Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The End of Poverty

The end of poverty.

If you saw a child in danger of drowning in a shallow pond, and all you had to do to save the child was wade into the pond, and pull him out, would you do so? When I ask my students that, they all say that they would. What if wading into the pond meant that you would ruin your most expensive pair of shoes? That wouldn't make any difference, they insist. A pair of shoes doesn't count when it comes to saving a child's life.

UNICEF, the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund, estimates that about 27,000 children die every day from preventable, poverty-related causes. Meanwhile almost a billion people live very comfortable lives. Even in the current economic downturn, they have money to spare for a bewildering array of gadgets and luxuries. If you don't think you are spending money on luxuries, when did you last spend money on something to drink, when drinkable water was available for nothing? If it was today, or yesterday, then you are spending money on luxuries while children die from malnutrition or diseases that we know how to prevent or cure. What you spent on that bottle of water was probably more than their families have to live on for an entire day.

I wrote The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty in order to change this. If everyone who can afford to contribute to reducing extreme poverty were to give a modest proportion of their income to effective organizations fighting extreme poverty, the problem could be solved. It wouldn't take a huge sacrifice. But there are psychological barriers that prevent us doing so. One chapter of the book draws on recent research in the psychology of giving to describe some of these barriers:

•We are much more likely to help an identifiable individual than to donate to help a group of people.

•When others are also able to help, the diffusion of responsibility makes it less likely that we will help, especially if we do not see the others helping.

•When faced with more people in need than we are able to help, we focus on those we can't help, rather than on those we can help, and conclude that trying to help is futile.

•Money is the obvious means by which most individuals can help those in extreme poverty in other countries, but thinking about money tends to alienate us from others.

How we can use the findings of psychological knowledge to create a culture that is more favorable to giving than our present one. One well-supported finding is that people are more likely to give if they know that others are giving. So we need to be upfront about our giving. Hence I have set up a website where people can pledge that they will meet a standard of giving that I set out in the last chapter of the book. My hope is to build a mutually supportive community of people who give to organizations working against extreme poverty. Each donor will be encouraged by the example of others, and if the community becomes large enough, its presence will encourage others who are not giving to join in.

More from Peter Singer
More from Psychology Today