Presenting at Women Deliver 2016: Gender-sensitizing the international torture protection framework

On May 17 (6-8pm) I

On May 17 (6-8pm) I’ll be presenting on a high-level panel on the international legal framework to prevent violence against women and girls.  The side event will be held concurrent to the Women Deliver 2016 plenary, this year in Copenhagen. The theme of the panel – gender and the torture framework – was inspired by the latest report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, who will present at the event. It highlights the huge role that gender stereotyping plays in the downplaying of suffering of women, girls and those from LGBTI groups – to the extent that state-led or condoned crimes against them are commonly considered secondary to full ‘torture’. The session will also consider whether we need a binding convention, specifically tailored to the prevention of VAWG, as proposed by former UN Special Rapporteur on VAWG, Rashida Manjoo. As the lead researcher of a multi-country study into 11 women’s prisons, I’ll present the voices of the women I met inside these facilities,…

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Advocating for the rights of women in Georgia’s criminal justice system

This month I

This month I’ve been acting as international advisor to a project by Penal Reform International, which is preparing to push for gender-specific reform in Georgia’s criminal justice system. Funded by the Open Society Foundation, the project will advocate on behalf of the 300 or so women in the country’s prison system, and all those who will come after. It will analyse criminal justice policy, practice and legislation and recommend gender-specific considerations during decision-making by judiciary and parole mechanisms, with a particular focus on the use of non-custodial measures for women who aren’t a violent risk to society. It will also raise awareness on women’s gender-specific needs in criminal justice system and the gendered negative impact of imprisonment, for them, their families, and society.

Currently most justice and correctional systems fail to take into account the factors that colour, often harmfully, women’s experiences of criminal justice and detention,…

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Blog Series: Seven human rights challenges faced by women in detention

This seven-part series looks into the challenges, risks and discrimination faced by women imprisoned around the world. They have been published by: The Oxford Human Rights Hub, Essex Human Rights Centre, Inter-Press Service, Open Democracy, and Penal Reform International, and can be found aggregated on the website of DIGNITY - Danish Institute Against Torture.

They draw from my research in 2013-2014 with DIGNITY among prisons and prison communities in five countries -- Albania, Guatemala, Jordan, the Philippines and Zambia -- now published as a comparative report:

This seven-part series looks into the challenges, risks and discrimination faced by women imprisoned around the world. They have been published by: The Oxford Human Rights Hub, Essex Human Rights Centre, Inter-Press Service, Open Democracy, and Penal Reform International, and can be found aggregated on the website of DIGNITY – Danish Institute Against Torture.

They draw from my research in 2013-2014 with DIGNITY among prisons and prison communities in five countries — Albania, Guatemala, Jordan, the Philippines and Zambia — now published as a comparative report: ‘Conditions for Women in Detention: Needs, Vulnerabilities and Best Practices’, and as four country studies.

 

 
1. Vulnerabilities during admission
“The first day is the most horrible, the most humiliating.”

2. The particular impact of detention conditions
Published by Open Democracy
“These things make you feel inhuman if you concentrate on them,
so you try to forget them and accept…

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Conditions for Women in Detention in Zambia: Needs, Vulnerabilities and Good practices

Dignity Publication; Series on Torture and Organised Violence No. 12 (2015) Jo Baker and DIGNITY - Danish Institute Against Torture  

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

“These things make you feel inhuman if you concentrate on them, so you try to forget them and accept life.” - Inmate

While conditions for women in Zambia’s under-resourced prison system are largely considered better than those for men, a closer look tells a different story. As a minority, it may be that various women’s facilities suffer from less (yet still chronic) congestion, are subject to lighter security restrictions, and allow more flexibility, at the discretion of the warden. Yet as revealed by this study, there is a broad, acute and harmful lack of consideration for the special needs of women in detention, in forms acknowledged by and less visible to officials and personnel in the Zambia Prison Service (ZPS or Prison Service). These gaps are detrimental to the dignity and wellbeing of female detainees and breach many of their human rights.

Key among these gaps are a lack of basic hygiene provisions and gender-specific healthcare. These present particular risk to the health of inmates, among others, who are pregnant, living with HIV, accompanied by young children or for those who, because of stigma or distance from family (which are both, in many cases, worse for men than women), have no outside assistance at all. Although the Prison Service should be commended for the continued opening of prisons to outside support and a human rights approach, it must observe its State responsibility to meet detainees’ basic needs.

Female inmates were largely found to be isolated from family, including children, and from other forms of outside support, which research has indicated is likely to be more harmful to women than men, in general, from a psychological and material perspective. For the women interviewed in Zambia, this was often the greatest cause of anxiety and despair (as summarized in the section, What Matters Most). Female inmates lack access to vocational, educational and recreational activities that are made available to men; they are also unremunerated, even though many women face extreme anxiety about supporting themselves and any dependents on release, given their frequent (and gendered) rejection from their husbands, families and communities. Key, also, are discriminatory barriers to complaint and information that place them at risk. The Offender Management role has been seen to fill critical gaps in admissions screenings and orientation for female inmates, in identifying special needs and connecting them with needed services and counselling, but it is under resourced and under supported institutionally.

Men and women are separated in law and to a great extent, in practice, and inmates were protected from gender-based violence and harassment by men in the facilities visited by DIGNITY, according to our research. In contrast to reports of police custody, a sharp decline in the use of physical violence and torture against women by prison staff has also been reported in recent years, among other improvements. Yet DIGNITY is concerned that sexual relationships with male staff are not fully prevented in some facilities, and degrading and harmful disciplinary measures were also found to be used by female staff, including body searching practices.

Attention to staff training, gender awareness and attitudes would make a great difference — particularly among female staff -- as would measures to encourage free, regular and dignified contact with family and children; structured activities to engage and empower women (personally and economically); and greater attention to sanitation and health provisions, particularly for pregnant women, new mothers, and children. While these may be most important for women with long sentences, they are also urgently needed in small rural prisons, where women may have very little provided for them.

Dignity Publication; Series on Torture and Organised Violence No. 12 (2015) Jo Baker and DIGNITY – Danish Institute Against Torture  

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

“These things make you feel inhuman if you concentrate on them, so you try to forget them and accept life.” – Inmate

While conditions for women in Zambia’s under-resourced prison system are largely considered better than those for men, a closer look tells a different story. As a minority, it may be that various women’s facilities suffer from less (yet still chronic) congestion, are subject to lighter security restrictions, and allow more flexibility, at the discretion of the warden. Yet as revealed by this study, there is a broad, acute and harmful lack of consideration for the special needs of women in detention, in forms acknowledged by and less visible to officials and personnel in the Zambia Prison Service (ZPS or Prison Service). These gaps are detrimental to the dignity and wellbeing of female detainees and breach…

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New study sheds light on women in Jordanian prisons

What are the particular needs, issues, risks and vulnerabilities that face imprisoned women in Jordan? And does the prison management comply with international standards? These questions lie at the heart of DIGNITY’s research into conditions for women in detention in five countries — of which the Jordan country study is one part.

The strong social norms and forms of discrimination that women face in Jordan reach deep into places of detention, and their experience of being detained. To be a detained woman here, in many cases, is to lose touch with the majority of your family members and your children despite an acute need for intimate and social contact, and to feel isolated from the outside world. It is often to be heavily stigmatized by your own community, and by prison staff. It is to have likely experienced forms of gender-based violence before entering prison — some physically and mentally debilitating in the name of honour — and to not receive the help that you need in order…

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Women in prison: The particular vulnerability to abuse

“You are surrounded by men and powerless. There are no women to talk for you. They want to win as men.”  ― Inmate, Zambia
Written for the Essex Human Rights Centre Blog, 2014*

Despite international commitments by governments to make their prisons secure, safe and well-organized, this is aspiration (if that) rather than practice across much of the world. Sealed away from society ― its sight, and often interest or empathy ― prisoners are among the world’s most vulnerable groups. But what of the vulnerable groups among them?

With the rising number of women in custody, it has become increasingly important to acknowledge the different safety and security needs of women, and the way in which the pervasive violence and discrimination in our societies can reach through and be magnified by prison walls. This vulnerability colours women prisoners’ experience of security measures and discipline, their sense of insecurity and fear, as well as their ability to respond, heal, and achieve change or justice, as our conversations with women prisoners in five countries last year found.

Key among these was the deep sense of degradation women detainees would feel around the times of personal searches, often invasive and carried out in breach of international standards in some of the countries. “You queue, strip, lie down on the floor, spread your legs and they ask you to insert a finger in your vagina,” said a woman in Zambia, years into her remand, noting that young, aggressive female cadets were often assigned to this procedure, carried out in front of other cell mates. “We find this very hard. Our self esteem dives.” In Jordan a former detainee cried as she recalled being ‘screamed at’ to squat and jump by multiple staff while naked and menstruating.

Others spoke of the stigma. In two countries, women who had broken certain social codes and gender norms in their societies (other than the fact of their arrest), appeared to be treated with disdain as a default by female staff. “They were going through my belongings, my face creams and expensive things from abroad and I was crying,” said one disabled survivor of a so-called honour crime, in Jordan. “And they asked, ‘from which prostitute house did you come from?’” An inmate in Zambia told me that she had been whipped and slapped years earlier in custody, yet she found the verbal abuse from prison staff more painful. “They say, ‘you’re criminals, that’s why you live like animals’. They look at us like animals.”

Our report also details the impact of harmful disciplinary measures on female inmates, among them excessive isolation and confinement, and callous responses to self-harming (a much more common practice among imprisoned women than men). In Jordan an ex-inmate recounted her own series of increasingly desperate attempts to self harm. She concluded: “Finally, so that I wouldn’t do anything to myself they put me alone behind a fence with one police woman. I tried to hang myself with the prison clothing. Then the punishment is that they take away your visits: you can’t buy anything from the supermarket, and no phones. Or they put you in the Cell, a very small room.”

And while NGOs in most countries reported that cases of sexual abuse in prison were much rarer now, thanks to the stricter separation of male and female staff and inmates, our team occasionally heard quiet whispers from inmates of sexual relationships with male staff ― usually among women who have the least support on the outside. “Some women are forced into that kind of situation because they feel desperate,” said one NGO worker. “We have a phrase in the Philippines: it’s like holding onto a knife for your life.”



While it was heartening to hear almost unanimously that outright violence now is much rarer in the visited prisons (largely credited to human rights trainings and international intervention) ­­-- and we encountered an example in Albania of commendable gender-sensitive management -- this was not the case for police custody, where women reported a much greater degree of vulnerability, and a lack of female staff. In Zambia, in particular, our researchers were told of gender-based brutality, humiliation and rape taking place; of women forced to barter rights such as food, contact with family, and even visits to the toilet for sexual favours. One inmate who had killed her husband was taunted, whipped and beaten by policemen. “As they beat you, they said things like, ‘one man is entitled to 18 wives and you have taken a man out of this world – so you have deprived 18 women’,” she told me. “They think they are above women.”

And, contrary to international standards, gender barriers were often indicated along avenues of complaint and protection, from complaint books/boxes kept in male sections, to the absence of medical screening for abuse on arrival at prison, to overt discriminatory attitudes.  “When you report abuse in Zambia, as a woman you will be blamed more than the man,” I was told by a researcher in Zambia.

“You are surrounded by men and powerless. There are no women to talk for you. They want to win as men.”  ― Inmate, Zambia
Written for the Essex Human Rights Centre Blog, 2014*

Despite international commitments by governments to make their prisons secure, safe and well-organized, this is aspiration (if that) rather than practice across much of the world. Sealed away from society ― its sight, and often interest or empathy ― prisoners are among the world’s most vulnerable groups. But what of the vulnerable groups among them?

With the rising number of women in custody, it has become increasingly important to acknowledge the different safety and security needs of women, and the way in which the pervasive violence and discrimination in our societies can reach through and be magnified by prison walls. This vulnerability colours women prisoners’ experience of security measures and discipline, their sense of insecurity and fear, as well as their ability to respond, heal, and…

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Evidence review on sexual and reproductive rights and gender equality published by the IPPF

This is the second report in the Vision 2020 series, published by the International Planned Parenthood Foundation  this publication."SRHR- the key to gender equality and women’s empowerment" sets out how SRHR is critical to gender equality and women’s empowerment across three dimensions. It explores how ensuring universal access to SRHR can promote economic growth, social equity and political participation. My evidence review and policy recommendations inform and are reproduced in the first of three sections, on equality in social development. The report also draws on my research into pathways of empowerment.

Download the report
The research examines the relationship between SRHR and three key aspects of social development: health, education, and sexual and gender-based violence, as critical to the empowerment and equality of girls and women all spheres of development.  Among other areas, it highlights that globally, the single leading risk factor for death and disability in women of reproductive age in low‑and middle‑income countries is unsafe sex, mainly due to HIV, and to maternal mortality; that girls in smaller families tend to have fewer care taking responsibilities, girl children are valued more, gender and family dynamics are more supportive of girls and women, and there are lower rates of adolescent pregnancy; and that convincing links have been shown between the care‑giving roles and economic responsibilities of children in families living with HIV and disruptions to schooling for girls. It highlights too that screening for violence in the context of SRH services can be effective in preventing the recurrence of violence and enabling the empowerment of women and girls.

This is the second report in the Vision 2020 series, published by the International Planned Parenthood Foundation  this publication.”SRHR- the key to gender equality and women’s empowerment” sets out how SRHR is critical to gender equality and women’s empowerment across three dimensions. It explores how ensuring universal access to SRHR can promote economic growth, social equity and political participation. My evidence review and policy recommendations inform and are reproduced in the first of three sections, on equality in social development. The report also draws on my research into pathways of empowerment.

Download the report
The research examines the relationship between SRHR and three key aspects of social development: health, education, and sexual and gender-based violence, as critical to the empowerment and equality of girls and women all spheres of development.  Among other areas, it highlights that globally, the single leading risk factor for death and disability in women…

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Violence against women: A cause, a condition and a consequence of detention

Speech delivered by Jo Baker for DIGNITY – Danish Institute Against Torture, and partners, Amman, Jordan, September 2015.

During the past two and half years, as part of my work with DIGNITY, I’ve visited and spoken with detained women and those who work with them in six countries.

My aim has been to understand the needs, risk and vulnerabilities that relate largely to their sex and their gender – that result from biological differences, social norms, and discrimination.

I’ve had the chance to explore and reflect – through our research and that of others – the role that Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) plays in the experiences of many women in priso, and to an extent, in their route to incarceration. Indeed, as the former Special Rapporteur on violence against women, has well identified – VAWG is often a critical cause, condition and consequence of women’s imprisonment.

My aim here today is to try and give a brief introduction to the scope, the forms and the causes of this violence, as experienced by women detained in the penal system.

Since we don’t have much time, I’ve included on the handout some definitions of VAWG in international law. I will just quickly add that this form of violence is recognised as a type of gender-based violence, which means that it is caused a) by the social expectations/norms associated with a gender and b) the unequal power relationships between genders, in a specific society. It is therefore largely a product of discrimination, and it disproportionately affects women compared to men.
How bad?
So let’s consider scope. Studies suggest that the proportion of women in prisons and pre-trial detention who have survived violence is very high - even higher than among women in the outside community (although under reporting makes this research particularly challenging). In countries around the world, 60, 70, even 90% of incarcerated women have experienced sexual or other forms of gender-based abuse in the past. You’ll find some examples on your handout.

If you consider the profiles of women in prison around the world, this becomes a little more understandable. Women are often from poor backgrounds, with little or no economic independence, low levels of education and primary caretaking responsibilities – which makes it more difficult for them to protect themselves or escape violence.

They are detained most commonly for economic crimes, drug or trafficking related crimes, prostitution, and for killing family members (most often, abusive family members).  These contexts – particularly sex work, organized crime, and abusive families – have strong links with VAWG.
Violence as a Cause…
Among commonly detained groups of women are those arrested for drug crimes, who operate at a minor level but who have coercive or violent partners who play a greater role in the trade.

They include the many women who have used force against their abusers in order to protect themselves or their children, once they decide that the law cannot/will not help them. In many of these cases, the fact of a woman’s long term abuse, notions of self-defence and fearing for her life, do not influence the court’s sentencing decisions.

As of course you know, in Jordan women are detained as a result of experiencing violent and so-called honour crimes – their voices are in the report. And in many countries women have been imprisoned for violating discriminatory laws which particularly affect female survivors of violence. Among these are victims of honour crimes, administratively detained for their own protection; victims of rape; and those who are imprisoned for the crime of running away from home.

So you can see how VAWG operates as a pathway to prison.

Consider how differently these women may be impacted by prison life. Consider a young woman who has been raped, or survived horrific violence from her family members. What physical healthcare might she need in the following days months years? What reproductive and sexual healthcare, or other forms? What psychological care and counselling, in response to post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression? How might she respond to isolation, or to aggressive/invasive search procedures, to so-called virginity testing, shackling, or to being imprisoned in a facility with male guards or inmates? How might she cope, away from children and family?
… A Condition…
Once in detention, women prisoners are particularly vulnerable to gendered forms of abuse, particularly those places that breach international standards by mixing male and female inmates, and allowing male supervision of female inmates.

In these situations, sexual exploitation and abuse – including rape, trading sexual favours for provisions and privileges, so-called virginity testing, and sexual assault during body searches – may take place.

Research has indicated that people with histories of sexual abuse are more vulnerable to being exploited and victimized again. This is a particular problem in a detention environment, where they may face retraumatization, and have few ways to seek protection.

Speech delivered by Jo Baker for DIGNITY – Danish Institute Against Torture, and partners, Amman, Jordan, September 2015.

During the past two and half years, as part of my work with DIGNITY, I’ve visited and spoken with detained women and those who work with them in six countries.

My aim has been to understand the needs, risk and vulnerabilities that relate largely to their sex and their gender – that result from biological differences, social norms, and discrimination.

I’ve had the chance to explore and reflect – through our research and that of others – the role that Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) plays in the experiences of many women in priso, and to an extent, in their route to incarceration. Indeed, as the former Special Rapporteur on violence against women, has well identified – VAWG is often a critical cause, condition and consequence of women’s imprisonment.

My aim here today is to try and give a brief introduction to the scope, the forms…

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The Good Life

South China Morning Post, 9 May 2015

Dubbed the most influential philosopher alive, Peter Singer is loved and loathed for his controversial views. Now he wants us to give away a lot of our money. Jo Baker reports

For a man who sparks volcanic public debate wherever he goes, Peter Singer comes across as remarkably mild mannered.

“I do cause some controversy, but there are also misunderstandings,” acknowledges the renowned moral philosopher, softly, as we plumb a few of the inaccuracies that have tainted the public reaction to his work. Although dubbed by The New Yorker magazine as “the most influential philosopher alive”, Singer, known also as a bioethicist and activist, has been maligned during his career for tolerance or support, from a moral standpoint, of euthanasia, abortion, the rights of animals over some humans, infanticide and forms of bestiality – not to mention his calling “the whole edifice of Judaeo-Christian morality” terminally ill. And these charges have now swollen to include the belittling of wealthy philanthropists. This is a serious charge-sheet indeed.

[Original article at the South China Morning Post]

An academic, with appointments at the University of Melbourne, in Australia, and Princeton University, in the United States, the Australian visited the University of Hong Kong recently to publicise his new book on the ethics of giving charitably, parts of which have also managed to cause indignant emissions from the public. The Most Good You Can Do is a challenge to the affluent (and not so affluent) people around the world who might consider themselves to be “good”. In it he argues that many of us, if we were truly good, could afford to give about a third of our income to charity.

Yet as a proponent of the “effective altruism” movement, certain good deeds and charities rank much higher in Singer’s book than others – which is where the belittling comes in. In an interview earlier this year, the philosopher criticised the donation of US$100 million by an American tycoon for the renovation of a concert hall at New York’s Lincoln Centre for the Performing Arts, which would later be named after the philanthropist. Singer pointed out that just US$100 can restore the sight of a blind person. The basic needs of people around the world must take priority, he said. “Then help people listen to concerts in beautiful concert halls.” In certain circles, hackles were raised.

But Singer has supported his moral argument with another one. Effective giving is not only the hallmark of an ethical person, he says, but a happy one, too. “I think a lot of people do want to find more fulfilment, do something that is more worthwhile than just displaying their wealth,” he says, having noted that, according to studies, a sense of wellbeing is not increased by wealth accumulated beyond about US$75,000. In a city that is home to 732,000 millionaires, and in which around one in five children lives below the poverty line, this in itself is a racy statement.

SINGER WAS BORN IN MELBOURNE, Australia, to a family of Austrian Jews that had been decimated by the Nazi genocide. This legacy prompted his preoccupation with ethics and morality, he says, although less so an investigation of them as a philosopher (which was more because he “liked to have a good argument”).

Told by his father that he would never earn a living as a philosopher, Singer nevertheless rejected law in favour of philosophy, and after taking bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Melbourne, he won a scholarship to Oxford University, in Britain.

It was there, as a postgraduate student and a lecturer, that he developed and refined his adherence to utilitarianism – the view that the greatest happiness for the greatest number is the measure of right and wrong – and set about popularising and applying this perspective in modern society. He developed a knack for presenting compelling – though not always pleasant – arguments in both academic circles and the public eye.

“If you are utilitarian you work on the basis that we should minimise suffering and maximise happiness,” says Singer. “Obviously, a lot of other people think that you must minimise suffering, too, but they may believe, for example, that there are moral rules that you shouldn’t break, that there are independent principles like justice and equality, which weigh independently of whether they reduce suffering or produce wellbeing.

“Utilitarians don’t think this – they think these things are desirable when they are a means to an end.”

Singer’s views have seen him confronted by baying mobs, receive reams of hate mail, likened to Hitler’s deputy and described as “the most dangerous man on Earth” by his most vehement critics, including The Wall Street Journal and disability rights activists. And yet his starting point, he says, is compassion.

“The topics I want to influence the public on are ones where I think there’s a great deal of unnecessary suffering that could be prevented, if only we did a few things differently – things within the ability of individuals to do in their own lives and that don’t require government [intervention],” he says, in his soft-spoken manner.

It was in 1975 that the philosopher began to prove his father wrong by publishing Animal Liberation, which gained considerable public attention. In the book, he argues that the suffering of animals is comparable to human suffering, and that because some animals are smarter than young children and severely impaired adults, they should be given greater consideration. It became a founding text of the world-wide animal-rights movement.

“I’d say we don’t really know enough about how we compare the tragedy of a family losing a child with the suffering of chickens confined for a year in a crowded space [where they] can’t stretch their wings,” he said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.

At the root of Animal Liberation – and Singer’s theories on euthanasia and abortion, among other issues – is the belief that the welfare and value of beings should be measured by their capacity to have self-aware experiences and hold preferences, rather than a supposed innate right. Singer has argued, for example, that the life of a chimpanzee or an elephant is of more value than the life of a severely impaired human.

“I don’t think that if you’re a member of the species Homo sapien, your life is more precious than if you’re a member of any other species, irrespective of other capacities or abilities,” clarifies the philosopher. It similarly makes no sense, he has argued, that while there are more differences between a great ape and an oyster, compared with those between a human and a great ape, the former two are lumped together as “animals” while we are “human”. He famously challenged this boundary further in 2001, when he suggested that “mutually satisfying activities” of a sexual nature between humans and animals should not necessarily be opposed.

Similarly, Singer argues that fetuses and newborns lack the essential characteristics of personhood, including self-awareness, which means that the killing of either can never be equivalent to killing an aware being that wants to go on living.

“I think it’s reasonable to say that compassion, empathy and concern for others underlie my ethical position. I think the most vehement critics of my views of the sanctity of life are people who come from a religious foundation, usually a conservative Christian foundation, and think that all human life is sacred in the way that non-human animals can’t be.”

In 2012, when the philosopher became a Companion of the Order of Australia, the nation’s highest honour, the response was predictably split, and predictably fiery. On one side were those who consider Singer an advocate of genocide. On the other were those, such as the leader of Australia’s Greens party, Christine Milne, who applauded “his global reputation for challenging people to reconsider their views on ethical behaviour, animal welfare and the human condition”.

For some, the philosopher’s latest focus on charitable giving may be no less confronting than his previous topics of inquiry. This is particularly so in a city that is famous both for its wealthy tycoons and its impoverished rubbish collectors aged well into their 70s and 80s. Singer remains optimistic.

“Obviously, there’s great wealth in this city now,” he says. “When countries are struggling to establish themselves at a certain level of economic security, philanthropy is less prominent, but once they get to that point, then people who made a lot of money start to ask themselves, ‘What am I going to do with this, what am I doing it for?’ They sort of realise that the ninth Ferrari doesn’t make any difference to their happiness.

“It’s questionable whether the first did.

“That’s something that, if you haven’t had money, is exciting for a while and gives you some kind of status, but I think a lot of people tire of it.”

Singer points to the rise of effective altruism as a movement, which has been influenced by a small core of moral philosophers including himself, and grown fast in the past few years. Now, more than ever, believes Singer, people are transforming their lives to have the biggest impact on changing the world for the better, whether through donations, lifestyles or the careers they choose.

“In the US, you find people who made a lot of money quite early in life, much before they thought they would, through IT stuff, start-ups, working for hedge funds. So they’re thinking, ‘I’m 25, I’ve already got tens of millions, what am I going to do with the rest of my life?’ Somebody said to me, ‘I could travel the world and stay in luxury hotels for years, but after that, what?'”

Singer believes that the difference between the conventional forms of giving charitably and this new movement lies in information technology. We now live with considerable awareness and data about the inequalities of our world. Where it was once difficult to feel certain that donations would be well spent, now a reliable group of independent organisations investigate, calculate and then rate charities for the impact of their work. This has shown that some charities are hundreds, or even thousands, of times more effective than others.

“There are excellent websites that you can now go to, to find organisations to donate to,” he says, mentioning Give Well, which was set up by a group of donors employed full-time in the hedge-fund industry, and The Life You Can Save, which Singer himself set up.

In a 2013 TED Talk, viewed more than a million times online, Singer underscored his controversial style with images of two-year-old Wang Yue, who was run over by a van in Foshan, Guangdong province, and later died of her injuries, having been ignored by passers-by as she lay on the ground.

“How many of you said to yourselves, ‘I would not have done that; I would have stopped to help’?” he asked, as the majority of his audience raised their hands. Then he gave the statistic that in 2011, 6.9 million children aged under five died from preventable, poverty-related diseases, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund. Now that we can be connected within seconds to organisations that can save them, he argued, the location or the nationality of these 19,000 per day makes them no different, morally, to a child you pass in the street.

Singer applauds the clear rise in effective philanthropy among the millionaires and billionaires of the start-up and tech era. Warren Buffett, and Bill and Melinda Gates have saved 5.8 million lives and improved the health of many millions more, he says, with no one – not even renowned American philanthropists Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller – having come close to any one of them in impact. Yet Singer is more focused on the hundreds of thousands of others who are making the change.

At a Hong Kong International Literary Festival talk last month in Wan Chai, Singer spoke of Australian academic Toby Ord, who, on a modest salary, calculated that he could give enough throughout his career to cure 80,000 people of blindness in developing countries and still have enough left for a good standard of living. Ord later founded Giving What We Can, an organisation that unites people who want to do the same. The organisation now has more than 1,000 members and has pledged more than US$350 million to “evidence-based global poverty interventions”. Singer spoke of those who have saved numerous lives by making simple sacrifices – forgoing a new car, a holiday or even bottled water in countries where tap water is safe. And he spoke of Matt Wage, a Princeton philosophy graduate who decided the best thing he could do was not to go into development and aid, but to work in finance – which he currently does in Hong Kong – and give a six-figure sum each year to effective charities.

“Because, if you earn a lot of money, you can give away a lot of money, and if you’re successful in that career, you could give enough to an aid organisation that it could employ, let’s say, five aid workers in developing countries,” says Singer, explaining why that would be so much more beneficial than volunteering yourself.

The philosopher has largely lived by his own moral code. He has been a vegetarian for 45 years and, for the past four decades, has donated to charity between 10 per cent and 33 per cent of his income, and aims to eventually reach 50 per cent. As a father of four, he remembers bringing up his children to inquire in a similar manner.

“[Their upbringing] can’t have been too bad because we’re still a close family,” he says. “Sure, we talked about ethical issues; there was a bit of a … philosophy for children movement, which prepares educational materials for primary-school-age kids, and I remember reading them with my children. I think we did a couple of classes in their primary school.”

His wife, he says, has been supportive of many of his choices – although she did suggest, on his turning vegetarian, that he start cooking a little more.

More serious has been Singer’s grapple with issues surrounding his mother, who died of Alzheimer’s disease – a condition that largely robs its victims of the qualities, such as self-awareness and autonomy, by which the philosopher measures a life’s value. Singer did support her financially while she was ill and has admitted that the decision to end a person’s life feels “different” when that life belongs to someone close, which resulted in charges of hypocrisy. Yet other family members, including Singer’s sister, shared the decision-making and care, and, he says, with difficulty, his mother would probably have died six months earlier than she did had he been in sole charge.

Yet what comes through most clearly, overriding the Australian’s zeal as an activist and his knack for hitting the human heart where it hurts, is the distinctive and too-rare calm of someone who is at peace with his place in the world. When he dies, he says, his tombstone will make for a modest read.

“It would say something like, ‘He did what he could to make the world a better place’,” he says, after some thought. “You know, I don’t see myself as somebody who’s transforming the whole world, I see myself as part of a long tradition that dates back to Socrates, that has always been trying to make the world a more human, more compassionate place.

“If I’ve helped a little bit to move things forward, that’s enough.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: The good life

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