Peter Singer: Change a little to make a big difference

This is the right time to ask yourself: what ought I be doing to help the world’s poor?
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When he saw the man fall on to the subway tracks, Wesley Autry didn't hesitate. With the lights of the oncoming train visible, Autry, a construction worker, jumped on the tracks and pushed the man down into a drainage trench between the rails, covering him with his own body. The train passed over them, leaving a trail of grease on Autry's cap. Autry, later invited to the state of the union address and praised by the president for his bravery, downplayed his actions: "I don't feel like I did something spectacular. I just saw someone who needed help. I did what I felt was right."

What if I told you that you, too, can save a life, even many lives? Do you have a bottle of water or a can of soda on the table beside you as you read this? If you are paying for something to drink when safe drinking water comes out of the tap, you have money to spend on things you don't really need. Around the world, a billion people struggle to live each day on less than you paid for that drink. Because they can't afford even the most basic health care for their families, their children may die from simple, easily treatable diseases like diarrhoea. You can help them, and you don't have to risk getting hit by an oncoming train to do it.

We live in a unique moment. 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. Most important, rich and poor are now linked in ways they never were before.

The economist Jeffrey Sachs has argued convincingly that extreme poverty can be virtually eliminated by the middle of this century. We are already making progress. In 1960, according to Unicef, 20 million children died before their fifth birthday because of poverty. In 2007, Unicef announced that, for the first time since record-keeping began, the number of deaths of young children has fallen below 10 million a year. Public health campaigns against smallpox, measles, and malaria have contributed to the drop in child mortality, as has economic progress in several countries. The drop is even more impressive because the world's population has more than doubled since 1960. Yet we can't become complacent: 9.7 million children under five still die annually; this is an immense tragedy, not to mention a moral stain on a world as rich as this one. And the combination of economic uncertainty and volatile food prices that marked 2008 could still reverse the downward trend in poverty-related deaths.

We can liken our situation to an attempt to reach the summit of an immense mountain. For all the aeons of human existence, we have been climbing up through dense cloud. We haven't known how far we have to go, nor whether it is even possible to get to the top. Now at last we have emerged from the mist and can see a route up the remaining steep slopes and on to the summit ridge. The peak still lies some distance ahead.

There are sections of the route that will challenge our abilities to the utmost, but we can see that the ascent is feasible.

We can, each of us, do our part in this epoch-making climb. In recent years there's been a good deal of coverage of some among the very rich who have taken on this challenge in a bold and public way. That's why this is the right time to ask yourself: what ought I be doing to help? And I would challenge you to think about our obligations to those trapped in extreme poverty. Indeed, I 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. This may sound absurd, and yet the argument for it is remarkably simple. It goes back to that bottle of water, to the money we spend on things that aren't really necessary. If it is so easy to help people in real need through no fault of their own, and yet we fail to do so, aren't we doing something wrong?

You'll be happy to know that I fully realise the need to step back from the demanding standards of a philosophical argument to ask what will really make a difference in the way we act. I acknowledge the bounds of human nature and yet there are examples of people who seem to have found a way to push those bounds further than most. And I believe there is a reasonable standard that, for 95 per cent of people living in affluent countries, can be met by giving no more than 5 per cent of their income.

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. That's a higher annual death rate than in the Second World War. In the past 20 years alone, it adds up to more deaths than were caused by all the civil and international wars and government repression of the entire 20th century, the century of Hitler and Stalin.

How much would we give to prevent those horrors? Yet how little are we doing to prevent today's even larger toll, and all the misery that it involves? Look honestly and carefully at our situation, assessing both the facts and the ethical arguments, and you will agree that we must act.

This is an edited extract from 'The Life You Can Save', published by Picador at £14.99. Peter Singer will be discussing the book at Stratford Circus, Theatre Square, Stratford, London E15, tomorrow at 6pm