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The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty By Peter Singer Random House 210 pages, $22 ACTiNO NOW TO END WORLD POVERTY PETER SINGER p ublishers ought to post a warning on the cover of any book by philosopher Peter Singer: CautionContents may cause dramatic changes in the way you live your life. More than 30 years ago, I read Animal Liberation, Singer’s compelling case against speciesism, the arrogant belief that other animals exist to feed, clothe and entertain us. I have not swallowed a morsel of meat since. Despite its unremarkable cover price, Singer’s latest effort aspires to be the most expensive book of a lean year. Its purpose is to persuade readers to part with significant portions of their personal capital. Singer, an Australian who has taught at Princeton since 1999, argues that the most effective way to eliminate extreme poverty is for those living comfortably to sacrifice a fair share of their wealth. A fair share, by Singer’s calculation, is a bountiful portion: “[W] e must give until if we gave more, we would be sacrificing something nearly as important as the bad things our donation can prevent.” Singer argues that those bad thingsmalnutrition, homelessness, disease, despair, early deathcould be prevented if readers chose to forgo luxuries that only seem necessary. According to the World Bank, 1.4 billion of the world’s 6.7 billion people live in extreme poverty, defined as subsistence on less than $1.25 per day. The fact that 27,000 children die daily from avoidable causes is an outrage, as well as the starting point for the advancement of Singer’s moral argument: “If it is within your power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything nearly as important, it is wrong not to do so.” In other words, by redirecting our wealth to programs that help the world’s poorest, we can do the right thing. Singer’s ideas are making their way into print as a large chunk of our national wealth has been evaporating. Yet despite the failure of financial institutions and devastating spikes in unemployment and foreclosures, most Americans remain far better off than the poverty-stricken in Bangladesh and Burkina Faso. What does it cost to do the right thing? According to a government study, Americans waste $100 billion worth of food every year. The money Americans spent in 2006 on 31 billion liters of bottled water might have brought potable water to destitute villagers in Africa and Asia. According to fashion designer Deborah Lindquist, Singer writes, “the average American woman owns more than $600 worth of clothing that she has not worn in the last year.” Given such profligacy, who but the most heartless Malthusian would be unwilling to sacrifice between $200 and $2,000, Singer’s estimated cost of saving a life in Chad or Haiti? According to the relief organization Nothing But Nets, a $10 mosquito net can save a child from death by malaria. Students Partnership Worldwide has been providing arsenic filters for drinking water in Nepal for $3.33 per family. Still, the total price for protecting the vulnerable from starvation, dehydration and disease remains imprecise. Even if we could feed, shelter and inoculate a Congolese child for a week or a month or a year, what would it take to immunize that child from the lethal effects of war? Singer doesn’t say. Because the truly wretched of the earth do not live in the United States, where destitution rarely means starvation, Singer contends that even in the current recession, our charitable efforts should be aimed abroad. Although he suggests that all developing nations share a responsibility to aid the truly poor, his book is aimed primarily at one of the world’s richest nations, the United States. One might liken Singer to Mrs. Jellyby, the Bleak House character Charles Dickens mocks for her “telescopic philanthropy”an obsession with helping African unfortunates that leads her to neglect her own familyexcept that Singer himself dismisses mockery of Mrs. Jellyby as a relic of a bygone age, before globalization and instant communications made indifference to the rest of the world a reckless indulgence. It has become increasingly difficult for philanthropy to distinguish between telescopes and microscopes. While isolation may be an illusion, the United States remains stingier than any government but Greece in allocating foreign aid, spending a scant 18 cents for every $100 of national income. Even with private giving factored in, the total comes to only 25 cents for every $100. Though the United States continues to donate more than other countries in terms of raw dollars, the U.S. can and should, Singer argues, boost the percentage of wealth it contributes to combat poverty abroad. In Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for REVIEW Call to Alms BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN 24 THE TEXAS OBSERVER APRIL 3, 2009