Efficient altruism

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WINNIPEG (CUP) – The other day, I passed a pink fire truck. It was, of course, related to some kind of breast cancer fundraiser. As I looked on, a question occurred to me in a sudden moment of clarity: what exactly is the connection between oncology and the decor of emergency vehicles?

Surely, if our goal is to eradicate breast cancer, there are much better ways to go about it. Research, for instance, has served us well in the past. Painting the truck is just another example of those weird but ubiquitous charitable fundraisers that include some kind of ostentatious display. It seems no fund drive is complete without a marathon, a glow-bowling tournament, a hotdog-eating contest, or some other incredibly wasteful activity with no real connection to the cause being supported.

We tell ourselves the purpose of charity is to help others. If that were the case, we’d regularly donate an affordable, yet sizeable, sum to the most effective charity possible. But that’s not what we do. We grudgingly surrender a few bucks a couple times throughout the year, and only if the charity in question goes to the trouble of organizing a sponsored potato sack race for our viewing pleasure. This is compassion as luxury. It is the behaviour pattern of someone who wants to appear altruistic and get the attendant warm feeling, not someone who genuinely cares.

The result of this is that money goes to the charities most effective at organizing Bavarian fire drills. Pictures, testimonials, and guilt trips decide who gets funding, not simple facts about which charity is doing the best job. According to a post on GiveWell.org, the vast majority of charities have never been evaluated for effectiveness, and of the ones that have, most have demonstrated a weak or even negative effect. You could get a warm feeling by simply setting money on fire, and it would have approximately the same effect as donating to a startling number of charities.

It seems ghastly to think about charity in the cold, economic terms of return on investment, but that’s how the game is played. If you want to help people, you need to constantly hold two questions in your mind: “Is this effective?” and “Could someone else do it better?” If there are two charities, A and B, and A can save a starving child in Sierra Leone for $100, while B can cure three cholera-afflicted children in Uganda for the same cost, then there is only one valid, moral answer to the question of who to donate to. Giving to charity A is obviously the worse proposition.

GiveWell, a non-profit organization that does extensive research to evaluate charities based on their effectiveness, has a wide variety of information available on its website. It not only does in-depth analysis of specific charities, but also evidence-based assessments of different types of programs, such as anti-retroviral therapy as a preventative treatment for HIV. The site has some surprising facts – such as some surrounding education programs and after-school programs that have been shown to have little to no effect.

GiveWell recently rolled out a new list of top recommended charities just in time for the holiday season, when most of their donations come in. The new list topper is the Against Malaria Foundation, which distributes insecticide-treated mosquito nets to developing countries. GiveWell estimates that it costs only about $5 per bed net, which helps prevent malaria and deaths as a result of the illness.

Around this time of year, people start thinking about generosity. You have a duty to make sure your generosity accomplishes something – especially if the research could be as simple as spending 10 minutes on a website. Go to GiveWell or another site like it and take their data into account. It could be, quite literally, a matter of life and death.

Tom Ingram
The Manitoban (University of Manitoba)

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