Saving a Child, Easily

By Peter Singer

Imagine you come across a small child who has fallen into a pond and is in danger of drowning. You know that you can easily and safely rescue him, but you are wearing an expensive pair of shoes that will be ruined if you do. It would be wrong – monstrous, in fact – to walk on past the pond, leaving the child to drown, because you don’t want to have to buy a new pair of shoes. You can’t compare a child’s life with a pair of shoes!

Yet while we all say that it would be wrong to walk past the child, there are other children whose lives we could save just as easily – and yet we don’t. UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, estimates that nearly nine million children under five die each year from causes related to poverty. That’s 24,000 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 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.

Describing a case in Ghana, a man told a researcher from the World Bank: “Take the death of this small boy this morning, for example. The boy died of measles. We all know he could have been cured at the hospital. But the parents had no money and so the boy died a slow and painful death, not of measles but out of poverty.”

Money To Spare

Many organizations are working to reduce poverty and provide clean water and basic healthcare. If people donated more to these organizations, they could save more lives. Most people living in affluent nations have money to spare, money that they spend on luxuries like clothes they don’t need, vacations in exotic places, even bottled water when the water that comes out of the tap is safe to drink. Instead of spending money on these things, we could give the money to an organization that would use it to reduce poverty, and quite possibly to save a child’s life.

Most people living in affluent nations have money they spend on luxuries like clothes they don’t need, vacations in exotic places, even bottled water when the water that comes out of the tap is safe to drink.

Of course, the situation in which you can rescue the child in the pond is not exactly the same as that in which you can donate to an aid organization to save a child’s life. There is only one child in the pond, and once we have saved him, we have solved the problem and need not think more about it. But there are millions of children in poverty, and saving one of them does not solve the problem. Often this feeling – that whatever we do will be merely “drops in the ocean” – makes us feel that trying to do any- thing at all is futile. But that is a mistake. Saving one child is not less important because there are other children we cannot save. We have still saved a life, and saved the child’s parents from the grief that the parents of that boy in Ghana had to suffer.

Saving a child drowning in a shallow pond is a simple thing to do, whereas reducing global poverty is complex. But some aspects of saving human life are not so complex. We know that providing clean water and sanitation saves lives, and often saves women hours each day that they previously spent fetching water, and then boiling it. We know that providing bednets reduces malaria, and immunizing children stops them getting measles. We know that educating girls helps them to control their fertility, and leads them to have fewer children.

Often this feeling – that whatever we do will be merely “drops in the ocean” – makes us feel that trying to do anything at all is futile. But that is a mistake.

In The Life You Can Save I explore this argument in more depth, and consider objections. I discuss whether aid is effective, and how we can be confident that our donations are making a difference.

Objections Overruled

Some will argue, for example, that I can’t have any confidence that my donation to an aid organization will save a life, or will help people to lift themselves out of extreme poverty. Often these arguments are based on demonstrably false beliefs, such as the idea that aid organizations use most of the money given to them for administrative costs, so that only a small fraction gets through to the people who need it, or that corrupt governments in developing nations will take the money. In fact, the major aid organizations use no more than 20 percent of the funds they raise for administrative purposes, leaving at least 80 percent for the programs that directly help the poor, and they do not donate to governments, but work directly with the poor, or with grassroots organizations in developing countries that have a good record of helping the poor.

Measuring the effectiveness of an aid organization by the extent to which it can reduce its administrative costs is, however, a common mistake. Administrative costs include the salaries of experienced people who can ensure that your donation will fund projects that really help the poor in a sustainable, long-term way. An organization that does not employ such people may have lower administrative costs than one that does, but it will still achieve less with your donation. *

I also propose a realistic scale for giving. (You can also find that at I have suggested a progressive scale, like a tax scale. It begins at just 1 percent of income, and for 90 percent of taxpayers, it does not require giving more than 5 percent. This is therefore an entirely realistic amount, and one that people could easily give with no sacrifice – and indeed, often with a personal gain, since there are many psychological studies showing that those who give are happier than those who do not. I do not really know if the scale I propose is the one that will, if widely advocated, achieve the greatest total amount donated. But I calculated that if everyone in the affluent world gave according to that scale, it would raise $1.5 trillion dollars each year – which is eight times what the United Nations task force headed by the economist Jeffrey Sachs calculated would be needed to meet the Millennium Development Goals. Those goals included reducing by half the proportion of the world’s people living in extreme poverty, and the proportion of people who suffer from hunger, as well as reducing by two-thirds the death toll among children under five – thus saving six million lives every year – and enabling children everywhere to have a full course of primary schooling. 

An Ethical Life

We do not need to transfer half, or a quarter, or even a tenth, of the wealth of the rich to the poor. If we all, or even most of us, gave according to the scale I have suggested, none of us would have to give up much. That is why this is a suitable standard for public advocacy. What we need to do is to change our public ethics so that for anyone who can afford to buy luxuries – and even a bottle of water is a luxury if there is safe drinking water available free – giving something significant to those in extreme poverty becomes an elementary part of what it is to live an ethical life.

We who are fortunate to have more than enough have a moral obligation to help those who, through no fault of their own, are living in extreme poverty. It’s not hard to do.

* For more on this, see GiveWell is not an aid organization, but an organization that seeks hard evidence about which organizations are most effective. It has, for example, compared the cost per life saved, of various organizations that work to combat the diseases that kill many of those 8.8 million children who die each year from poverty-related causes. According to GiveWell, there are several organizations that can save a life for somewhere in the range of $600-$1,200, and on the GiveWell website, you can see which it ranks most highly.

Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. His many books include The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty (Random House, 2009) and One World: Ethics and Globalization (Yale University Press, 2002)