Blog post

How your student loan can save lives

5 min read
22 Jul 2015

What do you want to be when you’re older?

It’s probably one of the first questions we can remember our response to. Back then our vivid imaginations could transport us from being astronauts on spaceships to princesses in beautiful dresses with an entourage of seven dwarves (only one of those was an actual childhood dream of mine).

The unbounded nature of childhood dreams is surely universal, innate to every child.

It should thus both deeply sadden and anger us that so many children across the world die before they even reach the age of five. Nine million a year, one every four seconds.

It is a heartbreaking waste of human potential at the hands of preventable diseases that rob families, communities and continents of the prosperity and livelihood that it is so easy to take for granted.

The fact that where you are born determines to such a cruel extent the scope of your response to that age-old question about the future is strikingly unjust. The globe is polarized between those who are allowed to dream and those who can only live in nightmares.

The perennial nature of extreme poverty is precisely the reason why it so often escapes the headlines. It also contributes to a perception that the reasons for its persistence are inevitably structural and insurmountable, beyond the comprehension or capacities of ordinary people.

That’s why effective altruism, especially for a student armed with nothing more than a government loan and a desire to do something purposeful, is both shocking and inspiring.

Rigorous research and extensive evidence can demonstrate just how conceivable the eradication of poverty really is - when our charitable giving is used in the right way.

For the price of a pint we could deworm fifty children, keeping them healthy enough to attend school and exercise their right to an education of their own. Mosquito nets could protect the beds of almost thirty people for around three to four years for the same amount as a weekly shop. (If you would like to check, use this Charity Impact Calculator)

This does not mean that you have to either starve yourself or be a recluse at university in order to truly help others. Such a degree of self-sacrifice is neither necessary nor desirable.

But it does raise a fundamental question: if students were aware of just how far even a small amount of money can go - making a tangible difference to such a significant number of people’s lives -, would we continue to spend it on ourselves?

Judging by the success with which the effective altruism movement has been embraced at university campuses across the globe, the answer to that question from the student body appears at best to be a resounding no, at worst, a ‘probably not as often’.

If an entire generation of millennials changed their spending patterns for a lifetime to include the most effective charities we would see astonishing results.

But such bold claims are all well and good coming from a privileged group of society, of whom many don’t even know what it’s like not having a three-month summer holiday, let alone working a full-time job.

What’s to stop a student with high-minded ideals reneging on them once they have to pay their taxes, bills and rent and find that they have very little left over?

This is a legitimate question. But, for me, there are three reasons to pledge as a student that stand out.

Firstly, taking the Giving What We Can pledge itself was a public announcement of my determination to be part of the fight against extreme poverty and also a growing community of people doing the same thing. It’s a commitment with which I can hold myself accountable.

It may, in fact, be particularly beneficial for students to take the pledge before we’ve started earning. This is because it avoids the potential difficulties of having to adjust at a later stage. How can you miss something that wasn’t there in the first place?

I know that from day one of my first job until the last, 10% of my earnings are accounted for. I will have to work around that from the very beginning, which could make it far easier in the long run.

Another reason is that even after donating 10% of our salaries to the most effective causes, we are still likely to be in a position of immense fortune.

It’s hard to think of ourselves as part of the world’s super-rich; most of us are far from oligarchs or sheiks! But reality tells a different story: the average starting salary for a graduate (£21,702) makes them richer than 96% of the world, earning a staggering 21.1 times the global average.

Even after deducting 10% from that starting salary they would still be part of the richest 4.9% of the world’s population. But in this scenario, they would also be able to distribute 523 mosquito nets, or treat 2,679 people for neglected tropical diseases- the equivalent to saving one life every year.

The last reason is that I’m sure it will make me happier knowing that a significant part of my earnings will be going towards saving and transforming other people’s lives. By spending it exclusively on myself, the increase in quality of life and happiness I might be able to expect would be comparably insignificant.

It’s important that we don’t overestimate the importance of that 10% to our lives or underestimate how much good we could do with it and how much happier that could make us.

So, as a student approaching the final year of my time at university, the question of what I want to do when I’m older has never seemed so daunting and exciting.

This is not just because I have sadly outgrown my Snow White gown. Rather, it is because I am increasingly aware of how privileged I am to even be able to choose what I want to do, as well as how empowered our generation is, more than any before it, to make a difference.