3 April 2014

South Africa: If You're Well-Off This Is What You Can Do to Reduce Poverty

The Five Plus Project was launched on 17 May this year. Its goal is to get as many well-off South Africans as possible to give at least 5% of their income to organisations and initiatives helping to reduce poverty in South Africa or alleviate its effects.

The Project was inspired by Peter Singer's The Life You Can Save, which begins like this:

On your way to work, you pass a small pond. On hot days, children sometimes play in the pond, which is only about knee-deep. The weather's cool today, though, and the hour is early, so you are surprised to see a child splashing about in the pond. As you get closer, you see that it is a very young child, just a toddler, who is flailing about, unable to stay upright or walk out of the pond. You look for the parents or babysitter, but there is no one else around. The child is unable to keep his head above the water for more than a few seconds at a time. If you don't wade in and pull him out, he seems likely to drown. Wading in is easy and safe, but you will ruin the new shoes you bought only a few days ago, and get your suit wet and muddy. By the time you hand the child over to someone responsible for him, and change your clothes, you'll be late for work. What should you do?

Most people would agree that you would be morally obliged to jump into the pond to save the child, even though it would spoil your shoes and make you late. Singer argues, persuasively, that wealthy people have a similar moral obligation to help people dying or suffering because they are poor.

More than 16,000 people have joined an organisation named after Singer's book. All of them have pledged some of their income to organisations helping people in poverty. How much is calculated by a progressive formula: 5% if you earn R600,000 a year, 10% if you earn R3 million, and so on.

The Five Plus Project has similar objectives. But it has a specifically South African focus. And its demands are more modest. If you are a comparatively well-off South African, it asks that once a year you take the following pledge:

I pledge that over the coming year I will give at least 5% of my taxable income to one or more organisations or initiatives helping to reduce poverty in South Africa or alleviate its effects.

The Project does not prescribe which organisations or initiatives a person should give to in order to fulfil this pledge. Nor will the Project take the amount that a person has pledged and pass it on to the organisations or initiatives he or she has chosen. But the Project will make the fact that a person has taken the pledge public. And it will prompt those who have taken the pledge to do so again, a year later.

We started work on the Project in December last year. Our first challenge was to recruit a group of Founder Members. Over a two-month period, we approached about 300 friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. The response was overwhelming. Almost 120 agreed to take the pledge. Many of those approached provided invaluable suggestions as to how to fine-tune the Project, thus improving it considerably.

Since the launch, our challenge has been to keep the Project's membership growing. In the first fortnight, another 30 people joined. That is an increase of 25%. But our aim is to recruit at least 1,000 members by the end of 2014. We also want the Project's membership to be as diverse as possible.

The Five Plus Project is not linked to any political party, religion or other grouping. Its membership is open to all, regardless of political, religious or other affiliation.

We recognise that poverty in South Africa will not be eliminated by this kind of Project. Many other interventions are needed, involving not only private individuals but also public institutions, and tackling not only poverty's consequences but also its causes. The Five Plus Project is not meant to replace such interventions, but to supplement them.

To join the Project, one simply has to access our website at www.fiveplus.uct.ac.za and take the pledge. Or one can send an email to fiveplusproj [at] gmail [dot] com. The website also provides detailed answers to a number of frequently asked questions. But it is appropriate that we deal with one of them here, namely: Who is a comparatively well-off South African?

Here are some statistics of the last tax year. Of the 13.6 million people in employment in South Africa, only 1.3% had a taxable income of R750,000 or more. Fewer than 5% had a taxable income of R400,000. And fewer than 15% had a taxable income of R200,000. If the roughly four million people seeking employment are added to those in employment, these percentages shrink substantially.

Here are some more statistics. In 2008/9, close to 11% of South Africa's population fell below the World Bank's extreme poverty line of $1.25 per day. In other words, 5 million people in South Africa were unable to meet their most basic needs for adequate food, water, shelter, clothing, sanitation, healthcare, and education. In the same year, 26% of South Africa's population fell below the food poverty line of R305 per month, which is the amount that a person needs in order to consume his or her required energy intake. So 13 million people in South Africa were unable to get enough food into their stomachs every month.

Consider, finally, these figures. The World Bank's Gini coefficient measures a country's income distribution on a scale from 0 to 1, where 0 represents perfect equality and 1 perfect inequality. In 2009, South Africa had a Gini coefficient of 0.63. That placed it among the five most unequal countries in the world.

So, if you are a comparatively well-off South African, we urge you to take the pledge and to encourage your family, friends and associates to do so too. With 150 members the Five Plus Project is already making a meaningful difference. But imagine how great a difference it will make with 1,000 members or more.

Corder is the Professor of Public Law at the University of Cape Town (UCT). Fagan is W P Schreiner Professor of Law at UCT.

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