As Bob drives over a railway crossing, his BMW stalls and he can’t start it up again. He gets out of his car to work out what can be done. A curious child comes along to see what’s going on. Along comes a driverless, out-of-control train, speeding toward the crossing. Bob has time to push one out of harms way: the car or the child. Faced with this dillema, which will he choose?
Australian ethicist, Peter Singer, argues that this challenge is a metaphor for the challenge we in the West are all faced with every day. For around $US200, Singer reminds his readers, a child’s life can almost certainly be saved. So when we spend money on luxuries (ie. above and beyond necessities), we are choosing not to save the life of a child.
“I can see no escape from the conclusion that each one of us with wealth surplus to his or her essential
needs should be giving most of it to help people suffering from poverty so dire as to be life-threatening. That’s right: I’m saying that you shouldn’t buy that new car, take that cruise, redecorate the house or get that pricey new suit.
After all, a $1,000 suit could save five children’s lives.”
If a child falls in a forest from a disease that a rich Westerner could have easily paid to prevent, but didn’t, does the child still die?
For people in rich countries (aka the ‘North’), globalisation is often there to solve our problems for us. Want cheap clothes? Great. Want a cheap car? Sure. How about a cheap TV? That can be arranged. But globalisation is a system where problem solving can flow in more than one direction. Just as our problems can be solved quickly and easily
because of the globalisation of commerce, so can the problems of people who live in the ‘South’.
So if globalisation means poverty can be erradicated, what’s stopping us from rolling up our sleeves and engaging with this issue? There are a number of aspects to this. A major challenge is what has been described as the ‘filter’ of commercial media. Commercial media organisations exist to create an atmosphere that is conducive to selling products. That is, they don’t want to depress their audiences!
Also, note that the ‘basics’ of life are rarely advertised… Marketing is far more useful for promoting the luxuries – the ‘extras’. Advertisers talk about ‘creating need’ a perverse concept in the context of 800 million children in severe need of the basics of survival. Isn’t there enough need already?
Read more: The Singer Solution to World Poverty [editor's note: unfortunately this resource is no longer available online and we have therefore removed the link]