Pondering the palimpsest and panoply of the planet.

How to End Poverty

One of the greatest tragedies on the planet today is the fact that there is an abundance of food and resources for every human to live comfortably, yet billions of people–half of the world population–live in extreme poverty while the richest 1% of the population own a full 50% of the world’s “wealth” (meaning: resources). I would never argue that the rich need to be deprived of their wealth, but surely we could find a way to alleviate the struggle for subsistence and survival of the poorest majority of our fellow humans without creating an undue strain on the rich. To borrow a phrase much-maligned in America, surely we could “share the wealth” a bit better. Even without considering the apparent ethical obligation to help those most in need, it would seem that helping eliminate as much poverty as possible would have a huge net positive impact on the political and economic stability of every country in the world, not to mention the rich individuals and private corporations that own a majority of the existing wealth. It is quite possible technically, but lacks only political will. In the USA, to name one prominent example, the annual defense budget (including expenditures which are not defensive in nature) routinely tops $1 Trillion if we figure in intelligence, “homeland” security, and off-budget war expenses. This figure is overwhelmingly enormous and bloated past any semblance of reasonable need. For a small fraction of this tax-payer money (say, 10%), we could end extreme poverty and provide free education to everyone not just in the US but in the world for at least 10 years. What amounts to a rounding error in the defense budget could instantly end the unnecessary suffering of countless fellow humans, a disproportionate number of which are children. Our first priority should be to elect politicians who care about things like income inequality and appear to sympathize with humans outside their own circle. Even when this is not possible, we can always take matters into our own hands with effective altruism.

In 1999, the United Nations announced the birth of the 6th Billion person, and 13 years later the 7th Billion person. All population forecasts predicts at least 9 Billion people by the year 2050, and possibly 11 Billion or more. For anyone interested in possible ramifications of such supposed ‘over-population’, there are many books, films, and articles 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 11 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 both humanist and utilitarian principles, as well as politically and economically expedient as I have already mentioned. I will first propose a theoretical solution to poverty which remains, at best, a long-term project. Then, I will offer my opinion on the best immediately 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 a way to end poverty that theoretically works most of the time: the empowerment of women. There are certainly 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 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 voting rights 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 immediate 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, it seems highly likely that the best use of your resources in most cases 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, but you are encouraged to weigh the matter yourself accordingly.

Therefore, how much money should you give 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, and it would decrease suffering and improve the lives of many more. Imagine how much more you could help with even more 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.

The keyword I use is “effective”. So how do you find an effective, meaningful, and trustworthy charity? There are so many out there all seemingly doing good work, right? There are some organizations that measure and rank 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 one of the most respected organizations that rates charities, and you can assess their criteria for yourself and choose the charity that most appeals to you. They have studied hundreds of charitable organizations each year and give a totally transparent methodology to their ranking. Currently, they have given four groups their “top” status, which are Against Malaria Foundation, GiveDirectly (I find this one to be especially appealing and half of my giving this year has gone to them), Schistomiasis Control Initiative, and Deworm the World Initiative. They also list four more “standout” charities which are highly effective, though less so than the first four.

The philosopher Peter Singer has written a book called The Life You Can Save in which he argues for the rich world to help alleviate poverty and suffering in the rest of the world. He runs a website of the same name which also ranks the top 16 international charities according to different criteria. It is worth mentioning that their is significant overlap with some of the top charities at Givewell. I would recommend doing your own research and choosing ways to give which seem most important to you.

There is reason to believe that the most generous societies are also the happiest overall, as this article by the Guardian shows. The only question now 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 almost 2015, there are now close to 8 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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