Can We End Global Poverty? Is This a Realistic Goal?

“Discussion . . . is not enough.

What is the point of relating philosophy to public (and personal) affairs if we do not take our conclusions seriously. In this circumstance, taking our conclusions seriously is acting upon it . . .

The philosopher who does so will have to sacrifice some of the benefits of the consumer society, but he can find compensation in the satisfaction of a way of life in which theory and practice, if not yet in harmony, are at least coming together” (Peter Singer, 31–2).

I have recently finished reading Peter Singer’s essay titled: Famine, Affluence, and Morality. It is a short read (80 pages), won’t take too much of your time if you decide to give it a read. A great introduction to the things we (as Westerners) should be doing in the world.

Since I am a philosophy student, I read about theoretical sh*t all day, everyday. Ideas on what the ‘Self’ is, what consciousness is, whether this table that I’m writing on is actually there or if it’s just a fabrication of something else that’s going on in my mind, etc.

We talk about the various different arguments that exist: whether they are inductive or deductive (and the distinctions within those). We talk about Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Darwin, Hume, Descartes, Locke, Kant, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Camus, Sartre, . . . .

We discuss the differences between Empiricism, Rationalism, and Skepticism. The ideological differences between Nihilism and Existentialism; Modernism and Postmodernism; Escapism and Realism. You get the idea. We talk and talk. A lot of it seems impractical. Sometimes it can get out of hand — and overwhelming.

There is so much to know, so little time — and most importantly — so little intellectual capability. I wish I could understand everything I read. Most often I have no idea what these dudes are talking about.

Nevertheless, I find philosophy to be very interesting and worth all the countless hours spent reading about it. But sometimes there is too much talk and very little action.

I am guilty of this as much as the next man. So that’s why when I stumble around contemporary philosophers such as Peter Singer, I am very pleasantly engulfed by him. He is what I want to be, the bridge between ideology and tangible ambitions for change.

The Practicality of This Essay:

This is why people get so enticed by this writer. He has specific logical conclusions about our finances and morally sound expectations of how we should be living. I have written about his writing before as well, if you want to check that blog post out: (The Most Good You Can Do)

“The money you will spend at the restaurant could also help save the lives of children overseas! True, you weren’t planning to blow $200 tonight, but if you were to give up dining out just for one month, you would easily save that amount.

And what is one month’s dining out, compared to a child’s life? There’s the rub. Since there are a lot of desperately needy children in the world, there will always be whose life you could save for another $200. Are you therefore obliged to keep going until you have nothing left? At what point can you stop? ”(43–4)

This is where the advice gets even more personal. And this was actually a point at which I was quite surprised. But when we apply logic to our finances, we understand how real these numbers are and what we can actually be doing with our lives.

“So how does my philosophy breakdown in dollars and cents?” (47)

An American household whose income is $50,000 spends about $30,000 annually on necessary things (Conference Board, a nonprofit economic research organization).

What Singer suggests is, for a household earning $50,000 a year, donations to help the world’s poorest should be close to $20,000 — the amount of our finances that is not providing for our basic necessities.

This, he says, applies to households earning above that income as well. A household making $100,000 a year, could cut a yearly check for $70,000. The formula is: “whatever money you’re spending on luxuries, not necessities, should be given away” (47–8).

Is this a realistic formula? Remember: this is the goal. This is our aspiration. If you are earning below $50,000, you will probably not be able to give away a third of your income. I am not making anything close to $15,000 a year. But there are small steps that it is important to start taking now, so that when I do start earning a larger income — hopefully — I’ll be able to make that easy switch.

Do we really believe that money is not essential to our happiness?

Is merely providing for ourselves, families, and friends enough? Or do we actually need those Lamborghini's for our mental health? Not just Lamborghini’s, but best guitars, best drum sets, best laptops, etc.

Do we really need this? Do you have to be drinking out every Friday? Or is there another path? One that is not ignorant of the ever-pressing reality that millions of children are still dying in third world countries from easily preventable diseases such as diarrhea.

What is our Share? When do We End Global Poverty? Is That a Goal we Should Have?

In the year 2000, the United Nations Millennium Summit set the “Millennium Development Goals”. It was the largest gathering of all the world leaders in history.

This is what they aspired to have achieved by 2015:

  • Reducing by half the proportion of the world’s people in extreme poverty (defined as living on less than the purchasing power equivalent of one U.S. dollar per day).
  • Reducing by half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger.
  • Ensuring that children everywhere are able to take a full course of primary schooling.
  • Ending sex disparity in education.
  • Reducing by two-thirds the mortality rate among children under 5.
  • Reducing by three-quarters the rate of maternal mortality.
  • Halting and beginning to reverse the spread of H.I.V./AIDS and halting and beginning to reduce the incidence of malaria and other major diseases
  • Reducing by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water (76–8).

A United Nations task force, led by Jeffrey Sachs (Columbia University Economist), estimated that the annual cost of meeting all these goals was $121 billion in 2006. It raised to $189 billion by 2015.

“When we take account of existing official development aid promises, the additional amount needed each year to meet the goals is only $48 billion for 2006 and $74 billion for 2015” (76–8).

What About the Rich? Can’t They Just Solve the Problem?

Multiple Accounts that suggest this being Will Smith’s villa. No judgement.

There is some truth to the fact that the rich do have the means to end world poverty. The question then is, why are some still not doing it? We will shortly see that some are. It could easily be assumed that they do not have the knowledge or the ‘numbers’, so to speak.

To help, Singer provides these statistics (originally sourced from Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, economists at the Ecole Normale Superieure, Paris-Jourdan, and the University of California, Berkeley), based on U.S. tax data for 2004.

It is important to note, these figures are pre tax income, and also excluding income from capital gains, which for the extremely rich are substantial.

This is the top bracket, the .01 percent of U.S. taxpayers. This includes 14,400 people, earning an average of $12,775,000 with total earnings of $184 billion.

  • Minimum annual income: more than $5 million.
  • What could give away: A third of their annual income, of at least $3.3. million.

The top .1 percent (excluding the category already mentioned). There are 129,600 in this group, earning an average income of $2 million.

  • Minimum annual income: $1.1. Million.
  • What could give away: A quarter of income would be almost $65 billion, and leave each family with at least $846,000 annually.

The top .5 percent of taxpayers includes 575,900 people, with an average income of $623,000.

  • Minimum income: $407,000.
  • What could give away: If they were to give one-fifth of income, they’d still have $325,000 each.

The remainder of the nation’s’ top 10 percent earn at least $92,000 annually. There are 13 million people in this group. If they would tithe the traditional amount — 10% — or in other words 13,200 each this would add up to $171 billion. And leave each individual with a minimum of $83,000.

  • Minimum income: averaging $132,000 each.

(All taken from book pages 78–81.)

So What Has Happened Since this Book has Been Written?

  • In the forty years since this has been written, the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty today is less than half what is was then (in the 1970s).
  • Children that die before the age of 5 has been reduced from 20% (in 1960s) to 5% (in 2016).
  • That 5% however is still quite the amount to reduce. That amount equals 6.3 million children dying every year from preventable diseases, such as diarrhea, pneumonia (results in $4 million people every year), or malaria — all of which we can treat.

A Personal Note

We are the new generation. We should be ready to admit that these things are still an issue. It is hard to come to terms with how unfair the world is that we live in. But that humbles me to the reality of how blessed I — and we — actually am/are.

It is a blessing to be reading and writing every day. As much as I understand why people are complaining about the many daily tasks that we have to do, it’s always better to have to finish these 8 assignments by next week, then to have to walk 6 miles to the closest source of clean water. I prefer the former to the latter. I just had a banana loaf and a lactose free cappuccino. Think about that blessing for a moment.

On the one hand this information makes us sad, but then also it helps us put things into perspective. It makes us more productive and hard working. There are things we could be doing that actually change the world. Even if they’re on a smaller scale. That $20 a week could add up to a lot more by the end of the year.

I hope I find the ways to do them most efficiently. I know that I am not capable of doing the most good possible. This is far from my reach and capability. And I am too fragile. But slowly I wish for change. Slowly I hope that I will be able to live a fully balanced life that considers the people struggling in our own country, including those overseas.

Places to Donate:

  • Oxfam America
  • UNICEF (both of these to save a child’s life)

Before you go…

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keep reflecting.

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Jakub Ferencik

Jakub Ferencik

Author of “Up in the Air” & “Beyond Reason” available on AMAZON | MA McGill Uni | Research assistant for EUROPEUM Prague | 500+ blog posts with 1+ mil. views