The Life You Can Save - A Review

How to Act Now to End World Poverty

Two young African boys.
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The Life You Can Save: How to Do Your Part to End World Poverty, Peter Singer, Random House, 2010

There are enough statistics in this little book to make one's head spin.

The most telling statistic, of course, is that there are 1.4 billion people in the world who are living on $1.25 or less per day (the poverty line as set by the World Bank).

Despite these daunting figures, Peter Singer wants to convince us that 1) global poverty can be eradicated and 2) we are all capable of giving more to accomplish that goal without actually depriving ourselves.

Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University and author of some 30 books on various aspects of ethical behavior. He is perhaps best known for his work in the animal rights movement and his book, Animal Liberation.

In The Life You Can Save, Singer has produced a compelling case for why people in rich countries (especially the U.S.) should be giving more to eradicate poverty in developing countries, and he provides practical tips on just how to do that.

It took me a lot longer to read this book than most because it is nutrient rich. There is so much information packed into each page that I had to put it down frequently so I could digest what I had just read. Singer covers a lot of ground. Here is my take on the highlights of this powerful book.

Humans have evolved to be suspicious of helping strangers.

It has been evolutionarily advantageous to keep charity at home. Consequently, there are some psychological hangups that we all have when it comes to giving, especially to strangers.

For instance, we feel less personal responsibility if we think others will pick up the slack; or a sense of futility can set in if we believe that giving will help only a small number of people out of a large group.

We can all agree that we would risk our lives to save a drowning child right in front of us, but find a thousand reasons not to help a dying child that we will never see across the world. We know that altruism does exist but get hung up on whether it is based on self-interest rather than a genuine desire to help.

Singer tells us to get over it. He says:

"The long-running debate about whether humans are capable of genuine altruism is, in practical terms, less significant than the question of how we understand our own interests. Will we understand them narrowly, concentrating on acquiring wealth and power for ourselves? Do we think that our interests are best fulfilled by a lifestyle that displays our economic success by our ostentatious consumption or as many expensive items as possible? Or do we include among our interests the satisfaction that comes from helping others?"

People living in rich countries do not give nearly enough to charity.

The U.S., for instance, ranks as the third most generous nation (when donations and volunteer time are combined), behind the Netherlands and Sweden. But, Singer points out, less than 10% of our charity goes to aid people in developing countries.

If you think our government's international aid lets us off the hook, Singer says you are flat wrong. First, our government doesn't give that much, and most of it is misspent on political aims that have little to do with helping the poor.

Singer flatly states that the work of eradicating global poverty will have to be accomplished through private donations to NGOs (Nongovernmental Organizations, also known as charities).

Singer proposes that wealthy Americans should give significantly more (starting at 5% and up according to income) and that the rest of us can give more (perhaps 1% of gross income) without impairing our standard of living or depriving our families.

He provides a chart of proposed giving on his website and provides us with a 7-point plan to follow to become part of the solution to world poverty.

We worry too much about the "efficiency" of charities.

Organizations that rate charities focus on how much a charity spends on overhead and fundraising. These measures are useful, Singer says, but don't get at whether a charity is effective in meeting its mission.

Singer provides some clues about charities that are doing a reasonable job of measuring effectiveness; points us to organizations that are looking for effective charities; and reminds us that some things really can't be measured very well.

The bottom line for Singer is that saving a life in a third world country is inexpensive compared to saving one in a wealthy country and thus is a bargain that we should support even if there is some leakage. 

Singer concludes that the cost of saving a life through a reasonably effective charity working in an impoverished nation ranges between $200 and $2000; while the median cost of saving a life in the U.S. is $2.2 million. Singer says:

"There are many organizations doing good work that offer opportunities worth supporting and not knowing which is the very best shouldn't be an excuse for not giving to any of them."

Most of us don't often ponder how to live an ethical life, so Singer's little book gives us a taste of how to do that.

You will be moved to tears by the stories of outstanding people who have given their lives as well as their fortunes to helping others; twist your brain around the ethical dilemmas posed by philosophers throughout history; and be intrigued by stories from Singer's classroom at Princeton as he opens young minds to the intricacies of moral behavior.

You may, also, set off on your own philanthropic journey.

Peter Singer has many followers and not a few critics.  Not everyone can be as logical about their giving decisions as Singer would like us to be. However, he knows his charities and which ones are most effective.

You could do worse than take a look at the organizations he often champions. Here are just a few. To see more and join Singer's movement, visit his website.

Start Your Philanthropic Journey With These Charities

Oxfam International

Oxfam is thirteen organizations that work across the globe on issues ranging from poverty to the environment. To donate, you will need to go to your country's Oxfam site. There is also an incredible catalog,  Oxfam Unwrapped, that you can use to gift others with a donation.

Global Giving

Global Giving is not specific to global poverty, but you can give to individual projects by topic (animals to technology) and by world region (Africa to the Caribbean). There is an enormous range of projects, each of which gives the donor the feeling of helping someone quite specific. Plus there are as many ways to give and levels of giving as one can think of. The only problem with using this site is just making up your mind.

Fistula Foundation

Fistulas are terrible obstetric injuries that often afflict young women in developing countries. They can be repaired easily and cheaply with proper surgical techniques. This organization supports work done by Catherine Hamlin in Ethiopia in addressing this terrible problem.

International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF)

Population growth is at the heart of global poverty. This organization works around the globe to reduce population growth through birth control and education.

Population Services International (PSI)

PSI focuses on the distribution of bed nets and condoms in Third World countries where HIV/AIDS and malaria are potent threats to the well-being of at-risk populations. Most recently, the NGO has been working on circumcision as a way to prevent HIV/AIDs with the help of an enormous grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria

We know this organization best through U2 rock star Bono's work. You can give directly to the organization, buy (red) products, where a part of your purchase goes to support The Global Fund, or join the ONE movement, which advocates and supports activists working to eradicate preventable diseases, especially in Africa.

Partners In Health (PIH)

Paul Farmer, the chairperson of Harvard Medical School's Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, is the head of this innovative organization. PIH has worked across the globe to improve the health of impoverished people, especially in Haiti after the earthquake and in West Africa to fight the Ebola epidemic.


Long a leader in its focus on children, UNICEF continues to work on a myriad of fronts across the world to improve the lives of children. UNICEF is part of the United Nations and thus has access to countries, unlike any other organization.

Namlo International

Founded in 1999, Namlo International was started by Magda King, the first woman from Spain to reach the summit of an 8000m peak. In appreciation for the help she received from the Sherpa people during her expeditions, she wanted to give something back and chose education as the best gift. Today,  Namlo works with schools in Nepal and Nicaragua. Education is a wonderful way to combat global poverty. Namlo also offers volunteer travel to people who would like to help in person.


GiveWell is looking for effective charities. Founded by two Wall Street veterans, the organization is developing ways to measure that effectiveness and pick charities that fulfill their requirements. Those requirements go beyond the typical measures of financial efficiency. The organization's research into effectiveness is groundbreaking and may change the way we think about charity. An excellent way to give with peace of mind. Just pick one of the GiveWell causes.