A shortened version of this article appeared as a Letter to the Editor from Peter Singer and Charlie Bresler in the New York Times on July 13th
The immense outpouring of concern and compassion demonstrated by the worldwide community during the recent 18 day ordeal of the 12 boys and their soccer coach stuck in a flooded cave in Thailand was been heartwarming and gratifying. The significant personal risk taken by the rescuers is inspiring and the death of one of them has been a sad moment in an otherwise joyful rescue. The financial resources brought to bear on the rescue have also been significant.
Juxtaposed with this personal and institutional generosity however is our collective failure to save the approximately 7,500 children under five who die every day of preventable or treatable illnesses. This statistic does not even shed light on our collective ability to ignore the 735 million people living in extreme poverty, for whom suffering, disease and premature death are a byproduct of daily reality.
Research by Paul Slovic and others has shown that we will assist a few identifiable individuals in a life-threatening situation when the media shines a momentary light on them, but we ignore merely “statistical” victims, even though these people are equally real and the life-saving interventions are available and much less costly, per life saved.
The good news is that these problems can most often be addressed without personal risk and dramatically more cost-effectively than rescuing boys from a cave. Consider these facts:
3,000 children die every day from malaria — 438,000 people annually. Yet just $2.00 to Against Malaria Foundation can purchase an insecticide treated bednet that protects two people from malaria-bearing mosquitos at night for up to three years.
36 million people worldwide are blind and 217 million endure vision impairment, largely among the world’s extreme poor. Yet more than 80% of all vision impairment can be prevented or cured. Cataracts, which are the leading cause of blindness in low- and middle-income countries, can be surgically treated for $50-$100 via SEVA and The Fred Hollows Foundation.
Extreme poverty could be ended. Several years ago economist Jeffrey Sachs estimated that extreme poverty could be eliminated with $175 Billion per year over twenty years. That may sound like a lot, but individual Americans donated over $280 billion dollars last year–yet only about 7% went to international organizations.
The Life You Can Save, as well as the nonprofit evaluator GiveWell, suggest highly effective, well-researched nonprofits that have demonstrated impact on cost-effectively helping people living in extreme poverty.
In order to save lives and reduce suffering, we need to harness the compassion that gets mobilized during media-spotlighted crises and address the misery of everyday life generated by ongoing social and economic inequality.