Direct Charity Funds Overseas - Peter Singer
8 May 2015 at 5:46 pm
Australian academic and international activist Peter Singer has called for an increase in the aid budget and for charitable funds to be diverted overseas, where he says they can have greater impact.
Presenting his keynote address at the Progress 2015 Conference in Melbourne, Singer said he didn’t subscribe to the idea that one charitable cause could not be deemed worthier than another, and suggested that Not for Profits, philanthropists and Government could do the greatest good by simply directing their assistance to those in poverty in developing nations.
The prominent moral philosopher framed his argument with the concept of Effective Altruism, which encourages people to think not just about making the world a better place, but rather, to think about making the biggest possible positive difference and doing the most good they can do.
Effective Altruism, Singer said, takes a universal perspective, rather than focusing only on the local community.
“This may be a challenge to some organisations represented here, but the idea is to think how you can do the most good in general,” he said.
“[Effective Altruism is] often not through local community because if you live in an affluent country, such as Australia, the community does not have such great need, so you can’t [make] as much of a difference.”
“I don't think it belittles the challenges faced by [Australian communities]. A lot of the disadvantaged people in our society face some really serious challenges. But what we have to think is where can we do the most good?”
Singer said the needs of Australian communities, where health care, clean water and education were readily available, could not stand up to the needs of those living in extreme poverty overseas.
“One thing I certainly would not do is cut the aid program, in fact, I would increase it,” he said.
“The cuts we’ve had and the proposed cuts would take Australia’s aid to its lowest level on a per capita level, it’s lowest level for 40 years…”
The UN, he added, recommended the giving of 70 cents of aid for every $100 earned per capita, while Australia sat at only 23 cents.
“We are not only nowhere near it, but going backwards…are we just stingier?” Singer asked.
“Your money will go further if it helps people living on 700 dollars a year than if you help people who are significantly better off.”
Those principles, he said, could also be applied to the philanthropic sector.
“One of the things Effective Altruism wants to do is the transform the philanthropy sector so you can make the biggest difference,” Singer said, adding that it was a mistake to assume one philanthropic cause couldn’t be prioritised over another.
He compared two philanthropic gifts: a $1 billion contribution by Ted Turner for prevention of poverty-related illnesses in children in the third world and the construction of a children’s hospital in the wealthy Californian city of Palo Alto.
While the former gift resulted in a dramatic reduction in deaths at a cost of as little as $80 per life saved, at the Californian Hospital, a pro bono operation to separate conjoined twins saved two lives at a cost of over $1 million.
“Those lives that can that cheaply be saved are already being saved, are already taken care of,” Singer said.
“[Separating the twins was] a good thing to do but if you have scarce resources you can’t do everything with them. Effective Altruists will say you ought to use it in the best way you can, which would be in developing countries, not in affluent communities.”
Singer passionately proclaimed that he couldn’t see how the funding of renovations for New York entertainment venue The Lincoln Centre could stand up to saving lives.
“I dont think it is just as good…I don’t think it’s as important that wealthy Manhattanites can sit in a nicely renovated theatre as it is whether children live or die,” he declared.
He dismissed concerns that human tendencies towards greed and power could not be overcome.
“I think it would be unduly pessimistic to think they necessarily dominate the nature of human beings,” he said.
“I think what happens is, there are these conflicting motives in human beings and they can be reinforced or repressed, so one of the things that's really important is what the culture’s like that you’re in.
“What we need to do is build up that critical mass. Don’t just be altruistic, but get other people to talk about it.”
Singer is currently the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, and a Laureate Professor at the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne.
His address came on the first day of the biennial conference, which focuses on social innovation and brings together Not for Profits, academics, philanthropists, business representatives and others to explore solutions to Australia’s social challenges.