Why charity begins – and stays – at home

24th January, 2009

In 1987, an 18-month old baby named Jessica McClure fell down a narrow disused well in a Texas backyard. It took two and a half days to rescue her, bloodied but alive and alert, after an astonishing media circus. The rescue won a Pulitzer prize for the photographer who captured it, and inspired a TV movie. “Well-wishers” from across the US donated so much money that when Jessica turns 25 she’ll receive a fat trust fund. Media speculation puts it at a nice round $1m.

Jessica’s case was uniquely famous, but $1m is not a remarkable sum of money to save an American life. Government agencies regularly plug larger sums into their cost-benefit calculations, and few voters think they are wrong to do so.

To some extent that’s cheap talk – we’re talking about spending each other’s money, after all. Yet even if we wouldn’t spend $1m of our own money, we would all be willing to make financial sacrifices to save a specific baby. Imagine that you had been passing the back yard at the moment baby Jessica had slipped down the well, had rushed over and peered down to see her just within reach, snagged by a fraying babygro. If you lunged down and grabbed her you could save her life at no risk to your own, but would ruin your new suit – price tag, £300. Would you do it? Unthinkingly and without regret.

Here is the difficulty: faced not with a specific baby right in front of us, but some unnamed baby far away, £300 suddenly seems like a steep price tag. That £300 is a plausible estimate for the cost of enough mosquito nets or health education to save a child’s life in sub-Saharan Africa. Few Britons donate that much to charity each year.

Peter Singer, the utilitarian philosopher, animal rights champion and author of a new book, The Life You Can Save, is disturbed by the equanimity with which we accept the widespread death and suffering of millions of unidentified – but undeniably, real – people in poor countries.

In part this may be because we wrongly believe that our governments have it all covered. Singer reports several surveys suggesting that US citizens think that 15-20 per cent of the US government budget is spent on foreign aid; the true sum is less than one per cent. I suspect that we also worry that £300 will not, in fact, save any lives at all. Much aid money is wasted, and evidence on the effectiveness of aid remains too thin. By coincidence, as Peter Singer’s book crossed my desk, so did a peer-reviewed report on a randomised trial carried out in Ghana by Dr Evelyn Korkor Ansah and others. The trial provided free healthcare to young Ghanaian children, with the result that their families took them to the clinic more often. Yet there was no evidence that the children’s health improved in any way. It’s rare to find such careful evaluation, but not hard to find cases where money has been spent in Africa with no great result, or even with harmful results.

Yet our affluence is so great – just think of the money most of us could save if we drank only tap water – that the hurdle for giving is surely very low. Even if 95 per cent of the money we send to Africa is wasted, £5 to them probably does more good than £100 to us.

The true reason we do not give freely is because of an almost unlimited capacity to put out of our minds the suffering of people we will never meet. One of the effects of Singer’s book is to refocus the reader on that suffering, at least for a while. After I finished the book, I contacted Oxfam to give money. I always knew I didn’t need a new suit; Peter Singer reminded me.

Also published at ft.com.

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