While we have a natural desire to support our local communities, there is a large imbalance between domestic giving and international giving. Ninety-five percent of the $240 billion that individuals in the United States give to charities annually goes to domestic non-profits while only 5% is donated internationally.
Americans donate twice as much as individuals in other rich nations, but only a fraction goes to help people where there is the greatest need and where a dollar goes the furthest. Simple interventions can actually save lives and reduce unnecessary suffering with donations to effective charities working in the developing world.
Spending money on ourselves and our family members now, or saving for future educational needs and retirement, does not have to prevent you from donating to highly effective charities. There are two ways to help without hurting your family now or in the future. First, you can shift a portion of what you currently give to charities that have proven dramatic impact. Secondly, slightly increase the overall amount you donate to charity and give this increase to these very effective charities.
Actually, small donations can make a huge difference. For example, an anti-malaria bed net costs only $2.50 and protects two people for up to three years. The costs of meeting basic human needs in the developing world are most often far less than the costs for those same services and supplies in the developed world.
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 frequently less. That is, what the equivalent of what $1.90 USD would buy in local currency.
While sustainable development is critical to the elimination of extreme poverty, individual giving plays a crucial role in combating extreme poverty. For example, malaria is the single biggest drag on the African economy (source: AMF). Funding anti-malaria bed nets has played a significant role in reducing the incidence of malaria and childhood mortality. Further, 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 result of many factors — historical, as well as current economic, political and social causes. But the fact is that helping people now not only reduces unnecessary suffering and saves lives, but helps create the conditions that favor eliminating both extreme poverty and many of the factors that maintain it.
Better health 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.
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 are surprised to learn that the U.S. ranks near the bottom of developed countries in the percentage of national income allocated to foreign aid. In 2006, the U.S. ranked second to last, behind Portugal and Italy and 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).
The United Nations Millennium Development Goals encourage all developed nations 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.
For more, see Peter Singer's column Trump's Unethical Aid Cuts.
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.
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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