Monday, March 09, 2009

Americans overestimate their generosity in fighting world poverty

Peter Singer argues that ignorance is paralyzing. If Americans believe that their country is doing vastly more to fight world poverty than it really is, they will see no need to add to the effort be it foreign aid or charitable giving to nongovernment organizations. Yet, American giving is dismal compared to other developed nations and in the meantime 27,000 children die every day from preventable causes in impoverished countries around the world.

He writes:

Reducing the number of people living in extreme poverty throughout the world is clearly one of the great moral challenges of our time. Although the issue is by no means absent from what we study and teach, as educators in the United States we appear to be falling short in the task of ensuring that our students are adequately informed about world poverty, its consequences, and the ways in which it can be reduced. Is it possible that some of the reluctance to deal with the topic stems from the fact that it may have uncomfortable conclusions for our own lives?

If we take seriously the idea that the value of a human life does not diminish when we cross national boundaries, then we ought to be giving a much higher priority to reducing world poverty. I have in mind a broad re-envisioning of what we teach.

We should not limit so important a topic to specialized courses on international development (valuable as they are). The issue should be prominent in anthropology, cultural studies, economics, ethics and sociology. In political-science courses, we should ask why we pay so little attention to people living in poverty outside our borders. Psychology courses could take up the factors that limit our willingness to give to distant strangers. Engineers might increase the amount of class time they devote to how their skills can be applied to assist the world's poorest people. Medical schools could focus more on the global burden of disease and how it might be reduced, and law students should be prompted to think about an international legal regime that allows American oil companies to buy oil from dictators who pocket most of the proceeds. Programs could also be produced to help to educate the broader public.

Nor should we shy away from reconsidering our emphasis on teaching in fields that have timeless artistic and cultural value. It is legitimate to ask: In a situation in which more people die each year from poverty-related causes than died in any one year during World War II, how much should we be spending on the refinement of our artistic sensitivities and those of our students?


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, or education. One widely quoted statistic is that a billion people are living on less than one U.S. dollar per day. That was the World Bank's poverty line until 2008, when better data led to a new poverty line of $1.25 per day. As a result, the number of people whose income puts them under the new poverty line is 1.4 billion.

On hearing the "$1.25 a day" figure, the thought may cross your mind that in many developing countries it is possible to live much more cheaply than in industrialized nations. But the World Bank has already made that adjustment in purchasing power, so those it classifies as living in extreme poverty are existing on a daily total consumption of goods and services — whether earned or homegrown — comparable to the amount of goods and services that can be bought in the United States for $1.25.

The 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty are likely to be hungry for at least a part of every 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 the most basic health-care services are usually beyond their means.

That kind of poverty kills. While life expectancy in rich nations averages 78 years, in the poorest nations — those classified by the United Nations as "least developed" — it is below 50. In rich countries, fewer than one child in 100 dies before the age of 5; in the poorest countries, one in five does. Unicef, the United Nations Children's Fund, estimates that nearly 10 million children under 5 die each year from causes related to poverty. That's 27,000 a day — a football stadium full of young children, dying every day (along with thousands of older children and adults who die from poverty every day as well). Some children die because they don't have enough to eat or clean water to drink. More die from measles, malaria, diarrhea, and pneumonia — diseases that don't exist in developed nations, or if they do, are easily cured and rarely fatal.


Despite the recent economic downturn, we are nevertheless living in a time that is particularly opportune for reducing extreme poverty worldwide. The first decade of the 21st century has seen the proportion of people unable to meet their basic physical needs shrink to less than it has been at any time in history, and perhaps at any time since human beings came into existence. At the same time, the proportion of people with far more than they need is also unprecedented. Those in affluent societies work an average of only six hours a week to earn enough to buy an adequate amount of food.

Most important, rich and poor are now linked in ways they never were before. Real-time moving images of people on the edge of survival are beamed into our living rooms. Not only do we know a lot about the desperately poor, but we also have much more than before to offer them in terms of better health care, improved seeds and agricultural techniques, and new technologies for generating electricity. More amazing, through instant communications and open access to a wealth of information that surpasses the greatest libraries of the pre-Internet age, we can enable them to join the worldwide community — if only we can help them to get far enough out of poverty to seize the opportunity.


To do better, however, we need to dispel some prevalent myths — myths that our students too often embrace. When I speak about world poverty at Princeton University, where I teach, or at campuses around the country, students often suggest that America is a generous country: It's already doing its part.

When my students cite American generosity, I show them figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development on the amounts given by all the group's donor members. The students are astonished to find that the United States has, for many years, been at or near the bottom of the list of industrialized countries in terms of the proportion of national income given as foreign aid. After several years of vying with Portugal and Greece, we fell to the absolute bottom in 2007. Norway led the way, giving 95 cents per $100, followed by Sweden, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Denmark, Ireland, and Austria. Other rich countries give less than 50 cents, with the average that year 45 cents; the United States gave only 16 cents of every $100 earned.

The ignorance of Americans about their nation's role in aiding the world's poorest people is widespread, and it has been shown in many surveys. Asked by the Gallup International Association in 2005 whether the United States gives more, less, or about the same amount of aid as other wealthy countries do in terms of percentage of national income, only 9 percent of Americans gave the correct answer; 42 percent of the respondents said the nation gave more than four times as much as was true at the time. At the extreme, 8 percent of Americans thought that the United States gave more than a quarter of its national income as aid, a portion that is more than 100 times as great as the actual amount.

Americans also suffer from gross misconceptions about how significant the country's aid is as a percentage of all federal spending. In four surveys that asked Americans what portion of government spending goes to foreign aid, the median answers ranged from 15 percent to 20 percent. The correct answer is less than 1 percent.

A majority of people in those surveys further said that America gives too much aid — but when asked how much America should give, the median answers ranged from 5 percent to 10 percent of government spending. In other words, people wanted foreign aid cut — to an amount that is five to 10 times as much as their country actually gives.

Some observers contend that such figures are misleading because the United States gives more than other countries in private aid. But although we give more private aid than most rich nations do, we still trail Canada, Ireland, and Switzerland in private aid as a percentage of national income. Adding nongovernment aid, of 8 cents per $100 earned, to government aid leaves the nation's total contribution at no more than 24 cents of every $100 earned, still near the bottom of the international aid league.

Moreover, the majority of U.S. aid is not directed to helping the extremely poor. The leading recipients of official U.S. development aid are, in descending order, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Colombia, and Egypt. Iraq alone received about one-fifth of the U.S. foreign-aid budget in 2007. Iraq and Afghanistan are the top recipients because of their central role in the war on terror; Egypt has ranked near the top for decades because it is an important partner in U.S. efforts to stabilize the Middle East. Colombia is not an especially poor country — its aid is associated with the attempt to suppress cocaine cartels. Only about a quarter of U.S. aid goes to countries classified by the OECD as "least developed."


My argument about our moral obligations to the poor has led me to suggest that our educational institutions give more emphasis to teaching and research that focus on world poverty and what can be done about it. The converse is that we should give a lower priority to areas of study that have no obvious connection with world poverty or with, say, climate change or avoiding war or, indeed, with any similarly large and pressing problem. That will no doubt incense some of my colleagues who think that we should study art, languages, history, mathematics, or philosophy for its own sake. I agree that, in an ideal world, studying epistemology, classical music, and Italian Renaissance art would be part of every cultivated person's education. But we live in a world in which 27,000 children die every day from preventable causes.

In such a world, it is difficult to deny that some areas of study are an indulgence. It's not wrong to pursue them. Arguably we need some indulgences, some pursuits that broaden our gaze and refresh our spirits before we turn back to more-urgent problems. But indulgences need to be placed in a setting in which it is clear that they are not the most important thing in our lives, or in the education we offer.

You can read the entire piece here. Peter Singer in his new book, The Life You Can Save and it related website, argues that Americans should be giving more to help alleviate world poverty and suggests a standard for how much they should give, proportionate to their income.

1 comment:

Linda Jane McLean said...

Fascinated by your perspective - and your name.
You write well.
Many of the issues you address could be dealt with so much more satisfactorily, with a little thought.
It is for this that I am working - and telling the stories is how i intend to go about it.