How to End Poverty
Trick or Treat? The United Nations has announced that Halloween this year is the date that will witness the 7th Billion human being joining us together on the planet. This is obviously only a close approximation of the date of this event, since it is as yet impossible to really have any knowledge of the number of humans (or any other animal, for that matter) who are living and dying at any given moment. The US Census Bureau has even placed its estimate of the event a full 5 months later. In 1999, the UN also celebrated the breaking of the 6 Billion person threshold, going so far as to award the title of the 6th Billionth human to a child born in Sarajevo on October 11th of that year. Now, that child has just had his 13th birthday, and there are 1 Billion more humans. For anyone interested in possible ramifications of such supposed ‘over-population’, there are many online articles, opinion pieces, and blogs all weighing in on doomsday scenarios and other predictions of catastrophe deriving from an overly-crowded planet. You will find nothing of the sort here. I have some ideas about future possibilities, including many worst-case scenarios, but I would rather think about what we can do to prevent these things from happening. In any case, I see no reason why the planet could not support 7 or 10 billion (or more) people quite easily if we allocated our resources much more efficiently and equitably. We might even create more total happiness in the process (or ease total suffering), which would seem to be a moral imperative.
Therefore, more than speculating on future outcomes, I would like to propose solutions for present reality. The most important thing we can do at the moment seems to be finding a way to relieve suffering and improve quality of life for the huge numbers of people in the world in extreme poverty. This is completely in accordance with utilitarian principles, which require us to do everything in our power to help bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number. I will first propose a theoretical solution to poverty, which is somewhat academic, and remains, at best, a very long-term project. Then, I will offer my opinion on the best practical solution for relieving suffering and raising the total balance of happiness in the world.
First of all, there can be no doubt that there is one way to end poverty that works 100% of the time: the empowerment of women. There should certainly be other ways to decrease overall poverty, but nothing can hope to be so successful as allowing women to have unalienable rights to control their own sexual reproduction, education, and participation in government and society. Though I feel that this would be the best single panacea we could hope to find, I have qualified it as generally theoretical, and only practical on a very long timeline, due to the complexity of implementing such profound social reforms in countries where they do not currently exist. In order to end poverty, women must have universal access to birth control in a stabile, relatively peaceful environment. This would imply a large amount of population control in the process, which would help to mitigate over-crowding, famine, disease, etc. The main point, however, is that when women can control their own sexual destiny, they can begin to avoid being reduced to a life following the animalistic pattern of being pregnant and giving birth from time of first sexual maturity in the early teenage years. The simple ability to choose when and if to have children will almost always lead to a woman having less children and at a later stage. This introduces more stability in the society, and also allows for more possibility for women to pursue personal development like education. There are myriad of benefits to a larger and more educated workforce that potentially involves 100% rather than 50% of a population, which are increased further with rights of voting and political involvement for women. I could expound on this topic further with statistics and examples, but I would like to keep this point simple and straightforward: there is a natural positive feedback loop that results from the empowerment of women, which benefits society and gradually leads to increased prosperity (and, naturally, less poverty) for everyone.
What can we do to decrease suffering and help to end poverty to the best of our collective abilities with the resources at our disposal? Is it better to volunteer your free time in your community soup kitchen or take a month-long trip to volunteer at a clinic in Africa, or simply to give money to charity and hope for the best? Well, after thinking about it for a couple minutes, it seems intuitive that the best use of your resources involves your money rather than your time. While there may be many personal benefits you may find from volunteering your time for an hour a week, or a week a year somewhere in the name of charity, the fact remains that you would be better served focusing more on making money in order to donate a bigger portion of your income to efficient and full-time charities of your choice. Any number of studies and analyses of charity effectiveness will inevitably confirm these findings. Here is one short example from an article last year.
How much money should you donate and how do you find the most effective and efficient use of your money? If you donated just 10% of your income to charity, that money could literally be used to save dozens of children’s lives over the course of a couple years (or more!), and it would decrease suffering and improve the lives of many more. Imagine how much more you could help with even 20% of your income. I know that it is easier to ignore the enormous level of suffering and poverty in the world, because it can be almost overwhelming, but there is no question that what I have proposed is the most just solution, and the only way we can really hope to make a difference. If only a handful of ‘bleeding hearts’ follow this course, it will not really make a difference (that is, if you count only a few hundreds of children’s lives saved ‘not making much of a difference’), but imagine if a majority of the rich world gave a small percentage of their (more than sufficient) incomes to effective charities to really start to end poverty.
So how do you find an effective, meaningful, and trustworthy charity? There are so many out there, right? There is one organization that measures and ranks the most efficient charities based on a number of specific and verifiable criteria. The common way of representing ‘effectiveness’ can also be given as ‘amount of money required to save one child’s life’. Anything under $200 is very effective. You could send that relatively small amount of money right now to certain charities to literally save a child’s life and help to ensure a more fulfilled existence for a fellow human being. How much money would you spend to save your own life? How much money do you think you could be ransomed for, or would you sacrifice to save a drowning child (your own?) in a pool in front of you? The fact is, you can save someone everyday for a remarkably low amount of money, and improve the quality of life for many other human beings in this world right now. Can you think of anything better you can do with some of your extra spending cash?
Givewell is the name of the organization, and you can assess their criteria for yourself and choose the charity that most appeals to you.
Another large charity organization is Global Giving, and this specific cause, the Girl Effect Challenge, is an example of an effective charity that also doubles as one that helps to educate and empower women. It’s like getting two for the price of one. You can choose the causes that you like the most.
If you need any more incentive, there is also reason to believe that the most generous societies are also the happiest overall, as this article shows.
Also, here is an article in which the utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer makes an even more convincing case for giving to charity in order to ease suffering. The logic of the argument is virtually unassailable, and the only question is whether we will actually act upon what we know to be the best thing to do in order to make the world a better place. It is 2011, there are now 7 Billion of us on Earth, and we can control our own destiny as to what kind of world we want to live in.