Limitations of Parochialism, The Life You Can Save

Limitations of Parochialism

In The Life You Can Save, Peter Singer identifies parochialism as one of several barriers that prevents people from giving money to those in extreme poverty–specifically, the preference for sharing resources primarily with people living in one’s close geographic proximity. In many ways, parochialism is a natural response.  From an evolutionary perspective, focusing our resources on our children and tribe helped ensure that they would have the best possible chances of survival.  Many in today’s society consider this outlook both natural and loving, enabling us to funnel our resources into the development and protection of our children and loved ones. However, just because parochialism is a natural response does not necessarily mean it is the morally superior choice in all situations. There are definite limitations to a parochial perspective when confronting the problem of extreme poverty.

One limitation is the assumption that all people are equally in need. Donating $50 to your local arts community might be a generous gesture of support, but it is important to keep in mind that in objective terms, there are people who need that money more.  Recent Gallup polls show that 1% of the US population and 54% of the Sub-Saharan African population live in extreme poverty (defined by the World Bank as $1.25 or less per day).  We live in a world of limited resources; there are always opportunity costs and always someone for whom that same amount of money may be more valuable, perhaps life-saving.

Percentage of the global population living on less than $1.25 a day. (Photo credit:

A separate but related limitation concerns what percentage of our income is actually devoted to supporting our loved ones versus what is used in more superfluous ways.  In a study by the Economic Policy Institute entitled “What We Need to Get By,” Jared Bernstein and James Lin estimate that the average American family needs $48,778 per year to meet its basic needs–and that almost a third of families fall short of this benchmark.  I do not imagine anyone would argue that a struggling parent in the U.S. should regularly refuse to feed their child dinner in order to donate their money to an organization fighting extreme poverty. This trading of one person’s basic needs for another’s does not promote overall gain. But the study also shows that a full two-thirds of families in the US do not have to struggle to meet their basic needs. Can those of us in this majority spare some of the luxuries we buy for ourselves and our families to give some of our wealth to those who need it most? It is natural and loving to devote resources to our children but it is important not to confuse basic needs with less essential extras.

A third limitation of parochialism in regard to extreme poverty is that by focusing resources locally, we may be exposing ourselves and those we intended to protect to greater harm or risk than if we had allocated our resources internationally.  In a March 2012 op-ed piece in the New York Times “On the Ground” blog, Jake Harriman argued that efforts to combat terrorism must move beyond targeting specific terrorists or terrorist networks to focusing on fighting extreme poverty as an important set of conditions that fuel terrorist ideology.  In his piece, Harriman cited Desmond Tutu on the connection between extreme poverty and terrorism: “You can never win a war against terror as long as there are conditions in the world that make people desperate — poverty, disease, ignorance.” If the goal is to protect the people closest to us, the best way to do so might be to help the people furthest from us.

A house in Kanembwe, Rwanda by Angie Vredeveld.

If we acknowledge the limitations of parochialism as applied to extreme poverty, how might we try to counter our instinct towards it?  In my opinion, the answer is through exposure to people who are living or have lived in extreme poverty.

According to Mountains Beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidder and Paul Michaels’  biography of Partners in Health founder Paul Farmer, Farmer struggled immensely with how he could love and focus resources on his newborn daughter more than the children with whom he worked in Haiti. “I thought I was the king of empathy for these poor kids,” he reflects, “but if I was the king of empathy, why this big shift because of my daughter?  It was a failure of empathy, the inability to love other children as much as yours. The thing is, everybody understands that, encourages that, praises you for it.  But the hard thing is the other [loving them all equally.]”  Exposure to extreme poverty changes something fundamental about our view of resources and our responsibility in their allocation.

How might a person living in the U.S. gain exposure to people living in extreme poverty?  One way would be to explore documentaries, podcasts, and websites dedicated to understanding and ending extreme poverty.  The Life You Can Save’s Extreme Poverty Report and A Call to Action offer starting points for learning more about those in extreme poverty, and recommends thirteen organizations that provide direct aid to the world’s poorest. Ideally, exposure would also involve developing relationships with people who live or have lived in extreme poverty, as this has greater potential to challenge and change our giving behavior. Visiting countries where extreme poverty exists in large proportions requires a financial investment upfront, but can have huge multiplier effects when one returns home. Opportunities may exist through your local religious or social justice organizations or through student or professional educational tourism groups.  However, developing relationships with those in extreme poverty does not have to involve international travel. One might volunteer through a local organization, such as those serving poverty-stricken refugees who are new to the U.S.  In my opinion, the specific route chosen to gain exposure is not so important. What is critical is that the experience helps you reconsider your role in helping end extreme poverty.

The Value of Money, The Life You Can Save

The Value of Money

Earlier this year, I spent a few months working for a NGO in Uganda.  The majority of the people with whom I worked lived in extreme poverty (using the World Bank definition of at or below $1.25 per day.)  It was not uncommon for me to encounter people who ate one meal a day, children wearing tattered clothes, people who had to lug 25-pound jerry cans of water to boil so they had something to drink.

As a psychologist, I was there to help establish a mental health program at the NGO.  While I spent most of my time teaching and training, I was also asked to ‘counsel’ several refugees who were experiencing post-traumatic stress (‘counsel’ in quotations because I wasn’t going to be there long enough to do trauma-focused therapy responsibly, but at least wanted to honor their request to meet with them and give them tips on coping with mental health issues where applicable.)

The stories I heard were deeply disturbing: women being kidnapped, beaten, and violently raped; women contracting HIV through rape; people murdered for suspicion of political affiliations they never had; children abandoned by their parents only to be mercilessly abused by those who took them in; parents selling their children into child soldiering for $100.

Shortly into my time there, I started to notice a certain pattern.  While the people with whom I met would speak fairly openly about their trauma histories, they did not spend a lot of time focusing on them.  Rather, what seemed to consume them were everyday stressors of not having enough food, not having access to medical care, and not having school fees for their children.  At a certain point in the conversation I would usually say, “As a counselor, a psychologist, how can I best help you in the time that I am here?”  I was expecting responses like, “Could you teach me about post-traumatic stress?” or, “How can I get rid of my nightmares?”  Instead, it was much more common for them to respond with, “I need 5,000 shillings ($2) to get to the doctor,” or “I need school fees for my children.”  Initially, I would try to redirect them, saying, “Yes, I understand that those are very important to you.  But I am a psychologist; I talk to people about their thoughts and feelings…”  But the more times this response was met with confusion or disappointment, I realized there was something flawed in my approach.

While the disconnect was certainly due in part to differences between Ugandan and Western-style counseling, the much bigger lesson for me was that I was encouraging them to articulate goals that were beyond their present capacity to envision.  I was reminded of Maslow’s hierarchy, which identifies five different tiers of human need, with basic needs such as food and safety at the bottom, and upper-level needs (including those typically addressed in Western-style psychotherapy) such as relationships and self-actualization at the top.  The implication is that one can only work to satisfy needs at a given tier until the needs at the next lowest tier have been satisfied.  “Of course,” I remember thinking, “they need to eat, get the shrapnel out of their shoulder, and get their child to school before they have the luxury of working on any other goal.”

In The Life You Can Save, Peter Singer discussed how our willingness to help those in extreme poverty is often reduced when money is the only feasible way of helping.  I can certainly relate to this tendency based on my experience in Uganda.  It’s not a pretty thing to admit about myself, but there were certainly times I was tempted to dismiss requests for help when the requests were focused on money.  I can remember thinking, “here I am, someone with expertise to offer, and the best way I can help you is by giving you $2?”  To some extent, I felt cheapened, and my guess is that many of us feel this way when we receive repeated requests from organizations for money but are rarely asked to help in other ways.

One of the ways I’ve been able to shift my perspective on this is by recalling a point made my Mackey McNeill in her book The Intersection of Joy and Money.  She encourages readers not only to consider what their money will buy them materially, but the essence of what that money will provide.  For example, $30 will buy me a new shirt for work, but it might also buy me increased confidence in that important presentation I have to give next week.  When I apply this concept to my experience in Uganda, much of my frustration can be overcome when I realize that whereas people were asking for money for a material need, the essence of what they were requesting was freedom from anxiety about their next meal, peace of mind that their medical issues would be resolved, and confidence in their child’s ability to have a more hopeful future than their own.  Perhaps the next time you receive an invitation to give money— and money is the only feasible way of helping—you can shift from thinking of it as a mere monetary gift to thinking about the essence of what it will provide.  I also think it’s important to remember how privileged we are even to entertain concerns beyond the very basic ones of food, shelter, and medical care.

Identifying Barriers, The Life You Can Save

Identifying Barriers

As a psychologist, I spend a lot of time trying to understand human behavior.  If there is one concept that I reference more frequently than any other, it is that of my former grad school professor, who said, “People don’t come into therapy to be told what they should do.  People already know what they should do.  They need help identifying the barriers that are preventing them from doing it.”  This professor had been teaching for upwards of 30 years, and to this day, I’m not sure if this was just a passing thought in his repertoire of accumulated wisdoms, or whether he intended it as a particularly insightful observation on the therapeutic process.  Either way, it has become the concept I reference most frequently when trying to understand my own and others’ behavior.

So how is this principle applied?  A common example might be cigarette smoking.  Most people who smoke would agree that they should quit; few would deny the health risks associated with smoking and most would feel better about themselves to know they had kicked the addiction.  I also don’t think there is anyone who continues to smoke for lack of others telling them they should quit.  Following the ‘identifying barriers’ logic, a better way to motivate oneself or a loved one to quit is to help identify what gets in the way of their quitting.  For instance, are they concerned about weight gain or the discomfort of physical withdrawal?  That they won’t be able to enjoy Friday nights with their drinking buddies?  That it would cause tension in their relationship with their spouse, who still smokes?  That it would make them a ‘rule follower’ when they’ve always been the rebellious type?  Helping people address what prevents them from changing leads to more robust results because it tackles the behavior at more of a root level.  It’s also more genuinely supportive because it honors the ambivalence that is inherent to many change processes.

When I think about the change necessary in becoming a person who gives money to help end extreme poverty, I can’t help but reference this same principle.  Certainly, I’ve heard some make the argument that financial aid is better allocated locally or that financial aid to developing countries breeds dependency and corruption.  However, my guess is that the vast majority of people who do not give money to people in extreme poverty are not neglecting to give because they have a principled objection to doing so.  Rather, they probably believe that they should be giving some of their money away, but there are barriers that are preventing them from doing it.

One example of such a barrier is ‘diffusion of responsibility’ (Peter Singer wrote an excellent chapter—Chapter 4—on psychological barriers in The Life You Can Save, of which diffusion of responsibility is one).  Diffusion of responsibility refers to the phenomenon where people are less likely to offer support to someone in distress when others are present.  The concept is frequently linked to the murder of Kitty Genovese, a young woman who in 1964 was stabbed to death near her home in Queens, New York while several neighbors saw or heard parts of the murder but did nothing to help her.  (The extent to which neighbors were aware that a murder was occurring has since been debated, but Kitty Genovese’s story continues to be referenced in the psychology literature as a hallmark example of diffusion of responsibility or bystander apathy.)  Applied in the context of identifying barriers that prevent people from giving money to those in extreme poverty, a person may think, “well, yes, I feel really bad for people who are so poor.  I can’t imagine how hard their lives are.  But, I’m not the person to help; I don’t make that much money.  Shouldn’t it be the responsibility of the wealthy to be giving more of their money away?  Plus, it seems like there are a bunch of humanitarian and religious organizations dealing with these issues.  I don’t think it’s necessary for me to get involved.”  Again, this person would agree that we should help end extreme poverty, but there is a barrier (in this case, diffusion of responsibility) that prevents them from taking action.

Angie’s community in Kanembwe, Rwanda

In blogging for The Life You Can Save, I’d like to focus on what I think are the most common barriers that prevent people from giving money to those in extreme poverty.  My intention is to elaborate on the barriers identified by Peter Singer in The Life You Can Save by sharing my perspective as a psychologist working in the US and Sub Saharan Africa and my perspective as a human being who struggles daily with how much Ishould give.  As a reader of this blog who may be interested in motivating yourself or others to give more, I think a critical first step is to ask yourself, “what prevents me from giving, or giving more, to those in extreme poverty?”  I know that for me, understanding my own barriers is the best way I can motivate myself and others to change.