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You Are The 1%: How One Person Can Save Dozens Of Lives

You don’t have to be rich to make an enormous difference in the world by giving to charity. You just need to look for the right opportunities.

You Are The 1%: How One Person Can Save Dozens Of Lives
[Top Photo: Eco Images/Getty Images]

If you live in an expensive city like New York or San Francisco and have an average job–say, you’re an office manager rather than a tech mogul or an investment banker–you probably don’t feel particularly rich. The gap between the rich and the rest of us is the biggest it has been since the Great Depression.

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But it’s easy to forget how rich you really are: If you make $52,000 a year, you’re richer than 99% of the people on the planet. With a salary of $28,000, you’re in the top 5%. And even if you’re below the poverty line of $11,000 a year, you’re still making more than 85% of the world.

A new book called Doing Good Better, out on July 28, uses the global income gap, along with a few other economic calculations, as the basis for something called the 100x multiplier. If you give a donation to some of the poorest people in the world, your money will go 100 times further than if you’d spent it on yourself. Even if you might have felt powerless in the face of the world’s biggest challenges, inequality actually puts you in a unique position to help. The book says:

It’s not often you have two options, one of which is one hundred times better than the other. Imagine a happy hour where you could either buy yourself a beer for five dollars or buy someone else a beer for five cents. If that were the case, we’d probably be pretty generous–next round’s on me! It’s like a 99-percent-off sale, or getting 10,000 percent extra free. It might be the most amazing deal you’ll see in your life.

Right now, out of the $358 billion that Americans donate every year, only 5% goes directly to other countries. But because our money is worth so much more in a place like Rwanda, the book argues that it would be better spent in nonprofits working overseas. It’s one of the tenets of effective altruism, a movement championed by moral philosopher Peter Singer that considers how donors can do the greatest good with the money they give.

Many people don’t even consider giving globally. “I think the most basic reason is the scale of extreme poverty and global inequality is unimaginable,” says the book’s author, William MacAskill, a 28-year-old philosophy professor at the University of Oxford.

“I think we just live in this very morally counterintuitive world. When we look at people who are poor living in the United States, living on $11,000, we think those people are really badly off. It’s just a really strange state of the world when those people are still the richest 15% of the world, when they’re still 20 times richer than the poorest billion people.”

gary yim via Shutterstock

While it might seem more natural to give locally–the people we see struggling everyday trigger our empathy and many people want to help their own communities–MacAskill argues that it’s arbitrary to give to a local organization just because it happens to be in our neighborhood. “Everyone has an equal right to a good life,” he says. If it’s possible to literally save multiple lives with an annual donation, versus funding a small part of a program in the U.S., he believes we should choose to save lives.

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A few people may choose to go even further, taking the global income gap as inspiration for a different take on a career that does good–something MacAskill calls “earning to give.” The book shares the story of a young British doctor who wanted to maximize the number of lives he could save and considered going to work in Africa. Doing the math, he found that he would only be responsible for saving a few lives over his career in the UK; in Africa he could save hundreds.

But he chose a third option: By picking a lucrative speciality in medicine, he was able to earn enough that he could give half his income away. Through his donations, he realized that he would be able to save dozens of lives every year, far more than he ever could through his work.

The doctor, who was able to give away over $100,000 a year, is an extreme case. But even on a smaller income–and with smaller donations–an average American (or Brit, or South Korean) has a surprisingly huge ability to help. Part of that involves choosing to support only the most effective organizations, something that the book explains in detail. But it also rests on the simple fact of how far a dollar can go in certain places.

On the homepage of Giving What We Can, an organization MacAskill founded, a calculator will tell you exactly how rich you are compared to the rest of the world. It also tells you how much medicine and how many hundreds of mosquito nets you could fund if you gave away 10% of your income–and how many lives that would save in a year.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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