How much should you and I be doing to fight global poverty?

Would you be willing to give away all of the income you spend on luxuries to fight global poverty?

This might mean giving up 50% of what you earn or not going out to that club/restaurant/movie this weekend with your friends. Or not buying a new pair of shoes or the latest videogame or a new ipod. It might mean foregoing foamy starbucks lattes that power you through class or a season ski pass to your favorite mountain. Basically it would mean sacrificing anything that you don’t need to survive. Because every time you spend $1 on a luxury, you are choosing not to spend that $1 on saving an innocent child’s life.

Philosopher Peter Singer makes an effective case for this using the following analogy:

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. In addition to the pleasure he gets from driving and caring for his car, Bob knows that its rising market value means that he will always 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 running down the railway track. Looking farther down the track, he sees the small figure of a child very likely to be killed by the runaway train. He can’t stop the train and the child is too far away to warn of the danger, but he can throw a switch that will divert the train down the siding where his Bugatti is parked. Then nobody will be killed —but the train will 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 child is killed. For many years to come, Bob enjoys owning his Bugatti and the financial security it represents.

Bob’s conduct, most of us will immediately respond, was gravely wrong. Unger agrees. But then he reminds us that we, too, have opportunities to save the lives of children.

This might be something to think about next time you’re out buying a latte or an ipod or a new pair of shoes. That money could be saving an innocent child’s life. You could be giving money to an organization to buy a $10 bed net to save 1 of the 3000 African children that dies from malaria everyday.

Singer concludes that:

When Bob first grasped the dilemma that faced him as he stood by that railway switch, he must have thought how extraordinarily unlucky he was to be placed in a situation in which he must choose between the life of an innocent child and the sacrifice of most of his savings. But he was not unlucky at all. We are all in that situation.

This is a difficult dilemma which I’m not sure how to resolve. The world economy might very well fall apart if we all stop spending our income on consumption and devote it to saving lives in developing countries. I would also argue that it is difficult to draw the line between what is a luxury and a necessity. Where would music and literature fall, for example?

I read the essay a few years ago and found it to be quite thought-provoking. I still haven’t gotten it out of my head and reflect on it every once in a while. Any thoughts? What would you be willing to give up?

Click on the following link if your interested in checking out the rest of the essay, The Singer Solution to World Poverty.

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4 Responses to “How much should you and I be doing to fight global poverty?”

  1. Gajan

    But couldn’t I buy stuff and help poor people at the same time?

    I think the problem i have with this argument is that we shouldn’t just be supporting poor people, we should be trying to give them opportunities for them to support themselves.

    Take for example the large coffee that i buy almost everyday to power myself through those early morning classes. Is it better for me to just not buy any coffee and give that money to buy bed nets or should i buy fair trade coffee, something that gives rural farmers a larger share of coffee profit (so that they can buy bednets themselves?).

    Maybe there’s a happy medium where i buy less (fair trade) coffee and donate more.

    What struck me was your last link to “the singer solution to world poverty”. Is throwing money at developing countries really an effective solution to ending world poverty?

  2. Katie

    The essay casually, but very unrealistically assumes that the world economy would remain unchanged if everyone stopped buying luxuries. If no one bought electronics, what would happen to all the companies that sell, distribute, manufacture or supply the materials for their production? Unemployment rates would skyrocket, and pretty soon, everyone would need financial assistance. The underlying assumptions of his argument are very misleading.

    I agree; it should definitely be a happy medium.

  3. Joel

    I find this post absolutely compelling. And I wonder about this question a lot–despite the fact that I continually, no, constantly buy things that I really don’t need.

    Alia, I think your approach to the topic is very thoughtful, and I wonder (with respect) if that’s been lost on Gajan and Katie. I especially appreciate that you place art and literature in the undecided category. I figure they are absolutely essential to our well-being, but to what degree is a big question. For instance, is there a difference between $100+ rock concert or opera tickets, and community groups that get together and jam once a week?

    I think to some degree we lose faith in the cheaper ways of getting our kicks: sharing purchases and CDs, volunteering at shows, listening to the radio, using the library. I frankly love BUYING new books. But of course, most of them I can simply get at VPL. What’s the deal with that?

    As for Katie’s point on the world economy–I say it probably needs to change. True, if we all stop buying [insert expensive luxury here], that industry will decline, and there will probably be some unintended consequences, as usual. But sometimes [said luxury] is pretty harmful to the earth, and the labour that produces it could, in theory, be producing more of life’s necessities.

    If we stop buying some item we don’t need, it means those jobs have disappeared or changed–it does not mean that the human or natural resources have disappeared. We still come away with all the same potential. So the question is, how to protect those employees who currently depend on luxuries for their income… while slowly shifting our capital away from so much luxury, towards truly “good” goods. [Insert pause to acknowledge my own hypocrisy]

    That said, I’m probably being too theoretical. On the personal level, what I hear is a call for less consumption, smarter spending and more giving–and I can’t argue with that. I don’t see it causing instant catastrophe.

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