Peter Singer: 7 questions for a 'charity guru'

Peter Singer, moral philosopher and author of the book, "The Life You Can Save." Photo by: Denise Applewhite / Princeton University

Peter Singer is a moral philosopher on a mission: he wants people to give more, and give better to charity.

In his book “The Life You Can Save,” the Australian thought leader details the ways that individuals can maximize the amount of good they can achieve through giving. Singer is a hard-nosed ethicist who forcefully argues that individuals need to think critically about the organizations and entities to which they donate.

He defends that to make the biggest impact Singer, people should think globally and contribute to organizations that promote global health and economic development.

Check out the below interview by PSI Impact for more insights on the genesis of international development from this so-called “charity guru”:

You’ve offered helpful guidance on charitable giving and inspired many to think about philanthropy in a very specific way. What advice would you give to those making decisions about investments in global health at the institutional level?

Obviously, it’s important to get the best value for your money. To take a simple example: if you give $10,000 to a charity that spends $5,000 for each life saved, when you could have given it to one that spends $1,000 for each life saved, you’ve effectively wasted $8,000 of your donation. You’ve also allowed eight lives to be lost needlessly. Of course, things aren’t usually that simple, because there are uncertainties, and also some charities only save lives, and others prevent unwanted births, or blindness, or other kinds of suffering, and these things are more difficult to compare. But it is important to get across the general idea that effectiveness makes a huge difference to what a donation achieves.

What criteria should one use to identify a ‘best buy’ in global health?

What I would look for is expected utility gained per dollar spent. Utility here means: how much do we improve the quality of life of those affected? Usually in the health area, that will mean how much we reduce suffering or prevent death. Expected utility means the total utility multiplied by the probability that it will achieved. So if the utility that a program will achieve is 100, but the chance that it will succeed is only 0.25 and otherwise it will achieve nothing, then the expected utility is 25.

In your model of philanthropy, where does advocacy fit in? Would funding a policy change that could save millions of lives be equal to funding specific health interventions?

That kind of advocacy might be better than funding specific health interventions, but again, it depends on the probability that the gain will be achieved, and of course, that is very hard to predict. Still, there is no alternative rational way of deciding other than to try to form an estimate, and calculate the expected utility of the advocacy on that basis, so we must do the best we can, and learn from experience what works and what doesn’t.

You’ve talked a lot about the moral responsibility of wealthy individuals to give. Do donor governments like the U.S., U.K. and Australia have the same moral imperative? Are they giving enough and what is their responsibility to ensure an enabling environment is created in recipient countries so that their investments bear fruit?

It’s not the same moral imperative, because when the state gives, from revenue raised by taxation, there are other questions of political philosophy that need to be asked: what is the role of the state? Is it to improve the lives of its citizens, or to do good in general? To what extent should governments follow public opinion? To what extent may governments do less good than they could do, in the short run, in order to stay in office longer and thus perhaps do more good in the long run? Wealthy individuals don’t have to ask any of these questions, they can just give their money where it will do the most good. But on the whole, I think it would be reasonable for donor governments — that is, governments of wealthy nations — to give 1 percent of gross national income, as long as they are giving it effectively.

What are the responsibilities of the recipients of global aid  be they individuals, communities or governments  to ensure that aid money is well spent?

That will depend on what arrangements they have entered into in order to receive the aid. But I think the real responsibility is on the donors, to make sure that what they are giving is used well — and if it is not, they should learn from their mistakes, and give somewhere else, where it will be used more effectively.

The discussion on nonprofit overhead rates is heating up  some say it’s a poor indicator, others claim it’s a marker of discipline. How should we be thinking about this issue?

It’s a poor indicator. As I said earlier, what we need is an indicator of the cost-effectiveness of aid. If one organization spends only 10 percent on overheads, but as a result the remaining 90 percent is not well-allocated or even evaluated, then that 90 percent may do no good at all. It would be better to give to an organization that spent 20 percent — or even more — on overheads, but made sure that what it did spend on its programs was highly effective.

When polled, people believe that funding research/development and innovation is critical to solving health challenges. Yet donors are much less likely to fund pilots, research and development or risk. Unlike the private sector, the nonprofit sector is intolerant of failure. How open should donors be to failure, risk and innovation?

It’s understandable that donors — who after all could spend their money on other things — don’t want to take risks, and discover that the innovative project did not work. But more sophisticated donors will understand that, as I said above, it is expected utility that counts, and from that perspective, even a 1-percent chance of saving a million lives is better than a certainty of saving a thousand lives.

This story is part of Best Buys in Global Health, a campaign by PSI, PATH and Devex to highlight sound investments in global health. Find out more.

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