Pondering the palimpsest and panoply of the planet.

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.

From: National Geographic (more statistics when you follow the link)

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.

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7 thoughts on “How to End Poverty

  1. Peter Rudd on said:

    Interesting post. While I agree charity and volunteering helps lots of people, is there a case to be made that good governance is the quickest way toward poverty alleviation? I think it is. Poverty is basically political. I think anti poverty advocates could be most effective when they work toward establishing and maintaining good government in places where there is poverty. For example the maquiladoras in Mexico are poverty mills. With strong governance, there is the hope that workers in these places gain back some control over their lives.

  2. I totally agree with you about good governance, but maybe I am a bit too cynical to believe it is easy to realize. I am of the belief that a stronger foundation in any society that improves women’s rights and education will gradually (over the course of a generation or three) have a better and more well-informed citizenry to call upon to create a new social contract and improve overall governance. Basically, in places where the situation is so dire, I think it is a long road to prosperity in any case, and so my ‘quickest’ solution is actually a long process and struggle. Think: the tortoise and the hare.

  3. Peter Rudd on said:

    I understand your argument and I think it’s right. One more thought on the topic. I feel like we have ‘privatized’ our methods for accomplishing grand projects. In the cases you mention, the charities and agencies that are used. I think there should be a public way of achieving projects for the common good. That’s why I think to regain the belief that government can accomplish these things is critical. Governments are public institutions and are answerable to electors; charities etc are not. I have a hard time believing this simple fact isn’t a root problem when it comes to big issues like poverty.

  4. Yes, governments are indeed public institutions, and it is imperative that there are checks on government power and incentives for government to enact the public policy advocated by the electors. I totally believe that governance is a big issue in all societies, but in order for these checks and balances to occur, and for responsible politicians to be elected in the first place, I think that widespread education and awareness (by all parties, including women and minorities) is the best way to create the conditions by which governance itself is improved. The mechanisms by which the State should be empowered and set policy is another issue unto itself, and one in which I am attempting to make my case at this moment (in favor of a Rawlsian-style liberalism).

  5. Peter Rudd on said:

    I have never read Rawls, perhaps this is the difficulty here. I think checking private power is more important these days than checking public power. Much poverty in the world comes from large businesses – local and foreign – that screw with populations for profit – like the maquiladoras or the sweatshops in China. To me the solution is to put mutually agreed upon checks on those businesses. So far I don’t think anyone has invented a way to check cheating business practice except by government legislation – sorry to drag the State back into it. How does Rawls address the problem of private affairs that when left unchecked damage life and society?

  6. I can’t supply any evidence, but I think Rawls would certainly argue in favor of limitations on private individuals as well as the State. His Liberty Principle notably does not include such things as ‘freedom to make as much money as you want at the expense of everything (and everyone) else’. I’m all in favor of regulations for every private enterprise/industry so that they will not be completely free to make money through exploitation, etc. Once again, it still takes an educated and active citizenry to become legislators, and fight for things like regulations. It’s all a big feedback loop, and we can start to fix society by fixing governance, or fix governance by fixing society. There are many things I would like to change naturally, and on the issue of world poverty, it is my belief that one of the single most effective things for this specific (though huge) issue is to facilitate education and empowerment of women everywhere at every turn.

  7. Peter Rudd on said:

    Agreed. There are some great examples of transformation of society based on women’s education – Kerala for example. Thanks for your comments, have enjoyed it. Also, will continue to enjoy your other posts.

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