
into what forms of assistance provide the best value for money. So
now this fully updated 10th Anniversary Edition distills
everything I’ve learned over the years about why we give, or don’t
give, and what we should do about it.
We live in a unique moment. The proportion of people unable
to meet their basic physical needs is smaller today than it has
been at any time in recent history, and perhaps at any time since
humans first came into existence. At the same time, when we take
a long-term perspective that looks beyond the fluctuations of the
economic cycle, the proportion of people with far more than they
need is also unprecedented. Most importantly, rich and poor are
now linked in ways they never were before. Moving images, in real
time, of people on the edge of survival are beamed onto our
mobile devices. Not only do we know a lot about the desperately
poor, but we also have much more to offer them in terms of better
health care, improved seeds and agricultural techniques, and new
technologies for generating electricity. More amazingly, through
instant communications and open access to a wealth of
information that surpasses the greatest libraries of the preinternet age, we can enable them to join the worldwide
community—if only we can help them get far enough out of
poverty to seize the opportunity.
The United Nations and its member states have set an
ambitious target: to end extreme poverty by 2030.4 Ending
extreme poverty in just 11 more years is going to be a challenge,
but we have made good progress toward that goal. In 1960,
according to UNICEF—the United Nations International
Children’s Emergency Fund—20 million children died before their
fifth birthday. When this book first appeared, in 2009, I used the
most recent figure available to me to give readers the good news
that the toll had dropped to 9.7 million. Now in this 10th
Anniversary Edition, the most recent report estimates that 5.4
million children under the age of 5 died in 2017.5 That is 11,780
fewer children—the equivalent of 21 full Airbus 380s—dying every
day in 2017 than the number I used in the first edition, and
40,000 fewer children dying each day than in 1960. Public health
campaigns against smallpox, measles, and malaria have
contributed to the drop in child mortality, as has economic
progress in several countries. The drop is even more impressive
because the world’s population has more than doubled since 1960.
Yet we can’t become complacent: 5.4 million children under five
dying every year, with over half of those deaths due to conditions
that could be prevented or treated with access to simple,
affordable interventions, is an immense tragedy, not to mention a
moral stain on a world as rich as ours.6
We can liken our situation to an attempt to reach the summit of
an immense mountain. For all the eons of human existence, we
have been climbing up through dense cloud. We haven’t known
how far we have to go, nor whether it is even possible to get to the
top. Now at last we have emerged from the mist and can see a
route up the remaining steep slopes and onto the summit ridge.
The peak still lies some distance ahead. There are sections of the
route that will challenge our abilities to the utmost, but we can see
that the ascent is feasible.
We can, each of us, do our part in this epoch-making climb. In
recent years there’s been a good deal of coverage about some who
have taken on this challenge in a bold and public way. Warren
Buffett has pledged to give away 99% of his wealth to
philanthropy during his lifetime or at death. Since 2006 he has
donated more than $30.9 billion, while Bill and Melinda Gates
have given approximately $50 billion and are planning to give
more. For both Buffett and the Gateses, reducing extreme poverty
is the top priority.7 Immense as these sums are, we will see by the
end of this book that they are only a small fraction of what people
in rich nations could easily give, without a significant reduction in
their standard of living. We won’t reach our goal unless many
more contribute to the effort.
That’s why this is the right time to ask yourself: what ought I be
doing to help?
I write this book with two linked but significantly different
goals. The first is to challenge you to think about our obligations
to those trapped in extreme poverty. The part of the book that lays
out this challenge will deliberately present a very demanding—
some might even say impossible—standard of ethical behavior. I’ll
suggest that it may not be possible to consider ourselves to be
living a morally good life unless we give a great deal more than
most of us would think is realistic to expect human beings to give.
This may sound absurd, and yet the argument for it is remarkably
simple. It goes back to that bottle of water, to the money we spend
on things that aren’t really necessary. If it is so easy to help people
who are in desperate need through no fault of their own, and yet
we fail to do so, aren’t we doing something wrong? At a minimum,
I hope this book will persuade you that there is something deeply
askew with our widely accepted views about what it is to live a
good life.
The second goal of this book is to convince you to choose to
give more of your income to help the poor. You’ll be happy to
know that I fully realize the need to step back from the demanding
standards of a philosophical argument to ask what will really
change the way we act. I’ll consider the reasons—some relatively
convincing, others less so—that we offer for not giving, as well as
the psychological factors that get in the way of our doing what we
know we ought to do. I’ll acknowledge the bounds of human
nature and yet provide examples of people who seem to have
found a way to push those bounds farther than most. And I will
close with suggestions for giving that, far from demanding great
sacrifices, will leave most people feeling happier and more
fulfilled than ever before.
Despite this, for reasons that I’ll explore in this book, many of
us find it difficult to give money to help people we’ve never met,
living in distant countries we’ve never visited. I’m hoping that you
will look at the larger picture and think about what it takes to live
ethically in a world in which 266,000 children die each year from
malaria, a disease both preventable and curable; a million women
suffer from obstetric fistula, a devastating but curable childbirth
injury rendering the woman incontinent; and for 4 out of 5 people
living with blindness, aid could have, at very low cost, prevented
the condition causing them to be blind, or restored their sight by
means of inexpensive cataract surgery.8
Think about someone you love, and then ask yourself how
much you would give to prevent that person from dying of
malaria, or to enable that person to be treated for a childbirth
injury that made her a social outcast, or to have their sight
restored if they should become blind? Then ask yourself how
much you are doing to help people living in poverty who lack the
means to do just those things for themselves and their families.
I believe that if you read this book to the end, and look honestly
and carefully at our situation, assessing both the facts and the
ethical arguments, you will agree that we must act. There are links
in the last chapters that will show you how to do so.
All dollar figures given in this book are U.S. dollars unless otherwise stated.
1. Saving a Child
On your way to work, you pass a small pond. On hot days,
children sometimes play in the pond, which is only about
knee-deep. The weather’s cool today, though, and the hour
is early, so you are surprised to see a child splashing about
in the pond. As you get closer, you see that it is a very
young child, just a toddler, who is flailing about, unable to
stay upright or walk out of the pond. You look for the
parents or babysitter, but there is no one else around. The
child is unable to keep her head above the water for more
than a few seconds at a time. If you don’t wade in and pull
her out, she seems likely to drown. Wading in is easy and
safe, but you will ruin the new shoes you bought only a few
days ago, and get your suit wet and muddy. By the time you
hand the child over to someone responsible for her, and
change your clothes, you’ll be late for work. What should
you do?
I teach a course called Practical Ethics. When we start talking
about global poverty, I ask my students what they think a person
should do in this situation. Predictably, they respond that you
should save the child. “What about your shoes? And being late for
work?” I ask them. They brush that aside. How could anyone
consider a pair of shoes, or missing an hour or two at work, a good
reason for not saving a child’s life?
I first told the story of the drowning child in the shallow pond
in “Famine, Affluence and Morality,” one of my first articles,
originally published in 1972, but still widely used in courses in
ethics. In 2011, something resembling this hypothetical situation
occurred in Foshan, a city in southern China. A 2-year-old girl
named Wang Yue wandered away from her mother and into a
small street, where she was hit by a van that did not stop. A CCTV
camera captured the incident. But what followed was even more
shocking. As Wang Yue lay bleeding in the street, 18 people
walked or rode their bikes right past her, without stopping to help.
In most cases, the camera showed clearly that they saw her, but
then averted their gaze as they passed by. A second van ran over
her leg before a street cleaner raised the alarm. Wang Yue was
rushed to hospital, but sadly, it was too late. She died.1
If you’re like most people, you are probably saying to yourself
right now: “I wouldn’t have walked past that child. I would have
stopped to help.” Perhaps you would have; but remember that, as
we have already seen, 5.4 million children under 5 years old died
in 2017, with a majority of those deaths being from preventable or
treatable causes. Here is just one case, described by a man in
Ghana to a researcher from the World Bank:
Take the death of this small boy this morning, for
example. The boy died of measles. We all know he
could have been cured at the hospital. But the
parents had no money and so the boy died a slow
and painful death, not of measles but out of
Think about something like that happening hundreds of times
every day. Some children die because they don’t have enough to
eat. More die from measles, malaria and diarrhea—conditions
that either don’t exist in developed nations or, if they do, are
almost never fatal. The children are vulnerable to these diseases
because they have no safe drinking water or no sanitation, and
because when they do fall ill, their parents can’t afford any
medical treatment or may not even be aware that treatment is
needed. Oxfam, Against Malaria Foundation, Evidence Action,
and many other organizations are working to reduce poverty, or
provide mosquito nets or safe drinking water. These efforts are
reducing the toll. If these organizations had more money, they
could do even more, and more lives would be saved.
Now think about your own situation. By donating a relatively
small amount of money, you could save a child’s life. Maybe it
would take more than the amount needed to buy a pair of shoes,
but we all spend money on things we don’t really need, whether
on drinks, meals out, clothing, movies, concerts, vacations, new
cars, or house renovations. Is it possible that by choosing to spend
your money on such things rather than contributing to an
effective charity, you are leaving a child to die, a child you could
have saved?
Poverty Today
Before we get further into why we all ought to be doing more for
people in extreme poverty, please find something you can write
with and answer the following questions:
1. In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world’s population
living in extreme poverty has …
a) Almost doubled
b) Remained the same
c) Almost halved
2. How many of the world’s 1-year-old children today have
been vaccinated against some disease?
a) 20%
b) 50%
c) 80%
3. Where does the majority of the world’s population live?
a) Low-income countries
b) Middle-income countries
c) High-income countries
So that you won’t see the correct answers before you have written
yours down, we have put them in a box below.
The correct answers are:
1 c) Almost halved,
2 c) 80%,
3 b) Middle income countries
How did you do?
Over recent decades, the late Hans Rosling and The Gapminder
Foundation have posed these and similar questions to thousands
of people around the world as part of the Gapminder
Misconception Study.3 In Factfulness, Hans, his son Ola Rosling,
and his daughter-in-law Anna Rosling Rönnlund share the
surprising results of the tests. Here is a summary of some of the
key findings.
According to the World Bank, the proportion of the world’s
population living below the Bank’s extreme poverty line fell from
34% in 1993 to 10.7% in 2013. This suggests that it fell by twothirds, rather than just half, but because extreme poverty is very
difficult to measure, the study used a conservative answer. In any
case, this dramatic reduction is one of the greatest achievements
in the history of our species; yet few people know about it. On
average, only 7% got question one right. In the United States the
figure is even lower: 19 out of every 20 Americans who took the
survey in the United States believed, falsely, either that the
proportion of people in extreme poverty rate had not changed
over the last 20 years, or that it had greatly increased.
The result is similar for question two, about vaccines. Almost
all children are vaccinated in the world today, a phenomenon that
the authors of Factfulness rightly label “amazing.” Again, very few
people—only 13%—were aware of this important success in
protecting the health of children all over the world.
By now you can probably guess that most people also get the
third question from the Gapminder Misconception Study wrong.
We have become used to dividing the world up into “developed”
and “developing” countries, which leaves no space for the
“middle-income” countries in which three-quarters of the world’s
population lives. If we add to that people living in high-income
countries, we reach 91%. That leaves only 9% living in low-income
countries, and of course, not all of them are in extreme poverty,
but that is no ground for complacency, because large middleincome countries such as India and Nigeria have very unequal
distributions of income, with many millions of people living in
extreme poverty.
As we shall see in Chapter 3, many people don’t give to
charities that seek to reduce extreme poverty because they believe
that it is a hopeless task and that we are making no progress. This
is why it is vital that more people learn about the impressive
progress indicated by the answers to these questions. It is also
essential that we listen to the people living in extreme poverty,
and find out what they are experiencing, and what they would like
to change. A few years ago, the World Bank asked researchers to
do just that. They were able to document the experiences of
60,000 women and men in 73 countries. Over and over, in
different languages and on different continents, poor people said
what poverty meant to them, and what poverty prevented them
from doing:
You are short of food for all or part of the year,
often eating only one meal per day, sometimes
having to choose between stilling your child’s
hunger or your own, and sometimes being able
to do neither.
You can’t save money. If a family member falls
ill and you need money to see a doctor, or if
the crop fails and you have nothing to eat, you
have to borrow from a local moneylender and
he will charge you so much interest as the debt
continues to mount that you may never be free
of it.
You can’t afford to send your children to
school, or if they do start school, you have to
take them out again if the harvest is poor.
You live in an unstable house, made with mud
or thatch, that you need to rebuild every two or
three years or after severe weather.
You have no nearby source of safe drinking
water. You have to carry your water a long
way, and even then, it can make you ill unless
you boil it.
But extreme poverty is not only a condition of unsatisfied
material needs. It is often accompanied by a degrading state of
powerlessness. Even in countries that are democracies and are
relatively well-governed, respondents to the World Bank survey
described a range of situations in which they had to accept
humiliation without protest. If someone takes what little you
have, and you complain to the police, they may not listen to you.
Nor will the law necessarily protect you from rape or sexual
harassment. You have a pervading sense of shame and failure
because you cannot provide for your children. Poverty traps you,
and you lose hope of ever escaping from a life of hard work for
which, at the end, you will have nothing to show beyond bare
The World Bank defines extreme poverty as not having enough
income to meet the most basic human needs for adequate food,
water, shelter, clothing, sanitation, health care, and education.
Between 1990 and 2015, more than a billion people lifted
themselves out of extreme poverty. As a result, it can reasonably
be claimed that the global poverty rate is now lower than it has
ever been in recorded history. Nevertheless, according to the most
recently available data, 736 million still live on less than $1.90 a
day—the global extreme poverty line set by The World Bank.5
In response to the “$1.90 a day” figure for determining who is
in extreme poverty, the thought may cross your mind that in many
low-income countries, it is possible to live much more cheaply
than in richer nations. Perhaps you have even done it yourself,
backpacking around the world, living on less than you would have
believed possible. So you may imagine that this level of poverty is
less extreme than it would be if you had to live on that amount of
money in, for example, the United States, France, or Spain. If such
thoughts did occur to you, you should banish them now, because
the World Bank has already made the adjustment in purchasing
power: its figures refer to the number of people existing on a daily
total consumption of goods and services—whether earned or
home-grown—comparable to the amount of goods and services
that can be bought in the United States for $1.90.
In wealthy societies, most poverty is relative. People feel poor
because many of the good things they see advertised on television
are beyond their budget—but they do have a television. In the
United States, 97% of those classified by the Census Bureau as
poor own a color TV. Three quarters of them own a car. Three
quarters of them have air conditioning.6 I am not quoting these
figures in order to deny that the poor in the United States face
genuine difficulties. Nevertheless, for most, these difficulties are
of a different order from those of the world’s poorest people. The
736 million people living in extreme poverty are poor by an
absolute standard tied to the most basic human needs. They are
likely to be hungry for at least part of each year. Even if they can
get enough food to fill their stomachs, they will probably be
malnourished because their diet lacks essential nutrients. In
children, malnutrition stunts growth and can cause permanent
brain damage. The poor may not be able to afford to send their
children to school. Even basic and life-saving health care services
are usually beyond their means.
This kind of poverty kills. While a child born in Spain today can
expect to live beyond 83 years, children born in countries such as
Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Chad have a life expectancy of less than
55 years.7 Sub-Saharan Africa continues to be the region with the
highest under-five mortality rate in the world: one child in 13 dies
before his or her fifth birthday, a ratio 20 times higher than the 1
in 263 mortality rate in Australia and New Zealand.8 And to the
UNICEF figure of 5.4 million young children dying every year,
largely from preventable, poverty-related causes, we must add
millions of older children and adults. All told, this means tens of
thousands are dying each day. These are people who do not have
to die: they could be saved, often by simple, inexpensive means.
When I wrote the first edition of this book, South Asia had long
been the region with the largest number of people living in
extreme poverty, and India had more extremely poor people than
any other country. In just a decade, however, all that has changed.
Economic growth has reduced the number of South Asians living
in extreme poverty from half a billion in 1990 to 216.4 million in
2015. At that time, India was still the single country with the
greatest number of people living in extreme poverty: 176 million,
almost a quarter of the global extreme poor. That number was
projected to continue to decline quite rapidly, however, and on
some estimates, by 2019, there were more Nigerians than Indians
in extreme poverty.9
The most dramatic reduction in poverty has been in East Asia
and the Pacific, where the extreme poverty rate has dropped
astoundingly, from 60% in 199010 to only 2.3% in 2015 (although
there are still nearly 10 million extremely poor Chinese, and
smaller numbers elsewhere in the region).
The World Bank’s 2018 report on poverty contained good news
and bad news. The good news was that over the 25 years from
1990 to 2015, the percentage of the world’s population living in
extreme poverty dropped by an average of one point per year,
from nearly 36% to 10%. The bad news was that this trend has
slowed, with the rate dropping by only one percentage point
between 2013 to 2015. The reason for the slowdown is that
progress in reducing poverty is slower in sub-Saharan Africa, the
region where most of the world’s extremely poor people now live,
than in Asia. Sub-Saharan Africa is also the region with the
highest proportion of people living in extreme poverty—about 4 in
every 10 people. The World Bank reports that “extreme poverty is
increasingly becoming a Sub-Saharan African problem” and
observes that “Of the world’s 28 poorest countries, 27 are in SubSaharan Africa, all with poverty rates above 30 percent.” The
Brookings Institution, an American research institute, adds that
“By 2023, Africa’s share will rise to over 80 percent (up from 60
in 2016). For Africa to end poverty by 2030, more than one
person would need to escape poverty every second; instead, Africa
currently adds poor people.”11
Affluence Today
In September 2018, for the first time in the history of our species,
more than half of all humans alive were middle-class or above, if
we use that term to mean that they had enough income to do
things like go to the movies, take vacations, buy consumer items
like washing machines, or last through a period of illness or
unemployment without becoming poor.12
Today, therefore, there are about 3.8 billion people living at a
level of affluence never previously known except in the courts of
kings and nobles. Louis XIV, France’s “Sun King,” could afford to
build Versailles, the most magnificent palace Europe had ever
seen, but he could not keep it cool in summer as effectively as
most people in high-income nations can keep their homes cool
today. His gardeners, for all their skill, were unable to produce the
variety of fresh fruits and vegetables that we can buy all yearround. If he developed a toothache or fell ill, the best his dentists
and doctors could do for him would make us shudder.
We’re not just better off than a French king who lived centuries
ago. We are also much better off than our own greatgrandparents. For a start, we can expect to live about 30 years
longer. A century ago, 1 child in 10 died in infancy. Now, in most
rich nations, that figure is less than 1 in 200.13 Another telling
indicator of how wealthy we are today is the modest number of
hours we must work in order to meet our basic needs. Today
Americans spend, on average, only 6.4% of their income on
buying food.14 If they work a 40-hour week, it takes them barely
two hours to earn enough to feed themselves for the week. That
leaves far more to spend on consumer goods, entertainment, and
And then we have the super-rich—people who spend their
money on palatial homes, ridiculously large and luxurious boats,
and private planes. In 2019, Forbes calculated that there were
2,153 billionaires in the world—nearly double as many as there
were ten years ago—and they keep getting richer, widening the
gap between themselves and ordinary wage earners.15 To cater to
such well-to-do people, in December 2018 Boeing Business Jets
launched the BBJ 777X, a new Boeing Business Jet model based
on the Boeing 777 that can fly more than halfway around the
world without stopping. The price? $450 million for a “green”
aircraft—and no, that doesn’t mean one that has zero carbon
emissions: it means the plane without the interior fitting. Adding
the interior, which is designed to the customer’s specifications,
will cost another $25–$50 million. In commercial service, this
plane will seat 365 passengers. The private version might carry
35.16 Price aside, owning a really big airplane carrying a small
number of people is a sure way to maximize your personal
contribution to global warming. But for conspicuous waste of
money and resources it is hard to beat a luxury yacht. As Business
Insider reported in 2017, “It has become normal for the world’s
wealthiest individuals to drop millions, even billions, on lavish
superyachts.” Billionaires compete to be the owner of the largest
private yacht—a title held at the moment by Sheikh Khalifa bin
Zayed Al Nahyan, the Emir of Abu Dhabi and owner of Azzam,
which at 180 meters long, edged out the previous largest, Eclipse,
owned by the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich. Azzam is
estimated to have cost $400 million. It has accommodation for 36
guests. These superyachts are also highly polluting, because they
use huge amounts of diesel fuel. Azzam’s tanks hold a million
liters of fuel—or 20,000 times as much as a typical small car, and
more than five times as much as a commercial airliner.17
While I was working on the first edition of this book, a special
advertising supplement fell out of my Sunday edition of The New
York Times: a 68-page glossy magazine filled with advertising for
watches by Rolex, Patek Philippe, Breitling, and other luxury
brands. The ads didn’t carry price tags, but a puff piece about the
revival of the mechanical watch gave guidance about the lower
end of the range. After admitting that inexpensive quartz watches
are extremely accurate and functional, the article opined that
there is “something engaging about a mechanical movement.”
Right, but how much will it cost you to have this engaging
something on your wrist? “You might think that getting into
mechanical watches is an expensive proposition, but there are
plenty of choices in the $500–$5,000 range.” Admittedly, “these
opening-price-point models are pretty simple: basic movement,
basic time display, simple decoration and so on.” From which we
can gather that most of the watches advertised are priced upward
of $5,000, or 100 times what anyone needs to pay for a reliable,
accurate quartz watch. That there is a market for such products—
and one worth advertising at such expense to the wide readership
of The New York Times—is another indication of the affluence of
our society.18
If you’re shaking your head at the excesses of the super-rich,
though, don’t shake too hard. Think again about some of the ways
Americans with average incomes spend their money. In most
places in the United States, you can get your recommended eight
glasses of water a day out of the tap for less than a penny. Yet
millions of people regularly opt for store-bought, where a typical
bottle of water costs about $1.50 and some brands such as Fiji—
imported all the way from the Fiji Islands—will set you back $2.25
or more. And in spite of the environmental concerns raised by the
waste of energy that goes into producing and transporting bottled
water, Americans are buying more and more of it, boosting the
total to 13.7 billion gallons in 2017.19 Think, too, of the way many
of us get our caffeine fix: you can make coffee at home for pennies
rather than spending four dollars or more on a latte. Or have you
ever casually said “yes” to a waiter’s prompt to order a second
soda or glass of wine that you didn’t even finish? When Dr.
Timothy Jones, an archaeologist, led a U.S. government–funded
study of food waste, he found that 14% of household garbage is
perfectly good food that was in its original packaging and not out
of date. More than half of this food was dry-packaged or canned
goods that keep for a long time. Americans waste, according to the
U.S. Department of Agriculture, 30–40% of their food supply, or
about $161 billion worth of food.20 People also buy an astonishing
amount of clothing that they never wear—£200 worth on average
per person in the United Kingdom according to one survey; while
in the United States, fashion designer Deborah Lindquist claims
that the average woman owns more than $600 worth of clothing
that she has not worn in the last year.21 Whatever the actual figure
may be, it is fair to say that almost all of us, men and women alike,
buy things we don’t need, some of which we never even use.
Most of us are absolutely certain that we wouldn’t hesitate to
save a drowning child, and that we would do it at considerable
cost to ourselves. Yet while thousands of children die each day, we
spend money on things we take for granted and would hardly
notice if they were not there. Is that wrong? If so, how far does our
obligation to the poor go?
2. Is It Wrong Not to Help?
Bob is close to retirement. He has invested most of
his savings in a very rare and valuable old car, a
Bugatti, which he has not been able to insure. The
Bugatti is his pride and joy. Not only does Bob get
pleasure from driving and caring for his car, he also
knows that its rising market value means that he will
be able to sell it and live comfortably after
retirement. One day when Bob is out for a drive, he
parks the Bugatti near the end of a railway siding
and goes for a walk up the track. As he does so, he
sees that a runaway train, with no one aboard, is
rolling down the railway track. Looking farther
down the track, he sees the small figure of a child
who appears to be absorbed in playing on the tracks.
Oblivious to the runaway train, the child is in great
danger. Bob can’t stop the train, and the child is too
far away to hear his warning shout, but Bob can
throw a switch that will divert the train down the
siding where his Bugatti is parked. If he does so,
nobody will be killed, but the train will crash
through the decaying barrier at the end of the siding
and destroy his Bugatti. Thinking of his joy in
owning the car and the financial security it
represents, Bob decides not to throw the switch.
The Car or the Child?
Philosopher Peter Unger developed this variation on the story of
the drowning child to challenge us to think further about how
much we believe we should sacrifice in order to save the life of a
child. Unger’s story adds a factor often crucial to our thinking
about real-world poverty: uncertainty about the outcome of our
sacrifice. Bob cannot be certain that the child will die if he does
nothing and saves his car. Perhaps at the last moment, the child
will hear the train and leap to safety. In the same way, most of us
can summon doubts about whether the money we give to a charity
is really helping the people it’s intended to help.
In my experience, people almost always respond that Bob acted
badly when he did not throw the switch and destroy his most
cherished and valuable possession, thereby sacrificing his hope of
a financially secure retirement. We can’t take a serious risk with a
child’s life, they say, merely to save a car, no matter how rare and
valuable the car may be. By implication, we should also believe
that with the simple act of saving money for retirement, we are
acting as badly as Bob. For in saving money for retirement, we are
effectively refusing to use that money to help save lives. This is a
difficult implication to confront. How can it be wrong to save for a
comfortable retirement? There is, at the very least, something
puzzling here.
Another example devised by Unger tests the level of sacrifice
we think people should make to alleviate suffering in cases when a
life is not at stake:
You are driving your vintage sedan down a country
lane when you are stopped by a hiker who has
seriously injured his leg. He asks you to take him to
the nearest hospital. If you refuse, there is a good
chance that he will lose his leg. On the other hand, if
you agree to take him to hospital, he is likely to
bleed onto the seats, which you have recently, and
expensively, restored in soft white leather.
Again, most people respond that you should drive the hiker to
the hospital. This suggests that when prompted to think in
concrete terms, about real individuals, most of us consider it
obligatory to lessen the serious suffering of innocent others at
some cost (even a high cost) to ourselves.1
The Basic Argument
The above examples reveal our intuitive belief that we ought to
help others in need, at least when we can see them and when we
are the only person in a position to save them. But our moral
intuitions are not always reliable, as we can see from variations in
what people in different times and places find intuitively
acceptable or objectionable. The case for helping those in extreme
poverty will be stronger if it does not rest solely on our intuitions.
Here is a logical argument from plausible premises to the same
First premise: suffering and death from lack of food, shelter,
and medical care are bad.
Second premise: if it is in your power to prevent something
bad from happening, without sacrificing anything nearly as
important, it is wrong not to do so.
Third premise: by donating to effective charities, you can
prevent suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and
medical care, without sacrificing anything nearly as
Conclusion: therefore, if you do not donate to effective
charities, you are doing something wrong.
The drowning-child story is an application of this argument for
donating, since ruining your shoes and being late for work aren’t
nearly as important as the life of a child. Similarly, reupholstering
a car is not nearly as big a deal as losing a leg. Even in the case of
Bob and the Bugatti, it would be a big stretch to suggest that the
loss of the car would come close to rivaling the significance of the
death of an innocent person.
Ask yourself if you can deny the premises of the argument.
How could suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and
medical care not be really, really bad? Think of that small boy in
Ghana who died of measles. How would you feel if you were his
mother or father, watching helplessly as your son suffers and
grows weaker? You know that children often die from this
condition. You also know that it would be curable, if only you
could afford to take your child to a hospital. In those
circumstances, you would give up almost anything for some way
of ensuring your child’s survival.
Putting yourself in the place of others, like the parents of that
boy, or the child himself, is what thinking ethically is all about. It
is encapsulated in the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would
have them do unto you.” Though the Golden Rule is best known to
most westerners from the words of Jesus as reported by Matthew
and Luke, it is both older, and more universal, than that. It is
prominent in the teachings of Buddhism, Confucianism,
Hinduism, Islam, and Jainism, and in Judaism, where it is found
in Leviticus, and later emphasized by the sage Hillel.2 The Golden
Rule requires us to accept that the desires of others ought to count
as if they were our own. If the desires of the parents of the dying
child were our own, we would have no doubt that their suffering
and the death of their child are about as bad as anything can be.
So if we think ethically, then those desires must count as if they
were our own, and we cannot deny that the suffering and death
are bad.
The second premise is also very difficult to reject, because it
leaves us some wiggle room when it comes to situations in which,
to prevent something bad, we would have to risk something
nearly as important as the bad thing we are preventing. Consider,
for example, a situation in which you can only prevent the deaths
of other children by neglecting your own children. Then the
second premise does not require you to prevent the deaths of the
other children.
“Nearly as important” is a vague term. That’s deliberate,
because I’m confident that you can do without plenty of things
that are clearly and inarguably not as valuable as saving a child’s
life. I don’t know what you might think is as important, or nearly
as important, as saving a life. By leaving it up to you to decide
what those things are, I can avoid the need to find out. I’ll trust
you to be honest with yourself about it.
Analogies and stories can be pushed too far. Rescuing a child
drowning in front of you, and throwing a switch on a railroad
track to save the life of a child you can see in the distance, where
you are the only one who can save the child, are both different
from donating to help people who are far away. The argument I
have just presented complements the drowning-child case,
because instead of pulling at your heartstrings by focusing on a
single child in need, it appeals to your reason and seeks your
assent to an abstract but compelling moral principle. This means
that to reject it, you need to find a flaw in the reasoning.
You might now be thinking to yourself that the basic argument
—that we should donate to aid people in extreme poverty when by
doing so we can prevent suffering and death without giving up
anything nearly as important—isn’t all that controversial. Yet if we
were to take it seriously, our lives would be changed dramatically.
For while the cost of saving one child’s life by a contribution to an
effective non-profit organization may not be great, after you have
given that sum there remain more children in need of saving, each
one of whom can be saved at a relatively small additional cost.
Suppose you have just sent $200 to the Against Malaria
Foundation, enabling the purchase of 100 long-lasting insecticidal
nets that will protect about 180 people from malaria-carrying
mosquitoes.3 You’ve done something really good, and all it has
cost you is the price of some new clothes you didn’t really need
anyway. Congratulations! But don’t celebrate your good deed by
opening a bottle of champagne or going to a movie. The cost of
that bottle or movie, added to what you could save by cutting
down on a few other extravagances, would save the life of another
child. After you forgo those items, and give another $200, though,
is everything else you are spending on as important, or nearly as
important, as the preventing of malaria, which in low-income
countries in tropical regions is a major cause of children dying,
and even when not fatal, causes high fever and long-term,
debilitating illness? Not likely! So you must keep cutting back on
unnecessary spending, and donating what you save, until you
have reduced yourself to the point where if you give any more, you
will be sacrificing something nearly as important as preventing
malaria—like giving so much that you can no longer afford an
adequate education for your own children.
We tend to assume that if people do not harm others, keep
their promises, do not lie or cheat, support their children and
their elderly parents, and perhaps contribute a little to needier
members of their local community, they’ve done well. If we have
money left over after meeting our needs and those of our
dependents, we may spend it as we please. Giving to strangers,
especially those beyond one’s community, may be good, but we
don’t think of it as something we have to do. But if the basic
argument presented above is right, then what many of us consider
acceptable behavior must be viewed in a new, more ominous light.
When we spend our surplus on concerts or fashionable shoes, on
fine dining and good wines, or on holidays in faraway lands, we
are doing something wrong.
Suddenly the three premises laid out above are much harder to
swallow. You may now be questioning whether a moral argument
that has such radically demanding implications can possibly be
sound. And so it’s worth stepping back a moment to look at how
this argument fits into some of our most respected ethical
Traditional Views on Helping the Poor
According to the Gospels, Jesus told the rich man: “If you want to
be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor.” To
make sure his message wasn’t missed, he went on to say that it is
easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich
man to enter the kingdom of God.4 He praised the Good
Samaritan who went out of his way to help a stranger.5 He urged
those who give feasts to invite the poor, the maimed, the lame,
and the blind.6 When he spoke of the last judgment, he said that
God will save those who have fed the hungry, given drink to the
thirsty, and clothed the naked. It is how we act toward “the least
of these brothers of mine” that will determine, Jesus said, whether
we inherit the kingdom of God or go into the eternal fire.7 He
placed far more emphasis on charity for the poor than on
anything else.
Not surprisingly, early and medieval Christians took these
teachings very seriously. Paul, in his second letter to the
Corinthians, proposed that those with a surplus should share with
the needy: “Your surplus at the present time should supply their
needs, so that their surplus may also supply your needs, that there
may be equality.”8 The members of the early Christian community
in Jerusalem, according to the account given in the Acts of the
Apostles, sold all their possessions and divided them according to
need.9 The Franciscans, the order of monks founded by Francis of
Assisi, took a vow of poverty and renounced all private property.
Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval scholar whose ideas became
the semi-official philosophy of the Roman Catholic Church, wrote
that whatever we have in “superabundance”—that is, above and
beyond what will reasonably satisfy our own needs and those of
our family, for the present and the foreseeable future—“is owed, of
natural right, to the poor for their sustenance.” In support of this
view, he quoted Ambrose, one of the four original “Great
Doctors,” or teachers, of the Church. He also cited the Decretum
Gratiani, a 12th-century compilation of canon law that contains
the powerful statement, “The bread which you withhold belongs
to the hungry: the clothing you shut away, to the naked: and the
money you bury in the earth is the redemption and freedom of the
Note the words “owed” and “belongs.” For these Christians,
sharing our surplus wealth with the poor is not a matter of
charity, but of our duty and their rights. Aquinas even went so far
as to say: “It is not theft, properly speaking, to take secretly and
use another’s property in a case of extreme need: because that
which he takes for the support of his life becomes his own
property by reason of that need.”10 This isn’t just a Roman
Catholic view. John Locke, the favorite philosopher of America’s
founding fathers, wrote that “charity gives every man a title to so
much out of another’s plenty, as will keep him from extreme want,
where he has no means to subsist otherwise.”11
Today, some Christians are seeking a renewed focus on the
message of the Gospels. Jim Wallis, founder and editor of the
Christian magazine Sojourners, likes to point out that the Bible
contains more than 3,000 references to alleviating poverty—
enough reason, he thinks, for making this a central moral issue for
Christians.12 Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life and
pastor of the Saddleback Church, visited South Africa in 2003 and
came across a tiny church operating from a dilapidated tent and
sheltering 25 children orphaned by AIDS. This was, Warren says,
“like a knife in the heart: I realized they were doing more for the
poor than my entire megachurch.” Warren himself said: “I
couldn’t care less about politics, the culture wars. My only interest
is to get people to care about Darfurs and Rwandas.”13
Helping the poor is also strongly emphasized in Judaism, the
source of many of those three thousand biblical references to
helping the poor. The Hebrew word for “charity,” tzedakah,
simply means “justice” and, as this suggests, for Jews, giving to
the poor is no optional extra but an essential part of living a just
life. In the Talmud (a record of discussions of Jewish law and
ethics by ancient rabbis) it is said that charity is equal in
importance to all the other commandments combined, and that
Jews should give at least 10% of their income as tzedakah.14
Islam, too, requires its adherents to help those in need. Each
year, Muslims above a minimum level of wealth must give zakat
in proportion to their assets (not just their income). For gold and
silver—a category that today is understood to include cash and
other liquid assets—the requirement is to give 2.5% every year. In
addition, one may give sadaqa, which can include both money
and labor—for example, digging a well so that travelers will have
water, or helping build a mosque. Unlike zakat, sadaqa is
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are related traditions with
their roots in the same part of the world. The Chinese tradition is
quite distinct and, it is sometimes said, more focused on how one
acts to those with whom one is in some relationship, especially
family, than it is concerned with acts of charity towards strangers
in need. Yet here, too, it is possible to find very strong statements
of our obligations to the poor. Mencius, who lived about 300 years
before the Christian era, is regarded as the most authoritative
interpreter of the Confucian tradition, and in terms of his
influence on Chinese thought is second only to Confucius himself.
One of the works that describes his teachings recounts a visit he
paid to the court of King Hui of Liang. On arriving, he met the
king and said to him:
There are people dying from famine on the roads,
and you do not issue the stores of your granaries for
them. When people die, you say, “It is not owing to
me; it is owing to the year.” In what does this differ
from stabbing a man and killing him, and then saying
“It was not I, it was the weapon?”15
There is nothing new about the idea that we have a strong
moral obligation to help those in need. In one-on-one situations
where rescue is easy, our intuitions tell us that it would be wrong
not to do so. Yet we all see or read appeals to help those living in
extreme poverty in the world’s poorest countries and nevertheless
most of us fail to “do unto others.” I’ll turn now to some of the
reasons we give for our failure to act.
3. Common Objections to Giving
You may think of yourself as a charitable person. Most Americans
do, and the $427 billion they donated to charities in 2018, 68% of
which came directly from individuals, lends support to that belief.
In the United States, charitable giving is just over 2% of the U.S.
gross national income.1 That’s significantly more than in any
other country, but we cannot take this as an indication that
Americans as a whole are especially generous, because the figure
is boosted by very substantial giving from a small number of
extremely wealthy people. If we look at the percentage of the
population that gives to charity, the United States ranks only 12th,
with 61% of the population giving, well below the top-ranked
Myanmar where 88% give. This ranking is one element in
research carried out by the Charities Aid Foundation, which
assesses how generous countries are by looking at three different
kinds of helping behaviors: helping a stranger, volunteering time
to an organization, and donating money to a charity. In 2018,
Indonesia took first place on the overall ranking, ahead of
Australia and New Zealand, with the United States in fourth place
followed by Ireland and the United Kingdom.2
Beneath these encouraging numbers, however, is a less
encouraging picture, at least as concerns those who live in
extreme poverty. According to Giving USA 2019, the most
authoritative report on U.S. charity, the largest portion of the
money Americans give—29%—goes to religious institutions,
where it pays for the salaries of the clergy and for building and
maintaining churches, synagogues, and mosques. Some of that—
but according to a survey of 2,200 churches, only five cents in
every dollar donated—is passed on to missions, both domestic and
international, and missions may, in addition to seeking converts,
provide aid. So it seems that aid for developing countries is likely
to be only a fraction of that 5% of the total amount donated to
religious institutions.3 The next biggest sector is education,
including universities, colleges, and libraries. Again, a small
percentage of that goes toward scholarships to students from lowincome countries, or to fund research that can help reduce
poverty and disease in those countries. Giving USA 2019 lumps
donations to international aid organizations in with gifts to other
organizations that do not give aid to the poor but, for example,
run international exchange programs or do work for international
peace and security. This entire category received only 5% of all
U.S. charitable giving, a figure that was down from the previous
year, and amounted to less than $23 billion.4
As someone who has chosen to read this book, you are probably
among those who give to charity or who volunteer in their
community; despite that, you may be less inclined to give a
substantial portion of your income to save the lives of those living
in extreme poverty in faraway places. Charity begins at home, the
saying goes, and for many people, charity also stops at home, or
not very far from it.
There are various ways in which my friends, colleagues,
students, and lecture audiences express their resistance to giving
to charity. You can see these objections in columns, letters, and
blogs too. One particularly interesting set of comments was made
by students taking an elective called Literature and Justice at
Glennview High (that’s not its real name), a school in a wealthy
Boston suburb. As part of the reading for the course, teachers gave
students an article that I wrote for The New York Times in 1999,
laying out a version of the argument you have just read, and asked
them to write papers in response.5 Scott Seider, then a graduate
student at Harvard University researching how adolescents think
about obligations to others, interviewed 38 students in two
sections of the course and read their papers.6 What the students
said is worth examining, because it reflects a line of thought
prevalent in affluent America.
Perhaps the most fundamental objection comes from Kathryn,
a Glennview student who believes we shouldn’t judge people who
refuse to give:
There is no black and white universal code for
everyone. It is better to accept that everyone has a
different view on the issue, and all people are
entitled to follow their own beliefs.
Kathryn leaves it to the individual to determine his or her moral
obligation to the poor. But while circumstances do make a
difference, and we should avoid being too black and white in our
judgments, this doesn’t mean we should accept that everyone is
entitled to follow his or her own beliefs. That is moral relativism, a
position that many find attractive only until they are faced with
someone who is doing something really, really wrong. Suppose
that we see a person holding a cat’s paws on an electric grill that is
gradually heating up, and when we vigorously object he says, “But
it’s fun, see how the cat squeals.” We don’t just say, “Oh, well, you
are entitled to follow your own beliefs,” and leave him alone. We
can and do try to stop people who are cruel to animals, just as we
try to stop rapists, racists, and terrorists. I’m not saying that
failing to give is comparable to committing these acts of violence,
but if we reject moral relativism in some situations, then we
should reject it everywhere.
After reading my essay, Douglas, another Glennview student,
objected that I “should not have the right to tell people what to
do.” In one sense, he’s correct about that. I’ve no authority over
Douglas or over you. You don’t have to do as I say. On the other
hand, I do have the right of free speech, which I’m exercising right
now by offering you some arguments you might consider before
you decide what to do with your money. I hope that you will want
to listen to a variety of views before making up your mind about
such an important issue. If I’m wrong about that, though, you are
free to shut the book now, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
It’s possible, of course, to think that morality is not relative,
and that we should talk about it, but that the right view is that we
aren’t under any obligation to give anything at all. Lucy, another
Glennview High student, wrote as follows:
If someone wants to buy a new car, they should. If someone
wants to redecorate their house, they should, and if they
need a suit, get it. They work for their money and they have
the right to spend it on themselves.
You’ve probably already had this thought: You’ve worked hard
to get where you are now, so haven’t you earned a right to enjoy
it? Isn’t capitalism so productive precisely because it rewards
people for working hard and taking risks? As someone wrote in
what was listed on Amazon as the “Top Critical Review” of the
first edition of this book:
Sure, no one needs a yacht or 20,000-square-foot
house, but are people who spend their money on
lesser excesses, such as a nice computer or a real
leather jacket, inherently terrible, neglectful citizens
of the world, because they have spent their money
on themselves instead of paying it forward and
helping out those in need?7
From that perspective this idea of reward for effort seems fair—
and of course, I never said that people who spend money on
themselves are “inherently terrible.” Yet, when thinking about
fairness, you might also consider that if you are a middle-class
person in a developed country, you were privileged to be born into
social and economic circumstances that make it possible for
people who work hard and have the right abilities to achieve a
very comfortable standard of living. In other places, you might
have ended up poor, no matter how hard you worked. Warren
Buffett, one of the world’s richest people, acknowledged as much
when he said that he had a talent for picking stocks, but added: “If
you stick me down in the middle of Bangladesh or Peru, you’ll find
out how much this talent is going to produce in the wrong kind of
soil.”8 Nobel Prize-winning economist and social scientist Herbert
Simon estimated that “social capital” is responsible for at least
90% of what people earn in wealthy societies.9 Simon was talking
about living in a society with good institutions, such as an efficient
banking system, a police force that will protect you from
criminals, and courts to which you can turn with reasonable hope
of a just decision if someone breaches a contract with you.
Infrastructure in the form of roads, communications, and a
reliable power supply is also part of our social capital. Without
these, you will struggle to escape poverty, no matter how hard you
work. And most of the poor do work at least as hard as you or I.
They have little choice, even though they almost always work in
conditions that most people in rich nations would never tolerate.
Work in poor countries is more likely to involve hard physical
labor, because there are fewer machines to do the jobs, and if
there are any occupational health and safety regulations, they are
unlikely to be enforced. If poor people are not working, it is
probably because unemployment is higher in poor nations than in
rich ones, and that is not the fault of the poor.
Lucy said that people have a right to spend the money they
earn on themselves. Even if we agree with that, having a right to
do something doesn’t settle the question of what you should do. If
you have a right to do something, I can’t justifiably force you not
to do it, but I can still tell you that you would be a fool to do it, or
that it would be a horrible thing to do, or that you would be wrong
to do it. You may have a right to spend your weekend playing
video games, but it can still be true that you ought to visit your
sick mother. Similarly, we might say that the rich have a right to
spend their money on yachts or 20,000-square-foot houses or, for
that matter, to flush wads of it down the toilet. We may also
accept that those of us with more modest means shouldn’t be
forced to forgo any of the less-expensive pleasures that offer us
some relief from all the time we spend working. But we could still
think that to choose to do these things rather than use the money
to save human lives is wrong, and shows that you are, as the
Amazon reviewer put it, an “inherently terrible, neglectful citizen
of the world.” I’m not saying that we should think that—I’ll say
more about that in the final three chapters of this book—but there
is no contradiction between that view, and the view that people
have a right to spend their money as they choose.
If we have the right to do as we wish with our money, that right
would provide the basis for an objection to any attempt to force
the rich to give their money away, or to attempts to take it from
them, for example by taxation. But I am not arguing here for
higher taxation or any other coercive means of increasing support
for people living in extreme poverty; I am talking about what we
should choose to do with our money if we are to live ethically. At
the same time, I’m not arguing against a governmental role in
reducing global poverty. Whether governments should play such a
role is a separate question from the argument I am making. My
aim is to convince you, the individual reader, that you can and
should be doing a lot more to help the poor.
Libertarians resist the idea that we have a duty to help others.
Canadian philosopher Jan Narveson articulates that point of view:
We are certainly responsible for evils we inflict on
others, no matter where, and we owe those people
compensation … Nevertheless, I have seen no
plausible argument that we owe something, as a
matter of general duty, to those to whom we have
done nothing wrong.10
There is, at first glance, something attractive about the political
philosophy that says: “You leave me alone, and I’ll leave you
alone, and we’ll get along just fine.” It appeals to the frontier
mentality, to an ideal of life in the wide-open spaces where each of
us can carve out our own territory and live undisturbed by the
neighbors. Yet there is a callous side to a philosophy that denies
that we have any responsibilities to those who, through no fault of
their own, are in need. Taking libertarianism seriously would
require us to abolish all state-supported welfare programs for
those who can’t get a job or are ill or disabled, and all state-funded
health care for the aged and for those who are too poor to pay for
their own health insurance. Few people really support such
extreme views. Most think that we do have obligations to those we
can help with relatively little sacrifice—certainly to those living in
our own country, and I would argue that we can’t justifiably draw
the boundary there. But if I have not persuaded you of that, there
is another line of argument to consider: If we have, in fact, been at
least in part a cause of the poverty of the world’s poorest people—
if we are harming the poor—then even libertarians like Narveson
will have to agree that we ought to compensate them.
Some people imagine that the wealth of the world is a static
quantity, like a pie that must be divided among a lot of people. In
that model, the bigger the slice the rich get, the less there is for the
poor. If that really were how the world works, then a relatively
small elite would be inflicting a terrible injustice on everyone else,
for just 1% of the world’s people own 45% of the world’s wealth,
and less than 10% own 84% of the wealth. At the other end of the
spectrum, 64% of the world’s people own only 2% of the world’s
wealth.11 A 2019 Oxfam report makes an even more dramatic
claim: the world’s 26 richest people own as much as the poorest
50% of the global population. And the concentration of wealth in a
few hands is increasing—just two years earlier, it took 61 of the
world’s richest people to own as much as the poorest 50%.12
Dramatic as these figures are, however, they don’t address the
question of whether the extraordinary wealth of a few people has
caused others to become poorer. The world’s wealth is not fixed in
size; it is vastly richer now than it was, say, 1,000 years ago. By
finding better ways to create what people want, entrepreneurs
make themselves rich, but they don’t necessarily make others
poorer. This book is about extreme poverty, which means not
having enough to meet your basic needs, and those of your
dependents. That is an absolute standard, not a relative one. So
the unequal distribution of the world’s wealth—startling though it
is—is not sufficient to show that the accumulation of immense
wealth by a few billionaires has harmed the poor.
There are many ways in which it is clear, however, that the rich
have harmed the poor. Ale Nodye knows about one of them. He
grew up in a village by the sea, in the West African country of
Senegal. His father and grandfather were fishermen, and he tried
to be one too. But after six years in which he barely caught enough
fish to pay for the fuel for his boat, he set out by canoe for the
Canary Islands, from where he hoped to become another of
Europe’s many illegal immigrants. Instead, he was arrested and
deported. But he says he will try again, even though the voyage is
dangerous and one of his cousins died on a similar trip. He has no
choice, he says, because “there are no fish in the sea here
anymore.” A European Commission report shows that Nodye is
right: The fish stocks from which Nodye’s father and grandfather
took their catch and fed their families have been destroyed by
industrial fishing fleets that come from Europe, China, and Russia
and sell their fish to well-fed Europeans who can afford to pay
high prices. The industrial fleets drag vast nets across the seabed,
damaging the coral reefs where fish breed. As a result, a major
protein source for poor people has dwindled, and people who used
to make a living fishing are unemployed, or in some cases have
turned to hunting dolphins and whales, including some from
endangered species. Despite attempts to regulate fishing in
African coastal waters, one study estimated that illegal industrial
fishing trawlers take $300 million worth of fish out of Senegalese
waters alone, with the total for West Africa estimated at $1.3
billion. This story is repeated in many other coastal areas around
the world.13
Another way in which we in affluent nations are harming the
poor has become increasingly clear over the past decades.
President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda put it plainly, addressing
the industrialized countries at a 2007 meeting of the African
Union: “You are causing aggression to us by causing global
warming … Alaska will probably become good for agriculture,
Siberia will probably become good for agriculture, but where does
that leave Africa?”14
Strong language, but the accusation is difficult to deny. Nearly
half of the greenhouse gases now in the atmosphere have come
from the United States and Europe. Without those gases, there
would be no human-induced global warming problem. Africa’s
contribution is, by comparison, extremely modest: less than 3% of
the global emissions from burning fuel since 1751, somewhat more
if land clearing and methane emissions from livestock production
are included, but still a small fraction of what has been
contributed by the industrialized nations.15 And while every
nation will have some problems in adjusting to climate change,
the hardship will, as Museveni suggests, fall disproportionately on
the poor in the regions of the world closer to the equator. The
International Monetary Fund has estimated that for a country
with an average annual temperature of 25°C—such as Bangladesh,
Haiti, or Gabon—a 1°C increase in temperature would reduce per
capita output by up to 1.5%.16 This reduction in per capita output
will not apply to Europe, the United States, Canada, and other
older industrialized nations with much lower average
Some scientists believe that precipitation will decrease nearer
the equator and increase nearer the poles. In any case, the rainfall
upon which hundreds of millions rely to grow their food will
become less reliable. Moreover, the poor nations depend on
agriculture to a far greater degree than the rich. In the United
States, farm output is only about 1% of the economy; in Sierra
Leone it is 60%. In Malawi, 80% of the population are small-scale
farmers, virtually all of whom are dependent on rainfall.18
Nor will drought be the only problem climate change brings to
the poor. Residents of Ghoramara Island, one of the Sunderban
islands in the Bay of Bengal, are already seeking resettlement, as
rising sea levels cause flooding and salinity. Soon this is likely to
happen on a much larger scale.19 Densely settled delta regions
that are home to tens of millions of people in Egypt, Bangladesh,
India, and Vietnam are especially vulnerable to inundation from
small increases in sea level. Small Pacific Island nations that
consist of low-lying coral atolls, like Kiribati and Tuvalu, are in
similar danger, and it seems inevitable that in a few decades they
will be submerged.20
The evidence is overwhelming that the greenhouse gas
emissions of the industrialized nations have harmed, and are
continuing to harm, many of the world’s poorest people—along
with many richer ones. If we accept that those who harm others
must compensate them, we cannot deny that the industrialized
nations owe compensation to many of the world’s poorest people.
The International Monetary Fund has estimated that the
developing economies will need climate adaptation investment of
$80 billion a year until 2050. In 2014, only $9.3 billion was being
invested for that purpose. The International Monetary Fund
added: “On equity grounds, there is some appeal in linking
climate finance donations from advanced economies to their
contribution to climate change.”21 That claim is more cautiously
expressed than the remark from President Museveni that I quoted
earlier, and therefore more difficult to disagree with, but it shares
a common assumption: that the industrialized nations have
harmed, and are continuing to harm, the poorer and more
vulnerable nations.
In a world that has no more capacity to absorb greenhouse
gases without the consequence of damaging climate change, the
philosophy of “You leave me alone, and I’ll leave you alone” has
become almost impossible to live by, for it requires ceasing to put
any more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Otherwise, we
simply are not leaving others alone.
We are a generous nation. Our government is already
giving more than our share of foreign aid, and we are
paying for that through our taxes. Isn’t that sufficient?
When Americans are asked whether the United States gives more,
less, or about the same amount of aid, as a percentage of its
income, as other wealthy countries, only 1 in 20 Americans gives
the correct answer. As we can see from the graph below, in 2018,
the most generous nations were Turkey and Sweden, both giving
more than 1% of their gross national income. Luxembourg, the
United Arab Emirates, Norway, Denmark, and the United
Kingdom also met or exceeded the United Nations target of 0.7%
of their national income—that’s 70 cents in every $100 the nation
earns. The average among all the donor members of the
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (better
known as the OECD) that give foreign aid was 0.38% of gross
national income. The United States gave just 0.17%, on a par with
Portugal, below France, Italy, Japan, and Spain, and only above
countries that are obviously much less wealthy, like Greece,
Poland, Hungary, and Russia.
In U.S. politics, it is often taken as a given that there is little
support for foreign aid. Surveys have frequently asked Americans
whether the United States is spending too much, too little, or
about the right amount on foreign aid. In earlier decades, as many
as 7 out of 10 said “too much.” A 2017 poll conducted by the
University of Maryland Program for Public Consultation found
that this had fallen to 59%, and in other polls it has been as low as
49%. That is good news, but even these lower numbers greatly
overestimate the number of Americans who would say that the
country gives too much foreign aid if they had an accurate
understanding of how little aid their country really gives. In 2015,
the Kaiser Family Foundation asked Americans what portion of
government spending (not national income) goes to foreign aid.
The average response was that 26% of government spending went
towards assisting other countries. The correct answer is less than
1%. This is no aberration—the result is broadly representative of
other polls taken by Kaiser and by others that have asked the
same question, going back to the 1990s. The 2015 Kaiser poll also
asked whether the United States spends too much on foreign aid,
and 56% said that it does. Once they were told that less than 1% of
the federal budget is for foreign aid, that number was cut in half,
to 28%. Other polls have asked what would be an appropriate
percentage of the federal budget to go to foreign aid, and the
median answer is 10%. In other words, a majority of Americans
think that the federal government is spending too much on
foreign aid, but when asked how much the government should
spend, they give a figure that is ten times current spending!23
It’s not only Americans who are misinformed about how much
foreign aid their country gives. A 2018 Lowy Institute poll found
that the average Australian believes that 14% of the federal budget
is spent on foreign aid, when the real figure is only 0.8%. Just like
Americans, most Australians do not support an increase in foreign
aid, yet when asked to name what would be the right proportion
of the federal budget to devote to foreign aid, they propose 10%!25
Although Australia’s 2017 foreign aid budget represents, at 0.23%
of gross national income, a slightly higher proportion than the
United States, it is still a very low figure given that in 2018
Australia took over from Switzerland the title of the country with
the highest median wealth per adult in the world—meaning that
the typical Australian is, with assets worth US$191,450, richer
than the typical person in any other country. In comparison, the
typical resident of the United Kingdom has assets worth
US$97,170, and of the United States, just US$61,670.26 You would
think, therefore, that Australia could at least match the U.K.’s aid
spending of 0.7% of gross national income, instead of giving only
one-third of that figure.
Some Americans claim that the U.S. figures for official aid are
misleading because America gives much more than other
countries in private aid. But although the United States gives
more private aid than most rich nations, according to OECD
statistics, even its private giving trails that of Canada and is no
higher than that of Ireland—both countries that give a higher
proportion of their national income as government aid than the
United States does. Adding U.S. nongovernmental aid of 17 cents
per $100 earned to U.S. government aid, which happens to be at
the same level, leaves America’s total aid contribution at no more
than 34 cents of every $100 earned. Comparable statistics on
nongovernment aid are not available for the United Kingdom,
Sweden, Norway, Luxembourg, Turkey or the United Arab
Emirates, but the official aid alone of the United Kingdom is, at
0.7% of gross national income, twice the level of the U.S. aid
including both government and nongovernment aid, while in
2018 all of the other countries just mentioned gave official aid at,
or close to, three times the U.S. total for official and
nongovernment aid.27
Public misconceptions about aid—which as we have seen are
not limited to the United States—are a barrier to political leaders
who might wish to increase their country’s foreign aid to reach the
United Nations target of 0.7% of gross national income. Being
aware of how much—or rather how little—your country
contributes is a first step to increasing it. If you live in a country
that is lagging behind other countries in the proportion of gross
national income given as foreign aid, then donating money
yourself is not the only thing you can do. It is also important to be
an active citizen in informing others about how little your country
gives and letting your political representatives know that you want
your country to develop an effective foreign aid program that
meets the United Nations target of giving at least 0.7% of gross
national income.
Philanthropy is just a band-aid, addressing the
symptoms but not the causes of global poverty.
If those on the right fear that I am encouraging the state to seize
their money and give it to the world’s poor, some on the left worry
that encouraging the rich to donate to charities enables them to
salve their consciences while they continue to benefit from a
global economic system that makes them rich and keeps billions
poor.28 Philanthropy, philosopher Paul Gomberg believes,
promotes “political quietism,” deflecting attention from the
institutional causes of poverty—essentially, in his view, capitalism
—and from the need to find radical alternatives to these
I believe we ought to give a larger portion of our income to
organizations combating poverty, but I am open-minded about
the best way to combat poverty.30 Some organizations—Oxfam for
example—are engaged in emergency relief, development aid, and
advocacy work for a fairer deal for low-income countries.
Suppose, however, that after investigating the causes of global
poverty and considering what approach is most likely to reduce it,
you conclude that the only way to end extreme poverty is a
systematic transformation of the global economic order. Does that
imply that you should not donate to effective charities working to
help people in extreme poverty, and instead should put all your
resources into bringing about that systematic transformation? No,
it does not, or at least not without first answering some crucial
questions. What kind of transformation would you like to see?
Not, presumably, the alternatives to capitalism that were tried in
the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, Cambodia, or any of the other
20th century regimes that set out to abolish capitalism, for none
of them has worked out well. (China is still nominally communist,
but anyone who has spent time there can see that capitalism has
been reintroduced and is flourishing.) Next, if you can describe
what kind of transformation you would like to see, can you
describe a feasible path to it? More important still, is there
anything you can do that will make that path more likely to be
taken, and the transformation achieved? Only if you can answer
these questions affirmatively would it make sense to put your
time, energy, and money into organizations promoting the desired
transformation to the global economic system. If there is no real
chance of achieving the systematic change you are seeking, or no
way in which you can make it more likely to happen, then rather
than waste your time and resources on grand plans that will prove
futile, it is much better to look for a strategy that may not end
extreme poverty completely, but will reduce the hardships and
suffering experienced by at least some of the people now living in
extreme poverty. After all, if you can’t heal the wound, that’s not a
reason for refusing a band-aid.
Giving people money or food breeds dependency.
I agree that we should not be giving food directly to the poor,
except in emergencies like a drought, earthquake, or flood, where
food may need to be brought in to keep people from starving in
the short term. In less dire situations, providing food can make
people dependent. If the food is shipped in from another country,
it can destroy local markets and reduce incentives for local
farmers to produce a surplus to sell. We need to make it possible
for people to produce their own food and meet their other needs
in a sustainable manner and by their own work.
In the first edition of this book, I also agreed that we should not
be giving money directly to the poor. But in 2009, four Harvard
and MIT graduate students studying development economics
decided to see what would happen if they gave poor families in
Kenya money with no strings attached. What would they do with
it? One view is that if you give poor people cash, they will spend it
on alcohol, prostitutes, or gambling, and in a short time they
won’t be any better off. Another view, favored by many
economists, is that no one knows better than the people
themselves what will benefit them, so why not give them the cash
and let them decide? The students decided to find out, using their
own money to give participating families the equivalent of about
$1,000. The results were promising. Many of the recipients used
the money to replace their leaky thatched roof with a metal one
that enabled them to keep themselves and their food supplies dry.
In the long run, the roof paid for itself, because thatched roofs
have to be replaced each year, but poor families were unable to
save up enough to buy a metal roof. Spending on alcohol, as a
proportion of total income, did not increase.31
In 2012, the same four researchers—Michael Faye, Paul
Niehaus, Jeremy Shapiro, and Rohit Wanchoo—launched a
nonprofit called GiveDirectly that raises funds online in order to
transfer them, again about $1,000 per family, to people living in
extreme poverty in Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda. The founders
committed themselves to being completely transparent, and to
conduct rigorous randomized trials—the “gold standard” used for
determining whether new drugs or other medical procedures are
effective—to see whether the families that received the money
were, after a period of years, better off than similar families that
did not. Their results, which are borne out by other trials of cash
transfers, have demonstrated that giving money to poor families:
Does not reduce the amount that adults work, but
does reduce child labor;
Raises school attendance;
Increases economic autonomy;
Increases women’s decision-making power;
Leads to greater diversity in diet.
Stimulates more use of health services.32
In 2017, GiveDirectly launched a trial of a universal basic income
scheme, guaranteeing sufficient income to meet basic needs for 12
years, and again running a controlled study to see what lasting
impact the additional income will have. At the end of 2018, the
number of households to which GiveDirectly had provided cash
transfers since the organization was founded had passed 100,000.
GiveDirectly has changed my attitude to giving money to the
poor. It clearly does have positive effects. But will providing a
guaranteed basic income create greater dependency than a single
cash transfer? And are cash transfers more effective than other
forms of aid? We do not yet have sufficient evidence to answer
these questions. In Chapter 7, we shall see that an approach that
includes a cash transfer, but also offers training and other
benefits, may do even better than giving an amount of cash
equivalent to the costs of the program; but to know if it really is
better will require additional long-term studies.
Cash is the seed corn of capitalism. Giving it away will
reduce future growth.
Gaetano Cipriano contacted me after reading one of my articles
because he thought that as an entrepreneurial capitalist, he could
offer a helpful perspective. The grandson of immigrants to
America, he owns and runs EI Associates, an engineering and
construction firm based in Cedar Knolls, New Jersey, that has
assets of around $80 million. “Cash is the seed corn of capitalism”
is his phrase. Cipriano told me that he deploys his capital to the
best of his ability to promote profits and enduring growth, and
that giving more of it away than he already does would be “cutting
my own throat.” But he does not spend extravagantly. “I do not
live in a splendid house,” he told me. “I have no second home. I
drive a 2001 Ford Explorer with 73,000 miles. I belong to a nice
squash club, and have four suits and two pairs of black shoes.
When I take vacations, they are short and local. I do not own a
boat or a plane.” While he does give to charity, he does it “at a
level which is prudent and balanced with sustainable growth.” If
he were to give much more money away, it would have to come
out of sums that he now reinvests in his business. That, in turn,
would reduce his future earnings and perhaps the number of
people he is able to employ, or how well he can pay them. It would
also leave him with less to give if, later in life, he decides that he
wants to give more.
Twelve years after our first contact, as I began work on this
updated edition, I asked Cipriano how his business was doing,
and whether either his lifestyle or his charitable giving had
changed. He was doing well, having more than doubled his assets
over that 12-year period. He had swapped his Ford for a GMC
Terrain, which he bought second-hand. He was living in the same
house as before, and in his words: “I still don’t have a house at the
shore, a boat, a plane, or a mistress.” His major indulgence was
spending $500,000 to build a doubles squash court, which he and
his friends use a lot. But though he wasn’t spending significantly
more on himself and his family, he also wasn’t giving in the way
this book advocates. The focus of his charitable giving is the
Squash and Education Alliance, which runs youth programs
combining squash, academics, mentoring, travel, college support,
and career readiness, mostly in the United States. He is also the
major supporter of a soup kitchen run by St John’s Roman
Catholic Church in Newark, New Jersey, where his late father
attended mass and supported the church’s good works. He and his
mother now continue this, in memory of his father. When a
structural fault became evident in an old parish building, his
engineering firm designed repairs, at no charge. “I can’t change
the world, but I try to make my little corner of the world…

Calculate your order
Pages (275 words)
Standard price: $0.00
Client Reviews
Our Guarantees
100% Confidentiality
Information about customers is confidential and never disclosed to third parties.
Original Writing
We complete all papers from scratch. You can get a plagiarism report.
Timely Delivery
No missed deadlines – 97% of assignments are completed in time.
Money Back
If you're confident that a writer didn't follow your order details, ask for a refund.

Calculate the price of your order

You will get a personal manager and a discount.
We'll send you the first draft for approval by at
Total price:
Power up Your Academic Success with the
Team of Professionals. We’ve Got Your Back.
Power up Your Study Success with Experts We’ve Got Your Back.
WeCreativez WhatsApp Support
Our customer support team is here to answer your questions. Ask us anything!
👋 Hi, how can I help?