Students have always been the spearhead of society. In the mid 20th century, students played an indispensable role leading movements to advance social justice: witness the Civil Rights Movement, Second Wave Feminism, and the anti-war movement as just a few examples of students on campuses across the US coming together to take responsibility for raising awareness and calling for action about issues that mattered to them.
If history is any indication, today’s students can again drive tomorrow’s future.
The great privilege of education that students are granted also comes with great responsibility. In a world with roughly 800 million adults that can't read or write, being a student is indeed something that should not be taken for granted. Even if we worked hard to get here after taking the SATs (probably more than once), the moment we become university students, we are in a position where we can effect change at a powerful level–in our own lives as well as in the lives of others. Education, for example, gives us intellectual and practical tools without which many of us could not excel in the future. Thanks to our education, some of us will find our passion in life, get well-paid jobs, and make valuable relationships.
As students, we get the chance to read in the same day the article “Consider the Lobster” by David Foster Wallace, and debate politics with peers. We get the chance to listen to “Symphony number 40” by Mozart, and go out at night. We get the chance to read “The Republic” by Plato, and play sports with our friends. This opportunity to pursue higher education, knowledge, and special interests simultaneously can have great impact in allowing us to improve and progress in life. But is the aim of our colleges and universities only to provide us with tools that will make our own lives better?
As I noted earlier, we join a distinguished succession of standard-bearers who, in their early 20’s, led such important movements as that against the war in Vietnam. Therefore, being a student requires us to do much more than write persuasive papers and do well on exams. I believe we have major responsibilities toward our society. We are responsible for advancing social justice in a wide variety of areas while making sure our voices are heard and counted. To me, one of those causes should be global poverty.
Today, 9.6% of the global population live in extreme poverty (on under $1.90 per day) and lack basic necessities such as water, shelter, food and nutrition. This 9.6% isn't just a number or a statistic– it is about the more than 700 million women, men and children who deserve the opportunity for a decent life.
In an introductory philosophy class during my first semester at Columbia University, we were assigned Peter Singer’s article, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”. In his essay, Mr. Singer argues that people in the affluent world have a moral obligation to contribute to international aid for famine relief. Mr. Singer’s ideas left my fellow classmate, Uri Padan, and me with a strong sense of uneasiness. We believed that we were capable of and therefore should be doing more to use our position as students in a great university like Columbia as a tool to help others who live in extreme poverty. According to Columbia data, the salary of a new Columbia graduate with a bachelor's degree is between $40,950- $99,159. This salary puts almost every Columbia student in the top 1% earners in the world, in their first year after graduation! Both Uri and I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity presented by our well-positioned situation and make a real difference. Our Philosophy professor, Philip Kitcher, provided valuable guidance, including suggesting that we reach out to Mr. Singer asking for advice.
Mr. Singer connected us to The Life You Can Save, who in turn introduced us to one of its partner organizations, One for the World. One for the World (OFTW) encourages students to pledge 1% of their post-graduation income to effective nonprofit organizations. As there are more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the U.S. alone, the process of selecting which nonprofit to give to isn't as simple as it sounds. OFTW makes it easy for students by recommending 18 highly effective nonprofits (those on The Life You Can Save’s “recommended” list) where donated funds can have the greatest impact. One for the World supports cost-effective, impactful interventions focused on food, water, healthcare, economic opportunity and education. Students who make the pledge can choose to either invest 1% of their future income into one effective nonprofit or distribute their donation to different organizations from the “recommended” list.
Founded at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in 2014 by two MBA students, today One for the World has expanded its reach to Harvard, MIT, and Columbia. Uri and I are excited to lead the Columbia branch. This past spring, during our first semester as co-chairs of One for the World’s Columbia chapter, we were moved by the number of students who were eager to get involved. Through holding events like intimate student workshops where we challenged each other’s most fundamental beliefs about giving, and talks with keynote speakers, we had an amazing opportunity to hear the personal stories of many students who want to translate their privilege into impact. For example, the two following students decided to join One for the World Columbia after attending one of our events where Professor Kitcher discussed ways students can have a positive impact on the world.
Florian Chupeau, a junior who decided to take the pledge, told us about his motivation: “I joined One for the World for its community, and because through their platform I realized that even a student can make a difference in fighting to reduce poverty around the world. OFTW also hosts exciting events with a wide variety of speakers from all fields, which allow my friends and myself to meet new people and hear how we can perhaps pursue careers in the private sector, but still give back in a meaningful way. As potential future leaders, we should also be thankful for being where we are and acknowledging that many other people deserve better”. Florian decided to pledge his 1% to Oxfam International. “I picked Oxfam because of their amazing track record of alleviating hunger and famine in emerging countries.”
Helee Abutbul, a senior at Columbia, decided to split her donations between OFTW’s recommended nonprofits. She says, “Students are career driven, and often times indifferent towards some of the world's biggest problems being so far away. I decided to pledge to One for the World because it aims to change the norm about effective giving through the platform of education creating a new community”.
In our last event of the semester, right during finals, we were honored to host Charlie Bresler, the Executive Director of the Life You Can Save. Around 75 students came to hear him speak about “effective giving” and how we can all do better in our lives and make a real difference in the world. Charlie began his talk by asking the audience which of four issues constitutes the greatest threat to the world: nuclear war, climate change, poverty, or racism. To some of us, Charlie included, the results were quite surprising. Around 40 students raised their hands arguing that climate change is the most critical issue, poverty was next with 30 students (not surprising– based on the nature of the talk), then racism with a few supporters, while not even one student voted for nuclear war. (As Charlie said in his notes after the talk, thank god Noam Chomsky wasn’t in the audience, as he would probably be furious about the little attention nuclear war got, at least in this group.)
Charlie concluded that while we can debate and disagree about what the most important issue is, we should always consider the level of impact we can have on a given cause. For example, while most of us cannot do much to prevent nuclear war, we can all do a lot, through donation platforms like The Life You Can Save or One for the World, to take steps to alleviate poverty around the world.
If you agreed with my earlier statement that students are the spearhead of society, the next line of reasoning is quite obvious. Pledging 1% of one's income to fight extreme poverty around the globe should become a societal expectation that we have of one another. Some of you will question why it is logical in every sense to give $1 back of every $100 to people who probably are suffering but whom you have never met and most likely will never meet. You may be thinking that this $1 that you earned could be invested in your own well-being or even your children’s well being. Although this seems to be a quite straightforward objection, in his book The Life You Can Save, Mr. Singer shows why this line of reasoning is on very shaky ground.
While arguing that people in the affluent world should reconsider how much they give to aid agencies, Singer introduces the “The Basic Argument” (pp. 15-16):
First Premise: Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, clean water and medical care are bad.
Second Premise: If it is in your power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything nearly as important, it is wrong not to do so.
Third Premise: By donating to aid agencies, you can prevent suffering from lack of food, shelter, and medical care, without sacrificing anything nearly as important.
Conclusion: If you do not donate to aid agencies, you are doing something wrong.
Singer writes that even though the term ‘nearly as important’ might be interpreted in different ways, people should be honest with themselves and draw the line between surplus spending like new clothes, new cars and other luxuries versus real necessities like food and education. Singer proves that we are all obligated to help the people who are trapped in extreme poverty.
But then, one might wonder what difference $1 can make, if any? By donating to Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, which facilitates school-based distribution of deworming tablets, protecting children in 19 nations in East, Central, and West Africa from debilitating diseases and improving school attendance, you could provide a child with a year of protection from one of the most prevalent parasitic infections. Or by donating to Global Alliance For Improved Nutrition, an organization that is “driven by the vision of a world without malnutrition” and operates in 29 developing countries around the world, you could protect a child from the most common cause of brain damage (by controlling iodine deficiency) for about 20 cents. All of the nonprofit organizations on the list offer similarly great ways to leverage your donations. And yes, you're right, students are the ones who should lead by example and start by pledging today.
One for the World has made great progress already: expanding its reach to Harvard, MIT, and Columbia, along with Wharton and Penn:, growing its impact with 160% average annual increase in funds raised since 2014, which has allowed it to have impact on the lives of more than 40,000 people living in extreme poverty; and gaining additional resources and better positioning to scale across universities by partnering with The Life You Can Save. In the next 5 years, we aim to expand to 50 new schools across the US.
Even if the majority of us will pursue careers outside of social impact, together we can change the status quo and create a powerful community of thousands of students that work together to reduce poverty over time. Giving money to highly effective nonprofits that operate in the developing world isn't just about doing a good thing, it is about doing the right thing. Over the years, students have stood up for causes that were close to their hearts. Now, let us be determined and continue setting an example of doing right. Do right, and Make the Pledge. Do right, and encourage your family, friends and peers to make effective charitable giving part of their everyday lives. Do right, and look into opening a branch of OFTW on your campus by contacting us today. Do right, because it starts with you.