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The Life You Can Save (Peter Singer): “Back to School” Book Report by Jennifer Landres

October 6, 2011

Jennifer Landres

This is the fourth in a series of “Back to School” book reports by members of our team. We selected books based on their potential to inform not only our own work in identifying high-impact philanthropic opportunities, but also donors interested in improving their philanthropic impact. We hope this series helps make some of our own learning transparent so that others may benefit.

This week’s “Back to School” book report on The Life You Can Save is by Jennifer Landres, Project Manager and Analyst at the Center. 

In a nutshell

  • First premise: Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care are bad.
  • Second premise: If it is in your power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything nearly as important, it is wrong not to do so.
  • Third premise: By donating to aid agencies, you can prevent suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care, without sacrificing anything nearly as important.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, if you do not donate to aid agencies, you are doing something wrong.

Going deeper

In his book, The Life You Can Save, Peter Singer makes the powerful argument for citizens of developed countries to give more to charitable causes that help the poor. A professor of practical ethics who favors a utilitarian approach to problem solving, it is no surprise that the world in which he inhabits is full of moral imperatives. While he clearly states in the preface that he doesn’t set out to make readers feel badly, he nonetheless succeeded with this particular reader. However, if you can power through the guilt, as I did, I believe that Singer makes a compelling case that will cause any donor to stop in their tracks and think: Could I be doing more? 

Singer acknowledges upfront that donors are unlikely to be swayed by a philosophical argument alone. He concedes that even when people change, those changes often aren’t drastic, and they don’t occur overnight. He recognizes that asking donors to give more than their self-perceived fair share or more than almost anyone else gives,

“risks turning them off, and at some level might cause them to question the point of striving to live an ethical life at all. Daunted by what it takes to do the right thing, they might ask themselves why they are bothering to try.”

As an individual with the capacity to donate, the part of the book that I found most interesting and helpful was Singer’s practical examination of giving. Singer writes,

“The argument that we ought to be doing more to save the lives of people living in extreme poverty presupposes that we can do it, and at a moderate cost.”

Once donors have committed to give, how can they ensure that their funds are flowing to where they can have the most impact? As Singer notes (and I agree), the most available facts and figures—overhead ratios, administrative expenses and other supposed indicators of efficacy—often do not measure effectiveness, and tell donors nothing about the impact that the charity has.

Considering cost and impact

Singer goes on to discuss how much it really costs to save a life by taking into account all sorts of underlying assumptions and estimates that are often overlooked by individual nonprofit agents. For example, Singer discusses an organization called Nothing But Nets (NBN), which provides anti-mosquito bed nets to protect children in Africa from malaria. In its literature, NBN mentions that $10 can save a child’s life by providing a net (this cost includes manufacturing and delivery). By that same logic, $100 could save 10 lives! But it’s not that easy.

As Singer goes on to explain, not every net saves a life—some children would have survived without one.  Furthermore, Singer refers to Jeffrey Sachs’ estimate that for every one hundred nets delivered, one child’s life will be saved per year. Per Singer’s calculations, if a net lasts up to five years, at the cost of $10 per net delivered, $1,000 will save one child for five years.

This type of thinking is on the right track, but still doesn’t account for factors we know matter in the real world, such as how many of the bed nets that are delivered will actually be used and used properly; the prevention of debilitating, but nonfatal cases of malaria avoided by use of nets; the loss of livelihood to the families of the sick child; or any number of other implications and effects of malaria.

In our donor guide, Lifting the Burden of Malaria, our team took these and many other underlying assumptions into account. We estimated that delivering insecticide-treated bed nets had an approximate cost-per-impact of $500 to $2,500 per additional child’s life saved, depending on the amount of malaria and the country demographics. (See: How we calculated cost-per-impact in malaria.) As Singer points out,

“it’s difficult to calculate how much it costs to save or transform the life of someone who is extremely poor.  We need to put more resources into evaluating the effectiveness of various programs.”

However, throughout this book, Singer highlights a multitude of strategies and nonprofit agents well poised to make a significant difference for individuals in developing countries in a cost-effective manner.

For donors, this book will help you to see that whether you have $50, $5,000 or $50,000 to spend, you can be involved in life-saving intervention—and that is a decision you can feel good about.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Bruce Landres, MD permalink
    October 6, 2011 11:23 am

    Wow!! This is the best blog I have ever read – meaningful and insightful

    Your Dad

  2. October 12, 2011 6:06 am

    Really made me think about my donations I give in relation to all I have and how little others in the developing world have. I was listening to someone speak last week about Water Aid in Africa and they talked about lack of sanitation they have, no toilets, no running water , not even a well in the village and then it caused me to stop and think I have 4 toilets in my house how selfish is that! Whole villages either share one or don’t have one and I have one for each of my family members!!!
    Time to reasses my giving me thinks!

  3. November 9, 2011 11:21 am

    Its a question i think we should all ask ourselves “could i be doing more?” yet i think most people shy away from this. We are usually cocooned in our own world to think of others and forget that there are many worse off than ourselves.


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