Peter Singer updates his take on aid trends of the last decade

Peter Singer, Australian author and philosopher. Photo by: THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION / Tristan Martin

SAN FRANCISCO — In the 2009 book “The Life You Can Save,” author Peter Singer argues that people should give more of their income to help the world’s poorest.

“Charity begins at home, the saying goes, and for many people, charity also stops at home, or not very far from it,” writes Singer, a moral philosopher.

He expands on the reasons people find it difficult to give money to people they’ve never met in places they’ve never visited.

“My aim is to convince you, the individual reader, that you can and should be doing a lot more to help the poor,” Singer writes.

“If the funds now allocated to foreign aid were used in the most effective manner, they should be sufficient to end extreme poverty.”

— Peter Singer, philosopher

The first edition of the book inspired the effective altruism movement, made up of donors who rely on evidence to determine the most effective way to make a difference with their dollars. A decade later, the nonprofit The Life You Can Save, which aims to increase donations for highly impactful nonprofits, has released a fully updated 10th-anniversary edition.

A changing aid landscape has altered some of Singer’s views on the best ways to combat poverty. But he maintains the same philosophy that all lives have equal value — and he sees a larger audience than ever for his message.

Reflecting the new reality  

Singer is aware of the critiques of his arguments and takes them on one by one in his new book.

“My philosophical thinking is consistent,” he told Devex. “We updated the facts with where they are now.”

Since the last edition of the book, there has been an increasing concentration of wealth. A 2019 Oxfam report that cites that the 26 richest people in the world own as much as the 3.8 billion people who make up the world’s poorest. But the worsening of extreme inequality supports his original arguments, Singer said.

“The gap between the living standards of people in affluent countries and those in low-income countries has increased enormously, so that those of us living in industrialized countries have greater capacity to help those far away, and greater reason to focus our aid on them: far away is where the vast majority of the extremely poor are, and where charitable dollars can go the farthest,” Singer writes.

In the book, he looks back at seemingly promising interventions that have not had the impact they intended on ending poverty, including microcredit, and explains how one organization caught him by surprise.

“In the first edition of this book, I also agreed that we should not be giving money directly to the poor,” Singer writes.

But GiveDirectly is one organization that does just that, transferring funds to families living in extreme poverty in Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda, and testing whether they are better off.

“GiveDirectly has changed my attitude to giving money to the poor. It clearly does have positive effects,” Singer concluded.

This organization aims to change how impact is measured — and funded

ImpactMatters has pivoted toward using publicly available data to rate nonprofits, but its goal remains the same: to create a marketplace for impact in the nonprofit sector.

Singer noted that one of the biggest changes in international development over the past 10 years has been an increased focus on measuring impact and assessing the effectiveness of interventions.

His first book highlighted GiveWell, which produces research on the world’s top charities, and helped the organization become a popular resource to guide the giving of effective altruists.

Since then, new organizations have launched, including The Life You Can Save, which Singer founded, the Center for High Impact Philanthropy, which publishes an annual giving guide, and ImpactMatters, which just went through a pivot in its model to change how impact is measured and funded.

Influencing a high net worth audience

Singer has had a number of conversations with individuals who are, or someday could be, in a position to direct significant resources toward people in need.

Examples include Will Marshall, CEO of Planet Labs, who recently referenced Singer’s work at a San Francisco event hosted by the Founders Pledge, an organization that asks startup founders to donate a percentage of money from a successful exit to nonprofits.

After the release of his first book, Singer received a call from a member of a wealthy American family who had a foundation worth half a billion dollars, he said.

“They had been giving rather haphazardly, basically whatever people had been interested in, pretty much exclusively local to the local community in which they were living,” he said.

The book, and their subsequent conversation with Singer, “led them to discussing whether to have a more systematic policy of starting to give more effectively,” Singer said.

Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife Cari Tuna say “The Life You Can Saveinformed their approach in philanthropy. They learned about GiveWell from the first edition of the book, and with their support, the organization has now influenced 50,000 donors giving $500 million in donations. Moskovitz and Tuna have also given more than $300 million to nonprofits in global health and international development through their Open Philanthropy Project.

As high profile donors like Moskovitz and Tuna recommend the book to their peers, it is likely to reach people who could have a significant influence on global health and international development — by donating even a small fraction of their wealth.

Singer told Devex that he thinks his argument of “doing the most good with whatever resources you have” is likely to resonate with the growing number of high net worth individuals coming out of Silicon Valley.

Spreading the message globally

Singer wants his message to extend beyond the ultra-wealthy, to anyone who has the capacity to give.

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As he notes in “The Life You Can Save,” “Quite a modest contribution from everyone who has enough to live comfortably would suffice to achieve the goal of lifting most of the world’s extremely poor people above the poverty line of $1.90 per day.”

With the new edition of the book, he is hoping to have more of a global impact beyond the U.S. Singer mentioned India, “where there’s a lot of poverty and a lot of wealth,” as one example of a place where he hopes the book will take off, and said he is visiting the country in the first half of 2020.

Another group Singer has spoken with, and hopes to influence with the new edition, is representatives from large donor agencies.

Singer said he has met with the U.S. Agency for International Development, U.K. Department for International Development, and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, where he is based.

When Devex asked what success would look like from those conversations, he responded that “Aid would be much more focused on the people in the greatest need.”

Singer includes the Sustainable Development Goals in his new book, and narrows in on Goal 1, “End poverty in all its forms everywhere.”

“If the funds now allocated to foreign aid were used in the most effective manner, they should be sufficient to end extreme poverty,” he writes.

Yet only 2% of foreign aid goes to income support, with the majority going to provide physical infrastructure or strengthen institutions, Singer explained.

“It would be worth experimenting with more aid going to income support programs, especially if local programs pioneered by nongovernment organizations like GiveDirectly continue to show positive outcomes,” he said.

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Catherine also works for the Solutions Journalism Network, a non profit that trains and connects reporters to cover responses to problems.