Wednesday, June 24, 2009

the life you can save

Okay. Right now, I want all my friends and readers (the tens of you!) to go to this website. Read about the pledge. Maybe check out the idea behind the site (and the book it promotes). And if you can, read the book. It's short!
And then, take the pledge. Really.

To review a bit of what the heck I am talking about:
The author, of The Life You Can Save, Peter Singer, argues pretty forcefully that:
1. Religions, ethics, conscience all argue that we should care about extreme poverty.
2. Extreme poverty is daunting, but there are good signs that it can be ended within our lifetime.
3. We should all do what it takes to contribute to that effort. How much we contribute is up to our conscience--but Singer advocates a sliding scale of effort that would allow those of us who are affluent to remain affluent, but also eliminate poverty. Giving more than that is great--but perhaps we have no excuse to give less.
4. And if we create an environment that talks about giving, and shares information about where we're giving, and what organizations seem most effective, we can make giving normal, and exciting, and part of our culture.

What I like about Singer's approach is the sort of one-two punch that it presents. Based on the ethical arguments he makes, and the examples he gives (Paul Farmer, people in the 50% League, who give half of their income to the extremely poor), I felt like I should probably sell my house and don sackcloth to even hope to live up to his standard. So when I got to his final proposal, I was, well, relieved. Because sackcloth sounds itchy and I kind of like my house.

To be honest, I'm always kind of excited when we make donations to my favorite causes. I can be kind of a cheapskate, but for these causes, I know that the money I'm giving is worth it. And Singer encourages us all to share that excitement about others and talk about where we give. So maybe in my next few blog posts I'll talk about some of the organizations I most like giving to. And I'd love to hear from some of you, fair readers, to find out where you're excited to send your money to help those most in need. Go ahead! Comment! I know it feels kind of weird to talk about charitable giving, but maybe we all need to inspire eachother a little bit more.

One other thing: Singer talks a lot about the effectiveness of aid, and mentions an organization, GiveWell, that is trying to evaluate how effective different aid organizations are. GiveWell hasn't recommended very many organizations yet, because most of the organizations they reviewed don't really have data about whether the money they spend (surely with good intentions) actually impacts poverty. But I think if more of us start asking about that kind of data, more organizations will start thinking not just about giving, but about whether the money spent is acheiving anything.

Because if we are going to give more, I'd like to think we might see real fruit from it--soon. Just think: a little bit more from all of us, and we might not have to live with the spectre of the lives we aren't saving.


Melissa said...

We love to give through Heifer, but that's not very original. Doesn't everyone give through Heifer?

I like that--unlike some other organizations through which you can give animals, seeds, etc--they seem to use the money we give as we designate. And even if they didn't (if they reallocated it to another project), I would support any of their projects. Plus there's the whole training aspect, and the giving away of the livestock's offspring... when it works as intended, it can help whole villages out of poverty. Yay Heifer!

Where else do you like to give?

Heather said...

see, it is original, because I hadn't heard of it before I saw the magnet on your fridge. I like the simplicity of the name. You don't have to wonder _what_ they give, right?

Diana said...

So here's my question: what organizations are they referring to? Does your tithe count? I know they mean people in extreme poverty, which our church does attend to, but they also fund a lot of other ministries with that money, too. I'd read the book, but honestly, I'm not going to read the book any time soon, and this inquiring mind wants to know.

Heather said...

One of Singer's points was that most of the charitable giving in the US is to religious organizations--some of which goes to the poor, but much of which does not. Probably best-case, 10% of gifts go to the poor (at our church, I know they give 10% to missions, but not all of that is for the poor--some of it is local.
I have a friend who believes strongly that 10% should go to the church, and that other orgs should come on top of that, but I'm not sure I agree--I just think a good chunk should go to our church, since we are part of the community. I always struggle with the balance.
But it's a good question. He is kind of hard-line on some of this stuff--saying that gifts to arts orgs are not very noble when there are people starving. But the arts are also important.
I'll mention some of the other orgs he mentions in my next post I think; my comment is already far to long :)