In the United States, charitable giving makes up roughly 2.2% of our gross national income—this is double the level of charitable giving of most other rich nations. In 2007, charitable donations that came directly from individuals totaled nearly $230 billion dollars.
However, very little of this money goes to help the individuals who most need help. A third of American charitable giving went to support religious institutions to pay for clergy salaries and for the maintenance of churches, synagogues, and mosques. The next largest category was for higher education. Less than 4.3% of US charitable giving goes to organizations that do international work overseas—and an even smaller portion of that 4.3% goes directly to the world’s neediest people (see Peter Singer, The Life You Can Save, pp. 23-25).
In Australia, any donation over AU$ 2 to an eligible organization is tax-deductible, yet only 33.6% of Australian taxpayers claimed tax-deductible donations in 2009-10. Moreover, only about 14% of donations
go towards international aid.
Australia still ranks 7th in total charitable giving worldwide , behind the US (1st), Canada and New Zealand
(2nd), Ireland (5th) and the UK (6th). But when it comes to alleviating extreme poverty, the purpose and effectiveness of the charity can matter more than the basic amount given. While Germany only ranks 22nd in total charitable giving, about 75% of German’s donations go towards humanitarian aid .
It’s important to plan for our future and provide for our family’s needs in the present. Everyone also deserves to enjoy the small pleasures that help us celebrate our families
and communities. But saving for retirement, college, or an upcoming trip doesn't prevent us from giving to help the world’s neediest people.
Sometimes we forget how much collective wealth we in the developed world truly have at our disposal. The United Nations Development Program estimates that Americans spend $8 billion on cosmetics each year, and that Europeans spend a total of $11 billion annually just on ice cream! Europeans collectively spend $50 billion each year on cigarettes. Australians spend $10.7 billion per year on coffee . Needless to say, all of these expenditures are more than we spend on charity.
By contrast, globally we would only need $6 billion annually to provide basic education for everyone, and $9 billion to provide clean water supplies and sanitation facilities to people living in extreme poverty. These facts show that we do indeed have the money to make small lifestyle changes that can radically improve the quality of life for the world's neediest people without diminishing the quality of our own lives. These conscious changes can profoundly increase our ability to give with no inconvenience to ourselves.
The costs of meeting basic human needs in the developing world are often far less than the costs for those same services and supplies in the developed world. As a result, even smaller donations have the potential to drastically improve an individual’s quality of life.
Buys one insecticide-treated bed net, to protect against mosquito-borne malaria.
Buys one cataract surgery, to restore a person's sight.
Funds one fistula surgery, to repair obstetric injuries due to complications during childbirth.
The World Bank sets the standard for extreme poverty at $1.90 a day (October, 2015). Currently, 702 million people, or 9.6 percent of the global population, fall into this category, struggling to survive on that amount or less.
While the statistics about extreme poverty at first glance seem to indicate that this is an immense and unsolvable problem, the facts about poverty relief suggest a very different—and more hopeful—picture.
According to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals , over the past 20 years, effective interventions have successfully halved the number of people living in extreme poverty. As a result, millions of people today are no longer living in conditions of extreme poverty.
Giving plays a crucial role in combating extreme poverty. For example, helping to fund medications to fight diseases can mean a child is able to stay in school, or that a parent is able to continue to work to support their family. Donating can help provide the resources that are essential for a better standard of living.
Extreme poverty is a complicated issue, caused by a nexus of related problems: political instability, poor infrastructure, lack of education and famine, to name a few. Certainly aid has not eliminated global poverty. However, aid has accomplished a great deal in the developing world to dramatically decrease the number of people living in extreme poverty, and to improve the standard of living for many more suffering from preventable illness and disease.
Better health in turn enables people living in poverty to contribute much more strongly to their own success – they can work, they can go to school, they can contribute to their household income, and they don't take someone else's time and capacity to work by requiring care. A disabled person in the family, such as a grandparent with preventable blindness, might cause a child to miss out on an education in order to care for his or her family member.
Of course, giving to charity isn't the only thing we can do – we can also work towards solutions on a political level. Complex issues such as poverty need to be addressed on many levels and in many different ways – in fact, charities such as Oxfam are doing precisely that. Giving to independently evaluated and proven effective charities can alleviate the confluence of factors which perpetuate the cycle of poverty.
There are thousands of non-profits that you can choose to give to, and the process of selecting which organization to support can feel like a daunting task. Fortunately, several organizations conduct extensive research in order to determine which charities will most effectively use your money to help the world’s neediest people.
Through his contacts with GiveWell, Giving What We Can and others, Peter Singer has developed a list of the world’s most effective charities—effective in getting funds to those who most need support, and effective in using the funds most meaningfully to establish sustainable alleviation of poverty:
When asked whether the United States allocates more, less, or about the same amount to foreign aid as other developed nations, only 1 out of 20 Americans guessed correctly. Most Americans are surprised to learn that the United States ranks near the bottom of the list of developed countries in terms of the percentage of national income that is allocated to foreign aid. In 2006, the United States ranked behind Portugal and Italy, second to last only ahead of Greece. In that year, the United States gave only 18 cents of every $100 of earnings—a total of 0.18% to foreign aid.
While the majority of Americans think that the United States gives too much in foreign aid, most feel that between 5 to 10% of government spending should go to such overseas aid! In other words, most people
want to “cut” foreign aid spending to a level around 5 to 10 times greater than what the United States actually spends on it (See Peter Singer, The Life You Can Save, pp. 33-35).
As part of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, all developed nations are encouraged to allocate 0.7% of their gross national income to overseas development assistance – that's 70 cents in every $100. For comparison, this is less than the credit card fee many consumers barely notice when paying for overseas purchases.
Only five countries have reached the 0.7% target so far: Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden, with the United Kingdom and Finland almost there. Other countries, such as Germany or Australia, are only halfway there –- but they are ramping up their efforts towards the target.
The Nobel-prize winning social scientist Herbert Simon estimates around 90% of what people earn is based upon their social capital—the places, networks, and opportunities that make up their present circumstances. Without stable institutions like efficient banks, a reliable police force, functioning schools and fair criminal justice systems, it is very difficult to compete on a global scale.
The American investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett acknowledges that he would not have acquired his own wealth without certain necessary conditions: “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.” Without stable infrastructures, it will be difficult if not impossible to rise above poverty, no matter how hard you work or how talented you are (See Peter Singer, The Life You Can Save, p. 26).
Add to that the fact that people in poverty are much more likely to be incapacitated by illness and its after-effects, and you can see that their starting conditions are significantly stacked against them. Globally, four out of five people who are blind suffer from treatable blindness — yet lack of access to treatment means they are unable to work and participate in social life fully as a result of their impairment.
The situation is especially dire for blind children: in developing countries, more than half die within
a few years of going blind, either because of the illness that caused their blindness in the first place or
because poverty prevents their families from looking after a disabled child.
Furthermore, people in third world countries have to work extremely hard just to cover their basic
needs: for example, women globally spend 200 million work hours every day collecting water for their
families – the equivalent of building 28 Empire State Buildings.
This should give you an idea of just how much time and effort people in developing nations have to
spend just to survive — before they get to the point where they can start making a surplus of any kind.
It is true that giving food handouts directly to people living in extreme poverty has the potential
to disrupt local economies—for example, by making it difficult for local farmers to competitively price
their crops. Except in the case of natural disasters, illness, disease and other emergencies, handouts
are not a sustainable way to combat the problems associated with extreme poverty.
However, many other types of interventions can successfully reinvigorate and strengthen local economies by
providing foundations for long-term healthcare, agricultural, and educational solutions for those
in developing nations.
For example, organizations such as the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative and Deworm the World work
directly with governments in sub-Saharan Africa to create and strengthen deworming programs. Both SCI and
Deworm the World seek to secure funds for government-implemented programs. By setting up effective
healthcare systems, these organizations pave the way for pilot programs to become long-term parts of
national healthcare systems. This leads to an eventual decreased dependence on foreign aid.
Each of us would argue that the value of a human life is enormous. In fact, international standards for
private and government healthcare organizations place the value of a single year of human life at $129,000.
No one would make the argument that healthcare interventions in the developed world cause overpopulation. Such a claim would suggest that some people should be allowed to die—simply to control population growth. This idea would undermine our established conviction that every human life is worth saving—even at the cost of $129,000 a year—even at the cost of $129,000 a year .
More importantly, the claim that life-saving interventions lead to unsustainable population growth is a false one. Death rates in fact have little to do with declines in populations. On the contrary, a lower birth rate is the most important contributing factor for a viable and stable population.
The single best predictor of a woman’s fertility is her educational level. Increasing access to
education—and access to the basic material needs that help girls in the developing world enroll and
stay enrolled in school—is the best form of population planning.
Greater access to contraception gives women more control of their fertility, and lower infant mortality
rates encourage families to have fewer children. Likewise, increased access to economic and educational opportunities means that parents do not feel they need to have such big families, since they will not be relying on their children to work in order to supplement family income. And better health services mean fewer children dying, which leads to the choice to have smaller families.
The Life You Can Save is a movement of people fighting extreme poverty. We hold that an ethical life involves using some of our wealth and resources to save and improve the lives of those less fortunate than us.
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