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Working Towards Alleviating
Extreme Poverty

Simple, practical and effective actions that individuals can take to help eliminate hunger and disease

Citation Information

McLaughlin, Heather 2015. Working Towards Alleviating Extreme Poverty, URL = <http://www.rationalrealm.com/philosophy/reflections/alleviating-extreme-poverty.html>.

Each of Us Can Make a Difference

An Oxfam member of staff helps to carry one family's newly received non-food items home in UN House, Juba. Credit: Anita Kattakuzhy/Oxfam

I could call myself a micro-philanthropist. I could even call myself an international financier. But in actual fact, I am merely a semi-retired teacher (a single, older woman on a modest income) who wants to do what I can for others, without feeling it is a personal hardship.

So many grim events happen around the world that it would be easy to become depressed, to feel helpless. What can just one person do? But I choose to believe that each of us can actually do significant things to help others around the world. It's surprisingly enjoyable, and generosity is certainly good for our mental health.

Some people say, 'Give until it hurts'. I believe more in the response, 'No, give till it feels better'. Over recent years, I have been donating 10 per cent of my annual income to help alleviate extreme poverty. I also have a significant amount that I lend and re-lend to borrowers of microcredit loans through Kiva. Recycling my $20,000 deposited has so far led to $90,500 lent. Volunteering to raise funds for Oxfam through planning schools concerts is another major part of my life (e.g. 10 concerts in 2014 raised $24,400).

I don't do this to make myself feel better, but because I believe it is only fair that those of us who drew the luck card in where and when and to whom we were born owe it to help those around the world who were unlucky in the birth lottery. Nevertheless, it does make me feel better. There is a surprising buoyancy that comes each day from knowing that my personal money, efforts and effective giving help perhaps thousands of people each year to get a better chance in life.

And in many ways, despite the news reports of terrible things happening, life is getting better for many people around the world. Although, of course, it is awful that 18,000 children die daily from preventable causes, the situation is much better than in 1990 when the figure was 30,000—even though the world's population was smaller then. (Hans Rosling's video clips show statistics that are grounds for optimism.) Millions of people living in extreme poverty are having fewer children, living healthier lives, eating better and having the opportunity to go to school. And we can each play a small part in accelerating this trend.

So, what are the best ways to help others around the world, given our limited individual resources of money, time, energy and motivation?

1. Give Effectively: Get 'Bang for your buck'

Book cover: The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer

Although I had always donated sporadically to various groups, in recent years my giving has become more organized. The concept of 'Effective Altruism' espoused by Peter Singer and groups such as The Life You Can Save (after the title of his book) is a powerful one, and many people have done excellent research to show that where you donate is perhaps even more important than how much you give.

Thus, $100 can be a drop in the ocean to train a guide dog for a blind person in the US (total cost: $40,000). Or the same $100 can:

Just knowing that these are options makes one more aware of where to give—how your money can do the most good.

2. Pledge a Percentage of Income

The second aspect of my donations in recent years is planning to give a specific percentage of my income. The group Giving One Percent suggests that almost everyone living in a developed country can contribute. Peter Singer's initial proposal is that this is a start. The group Giving What We Can expands this to 10 per cent or more, encouraging some of us to be more ambitious and to actually sign a pledge to do this. The My Giving part of the web site enables altruists to keep track of personal donations.

So, I have taken this pledge. I find it no great hardship and enjoy giving a few hundred dollars each month to different groups. I feel that my $3000 or so donated effectively each year can make a significant difference.

3. Lend Your Funds

Another way to 'do good better' is to lend through the Kiva microcredit site. This has become a great interest of mine over the last six years. Millions of dollars are lent every week around the world. The repayment rate is around 98.8 per cent, even though most loans go to people who do not have regular bank accounts! A $25 loan can be paid off in anything from five months to ten years. (Be sure to check the Repayment Term for details). There are thousands of borrowers to choose from at any given time, from Mongolian cobblers to Armenian strawberry farmers, from Guatemalan weavers to sellers of dried fish in Sierra Leone. Through Kiva, a chunk of my retirement savings has been lent over and over, and I'll continue to do this while I can.

Of great satisfaction also to me on Kiva are the teams of lenders (everything from Beer to Bahá'í). The highest-lending team ($18 million) is the Kiva Atheist team, which has over 32,000 members around the world. The full name of the team is Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists and the Non-religious, shortened to A+. Australia was, until recently, the country team that had lent the most. It's now eclipsed by Team CANADA. I am co-captain of three teams, including the A+ team and a general international group, Paying It Forward. Meetings of my local Kiva lenders are held in Melbourne, Australia, every few months, where those of us keen on lending can meet in person.

Book cover: The International Bank of Bob by Bob Harris

On the 17th day of every month, Kiva repayments come in, and choosing new borrowers for re-loaning is a pleasurable activity for lenders around the world. Often, there are 'team loans' chosen relevant to the group; noodle loans for the Flying Spaghetti Monster team, glorious outfits or woven cloth for the Fabulous Fabrics Fans and borrowers named Darwin for the A+ team.

Personally, I find it a wonderful place to put savings. Although there is a chance of losing some money, the benefits in 'human interest' far outweigh this. Updates on loans, as well as the regular repayments coming in, confirm that borrowers are gaining more control over their lives. There are wonderful stories of hard work and success, and the photos give insight into the way people live around the world. American writer Bob Harris has travelled to visit many Kiva lenders. His book, The International Bank of Bob, is about his journeys and is great background to the whole Kiva experience. Lending on Kiva is like having your cake and eating it—again and again and again.

4. Donate Your Time

As a school music teacher, I feel an effective way for me to volunteer is to organize concerts and arrange music performances. I choose to fundraise for Oxfam. The Melbourne concerts in recent years take time and effort that I feel reaps great benefits for both performers (mainly school children) and beneficiaries of the funds raised.

Everyone can find groups or activities that benefit others; cooking meals for refugees, talking to groups about alleviating poverty, helping at fundraising events, and so on. Added benefits are working with others of like mind and the social interaction that usually stems from this. Volunteering in our communities is an ideal way to connect personally.

So, What Will You Do?

Everyone can do some good for other people, such as volunteering to help asylum seekers, joining a 'Walk against Want' and making a donation to Oxfam. Many of us can do good better by being aware of the most effective uses of our money. Lending and re-lending through Kiva gives the security of knowing almost all of your money will be available in the future, if needed. And we can encourage others to also be aware of the difference we can make in other peoples' lives through talking and writing about what we do. (Peter Singer encourages us to do this to make 'doing good better' a wider concept.)

Personally, I feel I am making a difference. It's a good antidote to depressing news. I get enormous satisfaction out of all these activities in my life, so I encourage others to try some of them. That's why I perhaps should introduce myself an 'international micro-financier'. What do you think?

Copyright © 2015 Heather McLaughlin

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