When I published The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty earlier this year, I was frequently asked if this isn’t the wrong time to ask affluent people to increase their efforts to end poverty in other countries. Emphatically not, I reply. There is no doubt that the world’s economy is in trouble. But for either governments or individuals to use this as an excuse to reduce assistance to the world’s poorest people would only multiply the seriousness of the problem for the world as a whole.
Without in any way minimizing the economic and psychological blow that people experience when they lose their jobs, there can be no doubt that the financial crisis has been more damaging for the poor than it has for the rich. The unemployed in affluent countries still have a safety net, in the form of social security payments and usually free health care and free education for their children. It goes without saying that they also have sanitation and safe drinking water. The poor in developing countries have none of these benefits, and for an estimated 18 million of them each year that proves fatal. That’s a higher annual death toll than the annual average during World War II, and it’s easier to prevent. Of those who die from avoidable, poverty-related causes, nearly 10 million of them, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), are children under five. They die from diseases such as measles, diarrhea, and malaria that are easy and inexpensive either to prevent or to treat.
We feel the pain of falling back from a level of affluence to which we have grown accustomed, but most people in developed nations are still, by historical standards, extraordinarily well off. Here’s one way to appreciate that. Ask yourself: have you, in the past week, bought something to drink—perhaps a bottle of water, a beer, or a coffee—when there was tap water available at no cost? If you did, that’s a luxury that the world’s poorest billion people can’t afford, because they have to live for an entire day on what you spent on just one of those drinks.
One other reason that we can afford to increase the amount of aid we give is that the amount we are giving now is insignificant in comparison to what we spend on other things. The United States government, for example, spends about $22 billion on foreign aid, and Americans privately put in perhaps another $10 billion, for a total of $32 billion. Compared to the $787 billion stimulus package signed by President Barack Obama in February, that’s a trivial amount—and of course that particular stimulus package wasn’t the end of the spending aimed at spurring recovery. U.S. aid is less than 25 cents for every $100 Americans earn. Of course, some nations do better: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg all exceed the United Nations target of donating 0.7 percent of gross national income in foreign aid. But though these nations are the world’s leaders, 70 cents in every $100 is still not a lot for the purpose of dealing with one of the great moral problems of our age.
If extreme poverty is allowed to increase, it will give rise to new problems. The annual poverty-related death toll for children under five, which according to UNICEF has been falling steadily in recent years—and for the first time dipped below 10 million in 2007—could rise above that figure again. New diseases will develop in nations without the resources to provide health care and will spread to rich nations. Poverty will lead to more refugees seeking to move, whether legally or not, to rich nations. When there is eventually an economic recovery, the global economy will be smaller than it would have been if all the world’s people were able to take part in it.
Nor is the global financial crisis a justification for the world’s leaders to fail to keep their word. Nearly nine years ago at the Millennium Development Summit in New York, the leaders of 180 nations, including all the major affluent nations, promised that by 2015 they would together achieve the Millennium Development Goals. These goals included halving the proportion of the world’s people living in poverty and ensuring that children everywhere are able to take a full course of primary-school education. Since that meeting in 2000, the commitments made by most nations have fallen short of what is required, and 2015 is now only six years away. If we cut back on aid, we will fail to keep our promise; poorer nations will learn, once again, that the rich talk a good line about reducing world poverty, but their actions fall short of their words. That is not a good basis for future cooperation between rich and poor on issues such as climate change.
Finally, we should maintain our commitment to helping the poor, because if anything good comes out of this global financial crisis, it will be a reassessment of our basic values and our priorities. We need to decide what really matters, and it isn’t buying more and more consumer goods. It’s family, friends, and knowing that we are doing something worthwhile with our lives. Helping to reduce the appalling death toll of world poverty should be part of that.