by Hugh Corder, Anton Fagan


The Life You Can Save

Lending a helping hand
The wealthy aids the poor

Peter Singer is a hugely influential moral philosopher with a chair at Princeton University. His book begins like this: "On your way to work, you pass a small pond. On hot days, children sometimes play in the pond, which is only about knee-deep. The weather’s cool today, though, and the hour is early, so you are surprised to see a child splashing about in the pond. As you get closer, you see that it is a very young child, just a toddler, who is flailing about, unable to stay upright or walk out of the pond. You look for the parents or babysitter, but there is no one else around.

"The child is unable to keep his head above the water for more than a few seconds at a time. If you don’t wade in and pull him out, he seems likely to drown. Wading in is easy and safe, but you will ruin the new shoes you bought only a few days ago, and get your suit wet and muddy. By the time you hand the child over to someone responsible for him, and change your clothes, you’ll be late for work. What should you do?"

Most people would agree that you would be morally obliged to jump into the pond to save the child, even though it would spoil your shoes and make you late. Singer argues, persuasively, that wealthy people have a similar moral obligation to help people who are dying or suffering because they are poor.

More than 16,000 people have joined an organisation named after Singer’s book - The Life You Can Save. All of them have pledged some of their income to organisations helping people in poverty. How much is calculated by a progressive formula: for example, 5% if you earn R600,000 a year, 10% if you earn R3m and so on. Five Plus Project has similar objectives, but with a specifically South African focus. And its demands are more modest.

If you are a comparatively well-off South African, it asks that once a year you take the following pledge: "I pledge that, over the coming year, I will give at least 5% of my taxable income to one or more organisations or initiatives helping to reduce poverty in South Africa or alleviate its effects."

The project does not prescribe which organisations or initiatives a person should give to. Nor will the project take the amount that a person has pledged and pass it on to the organisations or initiatives he or she has chosen. But the project will make the fact that a person has taken the pledge public. And it will prompt those who have taken the pledge to do so again, a year later.

We started the project in December last year. Our first challenge was to recruit a group of founder members. Over a two-month period, we approached about 300 friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. The response was overwhelming. More than 100 agreed to take the pledge. (See the list at the bottom of this page.)

Many of those approached provided invaluable suggestions as to how to fine-tune the project, thus improving it considerably.
The challenge now facing us is to grow the project’s membership. But even with only 100 members, the project will make a meaningful difference. But imagine how enormous a difference it would make with 5,000 or 10,000 members.

We want the project’s membership to be as diverse as possible, and have tried hard to achieve this. However, the group of founder members shows a bias towards the legal and academic professions, and towards the Western Cape, a by-product of the fact that we are both law professors based at the University of Cape Town.

We recognise that poverty in South Africa will not be eliminated by this kind of project.
Many other interventions are needed, involving not only private individuals but also public institutions, and tackling not only poverty’s consequences but also its causes, among them the unacceptably high levels of inequality in this country.

If you are a comparatively well-off South African, we urge you to take the pledge, and to encourage your family, friends and associates to do so.

Here are some statistics regarding the past tax year. Of the 13.6-million people in employment, only 1.3% had a taxable income of R750,000 or more. Fewer than 5% had a taxable income of R400,000. And fewer than 15% had a taxable income of R200,000. If the about 4-million people seeking employment are added to those in employment, these percentages shrink substantially.
Consider also this. In 2008-09, close to 11% of South Africa’s population fell below the World Bank’s extreme poverty line of living on $1.25 a day or less.

In other words, 5-million people in South Africa were unable to meet their most basic needs for adequate food, water, shelter, clothing, sanitation, healthcare, and education. In the same year, 26% of South Africa’s population fell below the food poverty line of R305 a month, which is the amount that one person needs in order to consume their required energy intake.

So 13-million people in South Africa were unable to get enough food into their stomachs every month. Here is another undeniable reality. The World Bank’s Gini coefficient measures a country’s income distribution on a scale from 0 to 1, where 0 represents perfect equality and 1 perfect inequality. In 2009, South Africa had a Gini coefficient of 0.63. That placed us among the five most unequal countries in the world.

Why does your pledge have to be made public? You may already be giving 5% and more to relieve poverty. And it is possible that you feel uncomfortable about taking a public pledge to do so. That is understandable. Yet there are good reasons to take a public pledge to give. It will encourage others to give, by creating and sustaining a community of givers and a cultural norm of giving. And it will make it more likely that you will carry out your decision to do what you know is morally right. In other words, by taking the pledge and making it public you are certain to make an even greater contribution towards reducing poverty and its effects.

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