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Effective Altruism

Your charity dollars and time probably could do more good.

RikkisREfuge Other, CC 2.0
Source: RikkisREfuge Other, CC 2.0

William MacAskill is a tenured Oxford professor and serial social entrepreneur. He’s spent the last six years developing a concept he calls effective altruism, which he lays out in his new book, Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and How You Can Make a Difference.

I spoke with him today.

MN: Let’s work from the concrete. How would you evaluate the following charity choice: Fund the Society for Neuroscience to give a grant every year for the most promising early-stage professor studying the biological basis of reasoning, with the goal of improving humankind’s reasoning skills?

WM: I like funding innovation because it has big ripple effect. Innovation has led to most improvement in the world. I also like your idea because economic research shows that increasing IQ yields big economic benefit to a country. On the other hand, it’s risky because it’s a difficult problem to make progress on, and probably not that neglected because there’s a big potential market for that sort of research. If the market will fund this research anyway, your charitable donation would be superfluous.

MN: I wish more money were spent on the foundations of reasoning but for political reasons, there's far less spent on it than you might think. In any event, how would you evaluate the following charitable idea: Donating to Physicians for a National Health Program, which is trying to influence the U.S. government to have single-payer health care? That one policy would help many people, although arguably reduce access to society’s haves.

WM: I’m sympathetic to funding things that will lead to political change to the extent that change will make the world better. But the net impact on human health of U.S. Single-Payer would be a small benefit or a small liability compared to the clearly large benefit of, for example, buying mosquito nets for people in Africa, which would prevent many malaria deaths. Also, because so much money is already being donated to try to get single-payer healthcare, your dollars wouldn’t move the needle much.

I agree that funding policy change can be potent but I’d much rather see you fund an organization that’s trying to eliminate agricultural subsidies. Why? Because while agricultural subsidies marginally lower the cost of food to consumers in rich nations, they also make it difficult for farmers in poor nations to compete.

MN: Your previous answer as well as your book implies that the best charities focus on the world’s poorest people. But because such people face such challenges just to survive, such donations are less likely to yield less world-wide ripple effect than, for example, funding one-on-one mentorships for intellectually gifted kids in U.S. working-class schools. Today, programs for such kids have been eviscerated because of America’s focus on helping its lowest achievers. And U.S. gifted kids are more likely than the world’s poorest people to become the scientists who’ll cure disease, leaders who’ll wisely steer us away from war and improve the quality of life for all of us. As every triage medic knows, it's wise to allocate resources not to those with the greatest deficit but to those with the greatest potential to profit. Am I missing something?

WM:  There’s more ripple effect in helping poor nations than you might think. For example, let's say you fund replacing an African’s thatched roof with a tin roof.  Because it needs to be replaced less often, it yields that person a 14% annual return. And the person can then spend that money more valuably, for example, on education.

MN: But isn’t education free, even in poor nations?

WM: Usually yes but not the uniforms that students often are required to wear, or the opportunity cost of the children attending school rather than working. In any case, education was just one example. Empowering poor people often leads to improvements on other dimensions..

MN: Can donating to something that facilitates something as devoid of ripple effect as school uniforms be a world-best donation?

WM: It may be unwise to require uniforms, let alone to require parents to pay for them, but if that’s the policy in their country, then if we want to educate those kids, it helps to fund their uniforms.

MN: It would seem you’d do more good donating to a charity that is trying to get that  policy changed than to a charity that's replacing thatched roofs with tin ones.  In any case, it’s obvious that you're helping a more destitute person in Bangladesh even than a homeless person in the U.S. But most people--even most liberals who claim to care about the neediest--generally donate to causes that help people in their own country. Why do you think that is?  

WM: It’s more salient. We tend to think of poverty in relation to a reference group, typically the country we are citizens of. That is why, as you point out, even people who claim to care about those most in need often focus on individuals that are comparatively well off. The poorest 5% of Americans are richer than the richest 5% of Indians.

MN: But most Americans with serious money to donate have limited exposure to their local poor. They’re more likely to turn on the TV and see a commercial showing a gaunt yet attractive, fly-infested yet smiling African kid plus a narrator who pulls at your heartstrings to “Donate now by calling 1-800-SAVEKIDS.”

WM: I think the public is getting ever more inured to that stuff—They don’t trust when the announcer says, “Your $4 could save a life.”

MN: Your book asserts that charities that help animals, for example, those that advocate against factory chicken farming, can be as worthy as charities that help humans. That’s tough for me to understand. Helping a chicken to live its short life free-range seems Lilliputian in comparison with, for example, to donating to Smile Train, which, for $350, does cleft-palate surgery, which saves a child from being a likely lifelong outcast and therefore unproductive and unhappy for life. Can one really assert that protecting chickens is as valuable as protecting human beings?

WM:  I think that to the extent their suffering is the same, we should be equally concerned about improving the lives of chickens as of humans. But I do think that, in general, your charitable dollars and time should probably focus on humans over animals. Improving a chicken’s quality of life doesn’t have an ongoing positive impact on the world in the way that saving a child’s life does.

MN: You single out other charities as being ill-advised. One is giving to disaster relief. Why?

WM: Again, it’s a salience issue. When a disaster hits, there’s immense media coverage and fortunes are donated. Donations to a disaster quickly reach a point of diminishing returns. In contrast, ongoing misery gets little or no publicity. Thus the need is greater there.

MN: You argue that boycotting sweatshop goods in favor of domestic products actually does more harm than good. Explain that.

WM: We assume that if we boycott those companies, the people who work there will get better jobs. In fact, they won’t. In developing countries, the “sweatshop jobs” are the good jobs. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof interviewed a Cambodian woman who scavenges plastic from dumps to sell as recycling. She said, “I’d love to get a job in a factory. At least that work is in the shade.”

An indicator that sweatshops are relatively good is the worker demand for such jobs. For example, in recent years, four million people from Laos, Cambodia, and Burma immigrated to Thailand to take sweatshop jobs. The average factory job in Cambodia pays $5.50 a day, compared with the $1 or $2 a day many such citizens live on. If we boycott sweatshops, we make people in poor countries worse off.

It is important to understand that I’m not saying that sweatshops are good in absolute terms. Rather, I’m claiming that they are better than the alternative. In an ideal world, there would be no sweatshops. But to make them disappear, we shouldn’t boycott them. Instead, we should address the underlying circumstances that make sweatshops appealing to people in extreme poverty.

MN: Charitynavigator.org rates charities on their “efficiency,” the percentage of their income that gets used on program versus overhead: administration and fundraising. Is that a valid index of how much bang for the buck you get from your charitable donation?

WM: Not really. Many organizations spend more on administration and fundraising, yet because their program is so helpful, the net effect is greater. Your focus should be on how much good your donation will do, and that means assessing the program that the charity implements, not focusing on irrelevant and misleading metrics like the ‘overhead ratio’..

MN: But it’s hard to compare program outcomes across charities. Most nonprofits don’t have good outcome data. Worse, an unscrupulous organization could simply make up or at least massage data. For example, we think of universities as among our most credible institutions, yet recent years have seen a number of scandals in which universities have distorted data so they can recruit better or full-fare-paying students, and rank higher in the U.S. News ratings..

WM: You’re right, and that’s why you should consider outsourcing your charity decisions to an organization like GiveWell.

MN: if you buy their assumption that giving to the world's poorest is wisest. In any event, I’ve read articles that suggest it’s unclear whether nonprofits or government are more cost-effective. If that’s ambiguous, why bother making charitable donations? Why not just give it to the government?  

WM:  I’m not surprised to hear that government spending may be as efficient as nonprofit spending when it’s spent on domestic problems. But if you decide to pay more taxes to government, a proportion of that may go to things you’d rather not support, for example, the defense budget. Also, the government overwhelmingly spends on domestic issues. So you can make much more of a difference by donating to charities like the Against Malaria Foundation that improve the lives of people in poor countries.

MN: Anything else you want to tell us?

WM:  In my book, I suggest a bunch of concrete things you can do right now to make a real difference. First, establish a habit of regular giving. Pick a highly effective charity—Giving What We Can and GiveWell  list several—and sign up to make a regular donation. That is the easiest and most tangible way of having a large, immediate positive impact. Of course, it's not the only way.

Second, join the effective altruist community. Go to effectivealtruism.org and sign up to their mailing list. That way you can learn more about effective altruism and about how to get involved in this vibrant new movement.

Finally, tell others about what you’re doing. Go on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or your blog, and tell your friends about your charitable thoughts and efforts. If you can get just one person to make the same changes you make, you’ve doubled your impact.

Marty Nemko’s bio is in Wikipedia.

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