Bill Easterly on Peter Singer's The Life You Can Save

Is failing to give more to Oxfam or Unicef akin to failing to save a drowning child? Bill Easterly says no: 

Unfortunately, there are several differences between these two situations. The most important is that you know exactly what to do to save the child, whereas it is not at all clear that you (or anyone else) knows exactly what to do to save the lives of poor children or how to get them out of extreme poverty. Another difference is that you are the one acting directly to save the drowning child, whereas there are multiple intermediaries between you and the poor child — an international charity, an official aid agency, a government, a local aid worker.

Easterly says Singer never faces up the severity of this problem and argues, more or less, that the frequent failure of intermediaries weakens the obligation of ordinary citizens of wealthy societies and should refocus some of our sense of moral failing toward these institutions and those responsible for their ineffectuality. Easterly concludes with an illustrative anecdote: 

My co-worker Diane Bennett recently related her experience from 2001 to the present as a charity worker desperately trying to stop repeated measles epidemics in the eastern part of Upper Nile State in South Sudan. Each measles epidemic killed hundreds of children, whose graveyards surrounded local villages. Urgent pleas to the World Health Organization and Unicef (the latter one of Mr. Singer's favored charities) for measles vaccines were met with bureaucratic excuses for inaction, or promises were made and not kept. A new measles epidemic broke out in 2008, WHO and Unicef still had yet to deliver, and hundreds more died. As of this writing, there are still no vaccines in the eastern part of Upper Nile State, more than seven years after the first pleas for help.
Mr. Singer is a compelling moral voice seeking far more compassion for those who have the least. But why has so little changed, despite decades of effort and billions spent? There is plenty of blame to go around — more than “The Life You Can Save” admits.

Of course, the fact that giving charities helping poor children isn't a moral imperative on all fours with saving a drowning child doesn't mean you shouldn't give more. You should. But I also wish Peter Singer would use his heft to push for the biggest potential utility-maximizer: the liberalization of immigration restrictions.
[HT: Jonathan Dingel]

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

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