Peter Singer on the Best Ways to Give Back
Peter Singer (photo by Tony Phillips)

Peter Singer on the Best Ways to Give Back

Australians have amassed over $200 billion in savings during the pandemic. Australian philosopher Peter Singer explains our moral obligation to use this money to support effective charities and help save lives.

For over 50 years, Peter Singer has been on a mission to end poverty. Most people know Singer as a pioneer of the animal rights movement and co-founder of the leading non-profit Animals Australia. But many may not know that Singer is also a leading voice in the growing movement of effective altruism, which emphasises the importance of not only giving generously but also giving effectively – to those who need it most, in support of cost-effective solutions that have the most impact per dollar. 

Even before he published his groundbreaking book Animal Liberation (1975), Singer had been thinking and writing about how to end poverty. His short but influential essay, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” (1971), sketched a framework for effective altruism that Singer would later expand on in The Life You Can Save (2009) and put into practice through the non-profit organisation The Life You Can Save, which he founded in 2013 to help popularise the idea of effective giving and connect donors with effective charities. 

In short, Singer is a philosopher with a lifelong dedication to real social change and the rare distinction of founding not just one but two major social movements over his five-decade career. 

The principle behind effective giving is fairly simple: while any charitable giving may be better than none, not all charitable giving is equally effective or impactful. Therefore, we have a moral obligation to support the most effective, impactful charities we can. 

To illustrate how some charities “provide hundreds or even thousands times greater benefits per dollar than others,” Singer frequently observes that for the same amount it costs a charity to provide one blind person in the US with a guide dog (around $50,000), a charity like Seva or The Fred Hollows Foundation can prevent blindness and even restore sight for at least 1,000 people living in extreme poverty with cost-effective interventions that treat curable conditions like trachoma and cataracts that can be devastating if unaddressed. For Singer, both examples may be genuine and good acts of charity, but one clearly impacts more people per dollar than the other. It’s also surely better to restore sight or prevent blindness altogether than it is to provide a person with a service dog.

Ending Extreme Global Poverty through Effective Giving

The goal of effective giving is not simply to mitigate the risks that living in extreme poverty poses (like preventable blindness or malnutrition). It is also to help people lift themselves out of poverty and, ultimately, to end extreme global poverty altogether.

Ending extreme global poverty, which the World Bank defines as people living on less than US$1.90 a day, may sound like an unrealistic pipe dream. But, as Singer observes in the most recent edition of The Life You Can Save (2019), the truth is that we have already made incredible progress towards this end, partly through the work of organisations like The Fred Hollows Foundation and Seva that address the world’s most pressing problems with cost-effective, highly impactful solutions. While data from 2018 on remains in flux due to COVID-19, according to researchers at the World Bank, extreme global poverty has been reduced across the world from 36.2% in 1990 to 9.2% in 2017. From 1999 to 2017,an estimated 57.5 million people escaped extreme global poverty annually. That’s over 57 million people every year for nearly two decades straight!

Too few people are aware of the monumental progress that we have already made towards ending extreme poverty, in large part because this kind of progress rarely makes the news. Similarly, too few people understand the powerful role that effective giving has played in making progress possible, in large part because many of the world’s most effective charities perform work that is hard to “see:” they operate in distant communities and address unfamiliar problems like malaria and malnutrition that have long been “solved” in more affluent nations, even as they remain life-threatening for those in extreme poverty. It’s also the sad truth that, while many people tend to conduct rigorous research before investing in something like a new phone or car, few rarely adopt the same approach when donating to charity. In the absence of such a rational analysis, the urge to support charities or causes with a personal connection is always strong, even if like-minded, domestic organisations are not where donations are most needed or where they will have the most impact.


COVID-19 and Extreme Global Poverty

After two decades of progress, COVID-19 is pushing more people into extreme poverty.

As we all are well aware, the COVID-19 pandemic has precipitated a series of global health and economic crises whose effects have been widespread, catastrophic and ongoing. Those crises are now threatening to reverse two decades of progress against extreme global poverty. And they have made giving generously and effectively more critical now than ever. 

According to a recent report published by the World Bank, the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to increase extreme poverty by anywhere from 88 million (best case) to 93 million people (worst case) in 2020.

Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, for comparison, an estimated 31 million people were expected to rise out of extreme poverty in 2020 based on the two-decade trend. If we include those 31 million people who would have otherwise escaped poverty in 2020, the net overall estimate increases to between 119 and 124 million people who will either remain or fall below the global poverty line in 2020.

While the effects of COVID-19 have been unpredictable and widespread, they have also been unevenly distributed. COVID-19 is widely expected to disproportionately affect the world’s poorest people and nations, for instance. But many affluent nations like Australia have weathered the pandemic much better. According to a recent article in Business Insider Australia, Australians have accumulated nearly A$200 billion in savings during the pandemic in anticipation of a much worse economic crisis. Many have likely spent much less on travel and other expenses than usual. Some may have made money on fruitful investments. And generous government support has kept many afloat in the face of lost income and health risks. In other words, many Australians currently have the means and good fortune to support the global poor in this critical moment and help reduce the risks COVID-19 presents to their lives and livelihood.


Doing Our Part to End Extreme Poverty

Those of us who have been fortunate enough to avoid the worst during this pandemic should feel a great obligation to give generously and effectively.

But, as former Microsoft executive and founder of AirTree Ventures Daniel Petre argues in a recent article [paywall], many of the wealthiest Australians are still not giving nearly what they should to those who need it most. Drawing on a recent data from Australian Financial Review, Petre observes that even as contributions from the top 50 donors in Australia have doubled over the past five years, in 2020 those top 50 donors gave only around 0.35 of 1% per cent of their total wealth – an amount which Petre goes on to describe as “in technical terms, bugger all.” Petre’s forceful case for giving illustrates how assumptions about individual wealth and the obligation to give are starting to shift, even as it shows there’s still a long way to go. One goal of effective altruism is to make sure that when wealthy individuals do decide to give more generously, they also commit to giving more effectively. 


Peter Singer’s Recommended Charities for 2021

Even with the desire to help and the means to give, it can be difficult to know where to start with effective giving and which charitable organisations to trust with your contributions. However, the growing presence of nonprofits dedicated to promoting effective giving makes identifying and supporting effective charities easier than ever before. 

As part of his life-long work to reduce suffering and death caused by extreme poverty, Peter Singer established The Life You Can Save not only to help spread his ideas about global poverty and what we should do about it but also to help donors connect with some of the world’s most effective charities. The Life You Can Save Australia recommends 20 charities based, among other things, on the rigorous analyses conducted by professional charity researchers like GiveWell and provides resources to help supporters better visualize the real difference their donations make in the communities these charities serve. 

Featured below are just three of The Life You Can Save’s recommended charities whose work is especially timely and impactful at this critical moment. Visit to make your tax-deductible contribution to these and other effective charities. 


The Fred Hollows Foundation 

This renowned Australian charity founded by ophthalmologist Fred Hollows works to end avoidable blindness by providing affordable eye care, training local eye health workers, and building eye care facilities in over 25 countries. Roughly 250 million people worldwide suffer from moderate to severe visual impairment, which is not simply a health problem but also a socio-economic problem. Sight affects a person’s ability to learn new skills, access economic opportunities and live an independent life. A recent article in The Lancet estimates that vision impairment resulted in at least US$410.7 billion lost in economic productivity in 2020. Women in low-income communities are also typically at twice the risk for vision impairment.

Fortunately, most cases of visual impairment — roughly, 4 in 5 — can be prevented, treated or managed. And treatments for the most common conditions like cataracts and refractive error are highly cost-effective. So the great potential for low-cost vision-restoring interventions that can improve economic opportunity and overall livelihood is evident, and The Fred Hollows Foundation is at the forefront of global efforts to restore eyesight and prevent blindness.

Like most organisations, The Fred Hollows Foundation has seen its work greatly impacted by COVID-19. Government restrictions on travel and assembly (particularly school closures) have made it more difficult to deliver eye care, especially to remote regions. Meanwhile, research suggests that individuals with visual impairment have had an especially difficult time adapting to COVID-19-related restrictions. Nevertheless, in 2020, The Fred Hollow Foundation was still able to conduct around 1.8 million vision screenings and train around 15,000 local health workers to administer high quality, affordable eye care within their communities. The great potential and urgent need for cost-effective eye care worldwide make The Fred Hollows Foundation an excellent giving opportunity. 



GiveDirectly is the first and largest nonprofit organisation to facilitate “direct cash transfers” to people living in poverty. One of the most transformative and tech-driven ideas to come out of the effective altruism movement, direct cash transfers use mobile phone applications to transfer money directly (and digitally) to individuals so that they can secure the resources they need. 

Since its founding in 2009, GiveDirectly has delivered over US$300 million in direct-cash grants to over half a million families living in poverty (with roughly US$1000 going to each individual household). And with 92 cents of every dollar donated going directly to its recipients, GiveDirectly boasts one of the highest pass-through efficiencies of any global non-governmental organisation (NGO).   

While most charitable organisations have been severely impacted by the ongoing pandemic, GiveDirectly has stood out as a welcome exception to the rule. When the pandemic first struck, GiveDirectly’s mobile-based model allowed it to go “contactless” in just six weeks. In 2020, GiveDirectly delivered cash to twice as many people as it had in all other previous years combined. And its innovative partnership with the Center for Effective Global Action at UC Berkeley and the Togolese government (featured recently on the BBC) combined satellite imagery, cell-phone metadata, and machine learning to deliver over US$10 million to tens of thousands of remote households that the government couldn’t otherwise reach. 


While many donors may remain wary of giving out cash with “no strings attached,” data gathered by GiveDirectly and other organisations make a compelling case for the positive benefits of direct giving as a way to empower livelihoods and reduce poverty. In April 2021, a report from the United Nations concluded that the COVID-19 pandemic “should be treated as an opportunity to revisit the humanitarian business model” in part by “ramping up cash vouchers for populations in need.” GiveDirectly’s successful response to the COVID-19 pandemic shows firsthand the promise of direct giving as an innovative, high-impact approach to international aid.

Send money directly to people in need.


Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA)

Effective altruism prioritises solutions that are not just cost-effective or innovative, but also evidence-based — proven to make an impact. Research organisations like Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) help generate the high quality evidence critical to effective giving by designing and implementing randomised evaluations that reliably measure the effectiveness of programs and policies intended to help the poor. Since its founding in 2002, IPA has designed and evaluated more than 550 potential solutions to poverty-related problems, with hundreds more evaluations in progress. 

Most recently, in an effort to mitigate the risks of COVID-19, IPA has partnered with researchers from Stanford and Yale and with Bangladesh health officials to test strategies to increase mask-wearing at a large scale. At the beginning of the project, Bangladesh health officials estimated only around 12% of rural Bangladeshi wore masks regularly. And with vaccination unlikely for many of the country’s poorest until at least a year, changing social norms around mask wearing remains critical to help reduce death tolls. 

After testing many different approaches in a trial of 350,000 adults across 600 villages, IPA and its partners developed a four-part program called “NORMalize Mask-Wearing” that effectively tripled mask usage and increased social distancing, even months after the study concluded.

Together with partners, IPA is now aiming to scale up their Normalize Mask Wearing program to reach over 100 million people across Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and countries in Latin America with potential to cost-effectively save many thousands of lives.

Your tax-deductible contributions to IPA  will help fund mask procurement, data gathering and analysis and technical assistance to support program rollout.


Animals Australia*

“It would be hard to find an animal organisation — anywhere — that would make better use of your donation.” – Peter Singer 

Animals Australia represents over 2 million individual members and supporters. Together with their global arm, Animals International, they have an unprecedented track record in investigating and exposing animal cruelty and for conducting world-first strategic public awareness campaigns.

*Please note that, in accordance with policies on animal welfare charities set by the Australian Tax Office, Animals Australia does not qualify as a Deductible Gift Receipt (DGR) and therefore donations to Animals Australia are not tax-deductible.

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About the author:

Adam Sneed

The views expressed in blog posts are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Peter Singer or The Life You Can Save.