Whom to give to?

A few years ago I heard Peter Singer’s argument about charitable giving and it definitely made an impact on me.  That, along with several other writers advocating against giving to already wealthy institutions (e.g., my undergraduate alma mater), as well as some really interesting reporting on organizations like Givewell has really influenced my own charitable contributions.  In fact, thanks to Givewell, I spent my New Year’s eve giving to Give Directly, the Fistula Foundation, and Living Goods.  Anyway, in light of that, I was intrigued by Eric Posner’s Slate article suggesting that perhaps I should have given to Duke or some local disadvantaged kids.

First, his summary of the compelling Singer augment:

But the idea that one should contribute one’s excess wealth to the poor is only one prong of effective altruism. Singer elaborates on the other prong in a new book calledThe Most Good You Can Do.

After you resolve to donate your excess wealth to the poor, Singer says, you have an additional ethical obligation to ensure that the money is used in the most effective way possible. This might seem like an obvious idea, but it isn’t. Suppose you donate $5,000 to the local Little League so that it can buy baseball equipment for poor children. You might feel good about yourself, but an effective altruist will realize that this amount of money could be used to buy malaria nets or medicine that would save as many as five lives in a poor country. Then you should ask yourself: Which is better, some kids playing baseball or some kids getting a chance at life? Or put differently, should you really let children in Niger die so that some First World kids get to play baseball?

Posner, though, finds some reasons to doubt Singer’s admonitions:

GiveWell does not say that the other charities are worthless but typically declines to recommend them because they do not supply enough information for GiveWell to evaluate their programs. GiveWell declined to recommend Oxfam, for example, because Oxfam does not publish “high-quality monitoring and evaluation reports on its website” and implements many programs that GiveWell does not think are particularly effective. So how do we know that Oxfam does any good? Yet this is a charity that Singer has extolled many times.

Academic research on foreign aid has painted a similarly bleak picture. There is little evidence that the trillions of dollars donated to developing countries has helpedthem develop…

Aid is often lost to corruption, or misused because donors do not understand foreign cultures. Aid can even stoke conflict and damage institutions, as groups compete for access to foreign funds. Well-intentioned aid efforts frequently illustrate the law of unintended consequences. A good illustration is the poster child for aid, the malaria net, which is a cheap and effective way of saving lives. As the New York Timesreported, many net recipients use them as fishing nets, which kill fish, destroy fisheries, and poison water sources, because malaria nets are treated with insecticide. Of course, not everyone misuses malaria nets, but the story illustrates an old finding in the foreign aid literature, which is aid interventions that seem obviously good frequently go awry…

So what’s an effective altruist to do? The utilitarian imperative to search out and help the people with the lowest marginal utility of money around the world is in conflict with our limited knowledge about foreign cultures, which makes it difficult for us to figure out what the worst-off people really need. For this reason, donations to Little League and other local institutions you are familiar with may not be a bad idea. The most good you can do may turn out to be—not much.

That’s a little too easy.  Sure, much of foreign donations may go awry.  But even if 90% of your donation for a charity for starving Haitian orphans goes awry, I would argue that there’s still more benefit to that then getting a poor kid in America a baseball bat.  Not to be holier than thou, as I still give plenty to charities that surely don’t make Givewell or Singer’s cut, but I’m under no illusions as to the relative merit.  For that matter, imagine how much good I could do with poor, staring 3rd world orphans just by giving up HBO and sending them the money (which I actually try not to think about).

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

One Response to Whom to give to?

  1. Itchy says:

    I’ve read a fair amount on this topic. Most of our donations go to Oxfam, possibly after reading Singer, I can’t remember. I understand that not every endeavor is going to “hit,” but I like the overall focus.

    (I wish Oxfam would stop sending me glossy, beautifully photographed marketing materials, but I also understand these can be the costs of recruiting contributors.)

    I looked at GiveWell a few years ago, and if I hadn’t already been set up with our automatic donations, I probably would have chosen one of their top charities — I’m sure they’re worthy. But at some point, it seems like splitting hairs.

    I’m also intrigued by the Give Directly approach.

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