Book Review: The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer

Posted in Uncategorized by saraburke on June 12, 2009

Philosopher does the sums to show how poverty could be eliminated

This book review was run in the Irish TImes on May 13, 2009 as the book of the day.

BOOK OF THE DAY: The Life You Can Save. Acting Now to End World Poverty By Peter Singer Picador 174pp; £14.99

DO YOU value every human life? Are you prepared to act to “save” the world’s most vulnerable? If so, you can. And if you don’t, you are morally wrong, according to Peter Singer.

The Life You Can Save is Singer’s 21st book. His basic premise is that each of us has an ethical obligation to save the lives of the poorest. We could easily do this if we gave away a small proportion (5 per cent) of our incomes to the poorest billion people who each live on less than $2 a day.

If we all (that is the 855 million richest people in the world) did not buy those unnecessary cappuccinos, those bottles of water, that expensive handbag, a dinner in a fine restaurant, and instead consciously donated the equivalent money to worthy causes – collectively we could end world poverty. Singer, an Australian philosopher, best known for his seminal book Animal Liberation , does the sums to prove that if the world richest people gave away 5 per cent of their income, the suffering endured by the world’s poorest could be eliminated.

And he is probably right.

This book is full of philosophy, economics, facts and figures. There are lots of interesting details about the spending habits of the world’s richest people; on what we choose to donate to charity; about aid and trade; about recent local and global initiatives to end world poverty; and about giving while living.

It is uncomfortable reading. But nothing one has never heard before.

Nearly 10 million children under five die unnecessarily annually. Another eight million older children and adults die each year from poverty-related causes. More than a billion struggle to live on what most of us happily pay for a cup of coffee or glass of juice. Many people in the poorest countries go blind, suffer horrific conditions totally unnecessarily, and die young from diseases that we know how to prevent or treat. Yet, the situation continues. We allow it to.

But there are some fundamental flaws in Singer’s cause. While he deals briefly with the aid-versus-trade argument, he fails to make the case for a more ethical, egalitarian world order where such divisions between rich and poor countries (and indeed within rich and poor countries) are no longer orchestrated by the richest.

Currently, world trade agreements are drawn up by the richest countries in the world and imposed on the poorest. The richest countries gain new markets, the poorest are unable to compete and swap “competition” for the privatisation of some of their most essential services such as water and healthcare.

He does not address the systemic inequality which exists within and between countries that cause poverty.

He fails to explain why initiatives like the Millennium Development Goals are failing, why governments, including the Irish Government, have not reached or kept to their commitment to give 0.07 per cent of GDP to overseas aid.

Singer’s personal crusade is founded on individuals giving to charities. And while there are NGOs (including many Irish ones) doing excellent work in developing countries, is it really better for individuals solely to donate on their own accord? Or is it more beneficial for each individual to pay more tax and for each country to give a much larger percentage of our GDP to poorer countries? Presumably, the best strategy is not either, but a combination of both.

Sometimes less is more. In this case, a well-made point is over-done and other vital issues are avoided. 

I won’t be signing up to but if you can bear the preachy tone, his message resonates loud and clear.

The Life You Can Save. Acting Now to End World Poverty By Peter Singer Picador 174pp; £14.99

© 2009 The Irish Times

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