Fight Global Poverty

Current and former college presidents have a duty, writes Nannerl O. Keohane.

May 11, 2015

The fate of the middle class in the United States is a topic frequently discussed by our political leaders, including President Obama. Given the growing wealth inequality, there is good reason for this emphasis. However, this should not distract us from also paying attention to the fate of people who are living in extreme poverty. Most of these individuals live in far-off countries. Others are our fellow citizens.

A number of corporate leaders, including Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, have highlighted this global phenomenon of dire poverty and its deleterious effects. They have urged their colleagues to join them in giving generously to help relieve it. Although few college and university presidents can give on the scale of corporate magnates, we can do our part. An organization called The Presidents' Pledge Against Global Poverty works to bring us together to accomplish this goal.

The Presidents' Pledge was launched in 2011, and now has more than 30 members from colleges and universities around the country. Both active and emeriti leaders are part of this initiative. Ann Svennungsen, former president of Texas Lutheran University and now bishop of the Lutheran St. Paul Area Synod in Minnesota, was the founder of the organization. Her colleague in this initiative was Peter Singer, professor of ethics at Princeton University. Through his lectures, courses and books, Singer has inspired many people to give more generously to relieve global poverty.

Our motivation for joining the pledge is to do our part to help relieve a grievous situation. More than 1.2 billion people are living under the World Bank global poverty line of $1.25 a day. These individuals are likely to be hungry for at least part of each year and even if they have food, they will probably be malnourished. They must scrape together some kind of shelter and have little or no money left to send their children to school, find transportation to jobs or access even minimal health services.

Pondering the lives of these individuals and families moves many of us to want to help. However, a number of diverting thoughts often intervene. Sometimes we just want to close our eyes and forget such misery, concentrating on the ups and downs of the lives we and those around us live. We may think that the problem is so huge that it must be insoluble, and in any case, my own small gift won’t make a dent in it. Or we believe that any money we may give will be wasted because of corrupt government intermediaries or the difficulty of reaching those who are truly in need.

One of the goals of the Presidents' Pledge is to provide informed responses to each of these concerns, so that more of us follow our initial instinct of compassion. We hope to make relieving global poverty a moral priority for each of us, regardless of what else we may do with our money and what other philanthropic causes we may support.

For those who believe the problem is intractable, we point to the data reported succinctly by The Life You Can Save, an organization with a name taken from one of Peter Singer’s best-known books. If you look on the website of this organization, you will learn that the percentage of people around the world living under $1.25 a day fell by half between 1990 and 2010. Seven hundred million fewer people lived in extreme poverty at the end of these two decades, and the number of deaths of children under 5 years of age fell from 12.6 million in 1990 to 6.6 million in 2012.

These gains depended in part on gifts from people like us, gifts that strengthen relief organizations and supplement the aid provided by governments. For those who believe that it is impossible to channel aid where it is most needed, this same website lists organizations with a well-documented record of improving the lives of the poorest people around the world. Participants in the Presidents' Pledge would add other names to this list, which would include Oxfam and Partners in Health, among many others. The argument that giving will not make a difference simply cannot stand up to the evidence.

The mission of the Presidents' Pledge Against Global Poverty is “to make the greatest possible impact toward ending global poverty through the public leadership and financial commitment of university and college presidents.” We are convinced that our personal commitment will make a difference, along with the research, teaching and service provided by faculty, staff members and students on our campuses.

Many of us feel a special sense of obligation to the areas closest to our campuses -- whether Durham, East Palo Alto, West Philadelphia, Hartford, Buffalo or other neighborhoods. For this reason, we decided that up to half of the gift each of us makes can be designated for causes in the U.S.; the other half is to be contributed to international projects. Each donor can choose the causes he or she regards as most worthy of support, and the specific dollar amount of our giving remains private.

We had originally emphasized the importance of the public impact of our leadership, the example that joining the pledge would provide for our colleagues, both on and off campus. We still believe that this impact can be significant. However, to accommodate those who prefer not to be publicly identified, commitment to the pledge can be anonymous if a donor wishes.

Our initial goal was to ask each member to pledge 5 percent or more of their personal income for gifts to organizations of their choice that address global poverty. This is still our ideal, but we also welcome those who do not feel comfortable making this percentage pledge. We ask those who join us to commit to making the relief of global poverty a priority in their own portfolio of charitable giving.

College and university presidents should, we are convinced, be in the forefront of those who are tackling this crucial problem.


Nannerl O. Keohane is Laurance S. Rockefeller Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Woodrow Wilson School and the Center for Human Values at Princeton University. She previously served as president of Wellesley College and Duke University.


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