Book Review – The life you can save…

Alert – Long Post.

My dear friend Neeraj has always suggested some amazing books, right from the time we were in school together and this book is probably one of the best that he has recommended to me ever. It took me a while to read it because I have marked so many passages to re-read ! If I had read this book when it was first published in 2009, I might have felt a lot guiltier for not doing enough. This time around, with ShikshaDaan in full swing, I feel a lot better, but still, there is a lot to do.

Don’t read further if “giving” does not interest you. Do not read any of Peter Singer’s books if “giving” does not interest you, because you will not enjoy it and God forbid, if the book reaches inside you and turns you into a giver, the guilt pangs will be high :). BLOT – The poor in the world are where they are because “intelligent” human beings have kept them there. Read the first statement that caught my attention –

“The proportion of people unable to meet their basic physical needs is smaller today than it has been at any time in recent history, and perhaps at any time since humans first came into existence. At the same time, when we take a long-term perspective that sees beyond the fluctuations of the economic cycle, the proportion of people with far more than they need is also unprecedented.” And that’s an amazing observation – while poverty has reduced, wealth has also increased significantly and if the “intelligent” “well-to-do” people were to make it their mission to eradicate poverty, they certainly can. And no, not through doles. People today spend more money on a cup of coffee at a cafe than giving for charity. It is perfectly acceptable to waste food at parties and marriages (in India) while millions of people are dying of hunger. That is what is wrong with the world today.

I loved this statement in the book – “I’ll suggest that it may not be possible to consider ourselves to be living a morally good life unless we give a great deal more than most of us would think it realistic to expect human beings to give.” So true. We have so much more than what we “NEED” and still go on accumulating, without a single thought for what that money can do for a poor person.

The rate at which am quoting from the book, I may end up rewriting the whole book :). Here’s one more to close off just the preface – “While I don’t seek to diminish in any way the challenges that attend tough economic times, we should remember that even in the worst of times, our lives remain infinitely better than those of people living in extreme poverty. I’m hoping that you will look at the larger picture and think about what it takes to live ethically in a world in which 18 million people are dying unnecessarily each year.” The highlights and italics are mine just to emphasise that part of the statement. And I got hooked. Over the next several pages and chapters, I disagreed with Peter on the work that certain global NGOs do, especially in India, but never with his emphasis on giving and helping someone else to live a better life. Unfortunately in India, some of the global NGOs are involved in political backroom manoeuvres and some in adding huge numbers to the Church. While those converting to Christianity are doing so for economic reasons and in a way that helps them move out of poverty, the challenge is, its changing the cultural fabric of India – completely uncalled for. Can the government and the religious majority do more to alleviate poverty in India?, heck, yes and they have to do a LOT more.

Let me highlight the passages that caught my attention chapter by chapter –

Chapter 1 – Saving a child.

I disagree with Peter Singer on this observation of his “UNICEF, Oxfam, and many other organizations are working to reduce poverty and provide clean water and basic health care, and these efforts are reducing the toll. If the relief organizations had more money, they could do more…..”. The reason I disagree is, UNICEF does get a lot of money, but a pittance reaches the end beneficiary. I will never understand the concept of tax free salaries for folks working with the aid agencies or NGOs, even though a similar salary that Krishnan earned helped us to recover from our bankruptcy. Also the really big charities like UNICEF need to come clean on the salaries they pay to their employees. I get the point that people need to be paid, but if they are paid as well as a private corporation employee then a large share of my donation goes to fund that and I am not interested.

The second statement that just refused to let go of me was this – “When Dr. Timothy Jones, an archaeologist, led a U.S. goverment-funded study of food waste, he found that 14 percent of household garbage is perfectly good food that was in its original packaging and not out of date.” “According to Dr. Jones, $100 billion of food is wasted in the United States every year.” I started eating less ever since I read this … I have always disliked wasting food and my father was almost militant about finishing what I put on my plate and his constant refrain would be “there are millions out there who are dying for lack of food and you cannot waste a morsel.” He was so right.

Chapter 2 – Is it wrong not to help?

Read this – “Giving to strangers, especially those beyond one’s community, may be good, but we don’t think of it as something we have to do.” Now read this – “There are people dying from famine on the roads, and you do not issue the stores of your granaries for them. When people die, you say, “It is not owing to me; it is owing to the year.” In what does this differ from stabbing a man and killing him, and then saying “It was not I, it was the weapon?”” The second statement will bring harsher memories to Indian minds … that young girl saying the war killed her dad and not Pakistanis. But seriously, think about these disastrous situations like famine, floods etc and evaluate your response. In India, every year hundreds of farmers commit suicide for a paltry loan that they are unable to repay. How many of us working and earning well, eating and wasting the food that that farmer produced, bother to pay off his loan and stop a suicide? We dont even have to pay off, many of us have the ability and knowledge to help him get an extension or a write off from the loan giving bank or institution, and that too will save his life, but we just don’t. I haven’t done anything for a single farmer except give scholarships to a few of their children….. can I do more, YES. To Peter’s question – It is absolutely wrong not to help. But we still do the wrong stuff!

Chapter 3 – Common Objections to Giving

Hahahaha you will find your reason here, worry not and I am not getting into them. An observation by Claude Rosenberg (founder of RCM Capital management, who passed away in 2008), is spot on – “… the rate at which the cost of fixing social problems grows is “exponentially greater” than the rate of return on capital”. So he suggests that you give early and help stem the social problem from growing. Not easy to do, but certainly something to mull over.

Chapter 4 – Why dont we give more?

Rather than getting into individual quotes – this chapter explores the psychology behind giving and I agree with almost all the reasons given here. The next chapter gave an idea that am trying to implement.

Chapter 5 – Creating a culture of giving

This resonates with me because I have tried to create the culture of giving in the companies that I worked for and amidst friends. This chapter shared the “Opt-in” and “Opt-out” methods of giving – read about the organ donation programs of Germany and Austria to understand this concept. Basically, you design the giving program in such a way that people have a choice of opting out rather than making them to opt into the program by filling some forms or registering somewhere. Fewer people opt-out because there is still innate goodness in people, but getting people to opt into a program by filling some forms is difficult because there is also inertia of action. Giving is a spur of the moment decision, if there a few moments of delay, the thought of giving may be lost.

Chapter 6 – How much does it cost to save a life

Do read this chapter several times to understand how the money that you give to charity actually gets utilised. The only thing that I will say to Peter is – I would like to see Charity Navigator publish the salaries being paid in charities and aid agencies like UNICEF, American Red Cross etc besides the administrative expenses. Its a little hard to believe that UNICEF spends just 5% on administrative expenses. Obviously salaries aren’t a part of it. There is an amazing example of OXFAM working with ragpickers in Pune and the success of the program. So thrilled to read about it.

Chapter 7- Improving Aid.

What can I say, just read this paragraph – “….Nor is it only the United States that gives aid to serve political aims rather than to help the extremely poor. Branko Milanovic, an economist at the World Bank, has examined the 2001 country-to-country aid disbursed by most OECD countries, and found that bilateral aid from the European Union—that is, the program run by the EU itself, which is separate from the individual aid programs of its member nations—is even more skewed than U.S. aid toward nations with a per capita income above the world average. Bilateral aid from Australia and Canada in that year was also pro-rich in the sense that richer countries received more money in per capita terms than did poorer countries.”

I have almost highlighted this entire chapter because its full of ugly truths in what rich countries do in the name of aid. Anyway, the tone is hopeful and upbeat, its not about crying over what hasn’t been done, its about improving over what has been done. So do read this chapter carefully.

Just one more statement that got my goat – ”

The world is not running out of food. The problem is that we—the relatively affluent—have found a way to consume four or five times as much food as would be possible, if we were to eat the crops we grow directly.” And then we spend money on childhood obesity, lifestyle problems like diabetes and the Pharma companies make money… the poor remain skeletal and malnourished. Hard not to feel depressed about our stupidity.

The last three chapters are about “A new standard for giving”. Some ideas are a little too philosophical and far fetched like this one – “No principle of obligation is going to be widely accepted unless it recognizes that parents will and should love their own children more than the children of strangers, and, for that reason, will meet the basic needs of their children before they meet the needs of strangers. But this doesn’t mean that parents are justified in providing luxuries for their children ahead of the basic needs of others.” Try saying that to any parent in India. I agree with it completely, I infact want to go a step further and say, that people should NOT have biological children till every orphan is adopted. A human child is a human child, irrespective of which womb they are born from. Indians especially need to stop having children for the next 30 years to get the population down to realistic levels. If not stop, atleast slow down, for your child’s sake – there will be no resources left.

I will be reading this book a few times more and will refer to it frequently to shape the way we develop ShikshaDaan. Krishnan and I believe that education is the way to attack poverty on many levels and we hope that is the right thinking. In the meantime, am clearing out my wardrobe and kitchen of stuff that I dont need and give even more to “Goonj” so it reaches those who need it. There are many ways to help the poor, find a way and go help…. just feeling sad during your evening party on a Friday night is not sufficient.

Peter Singer, outstanding book and expect a ping from me :).


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