Doing good, and doing it better

Doing good, and doing it better
Volunteer caucasian woman giving grain to starving African children. Poor African children keeping their hands up - asking for food. Many African children suffer from poverty - 20% of Africa’s children will die before the age of five. Every day 30,000 children die from a combination of disease- infested water and malnutrition.

Most people want to make a difference in the world. If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you are in the extraordinarily fortunate position to be able to make that difference.

It’s also likely that, in the scheme of things, life has been kind to you. If you were born in a developed country, you would have had access to things such as a good education and modern medical care, and the sheer luck to live most of your life avoiding hardships like disease, starvation and war.

Not only this, but you’re alive now. You’re able to enjoy the modern conveniences created by science and technology that make your existence much safer, healthier and more comfortable than that of your grandparents.

My own view – and this is backed up by research – is that our world has never been better. We’re living at a time where advances in science mean we can make incredible strides in solving some of the world’s biggest problems; as long as we pay careful attention to the evidence.

Reflecting on this, it’s hard to argue that we don’t have a moral obligation to help those less fortunate than us, or work to ensure a positive future for the next generations. As much as we’d like to do everything, we have limited time and resources, which means we must focus on doing the most effective things we can.

Unfortunately, it’s extremely difficult to know just what to do in order to have the greatest impact possible.

If you decide to donate to charity, how can you know that the charity you pick will use your donation effectively? How do you choose one cause over another? These are particularly significant questions for philanthropists, who have the resources (and, increasingly, the political clout) to do a huge amount of good in the world.

The complexity of these questions means that when it comes to choosing a charity or cause to support, most of us just go with gut feeling or a charity with personal meaning to us.

The problem with this is that the way we think about charity in general is all wrong.

Most charities (about 75% according to the evidence) are pretty ineffective, and some interventions are useless or even harmful. The incredibly popular but disastrous Play Pump (a type of water pump that doubled as a children’s roundabout which turned out to be more expensive and less effective than the pumps it replaced) is one such example. Social programs in the US, such as Scared Straight (shown through randomised controlled trials to actually increase the likelihood of children committing crimes in the future), are another.

You could try and use charity evaluators such as Charity Navigator to find the better charities – but as I’ve written before, these types of charity evaluators rarely look at actual outcomes or effectiveness. Instead they focus on things like overhead ratios and staff salaries – measures which are basically irrelevant to the effectiveness of a charity.

The good news is that it is possible to find the best charities and most important causes and, even better, do hundreds of times more good by making the right choice.

Take the cause area of global health and development; currently nearly a billion people still live in extreme poverty and are at risk of dying from preventable diseases such as malaria, diarrhoea and water-borne illnesses.

Poor nutrition in developing countries can lead to cognitive impairment, birth defects and growth stunting. But much of this suffering can easily be prevented at a low cost. With technical assistance, countries can fortify staple foods like flour with essential micronutrients (like iron, iodine, and vitamins) incredibly cheaply.

Treating a child with a parasitic worm infection costs less than £1.20. A charity treating preventable disease in developing countries, such as GiveWell-recommended The Against Malaria Foundation, can distribute an insecticide-treated bednet (one of most effective ways to prevent the transmission of malaria) for around £4.

A £7,000 donation to AMF would prevent more than 200 children becoming sick from malaria. The same donation to a domestic medical charity in the UK wouldn’t go anywhere near as far, as the NHS already provides a high level of care by global standards.

Our money can go much further and have a far bigger impact in the developing world than local charities can in the UK or US. It can feel strange to consider these trade-offs when we think about helping others, but the choices exist whether we think about them or not.

On reflection, most people agree that it shouldn’t matter if someone is separated from us by thousands of miles or an ocean. We don’t choose where we’re born, and suffering and death is bad no matter who is experiencing it. This means we have an obligation to make choices that result in reducing suffering in as many lives as possible, regardless of where they are lived.

The Effective Altruism movement aims to do just that, by using rigorous analysis to compare causes and interventions, and recommending actions people can take based on the best available evidence.

And effective altruists don’t just look at global poverty. We look for the best possible opportunities to make a difference, applying the same evidence-based approach within some of the most important cause areas in the world, including global health & development, animal welfare and global catastrophic risks.

Effective Altruism’s purpose is to help you figure out how you can do the most good possible, by helping you decide which causes to focus on and how to use your money and time to have the greatest impact.

If you focus on evidence and effectiveness, you’re in a remarkable position of being able to save dozens of lives during the course of your own.

If you want to know what the most effective giving opportunities are, see GiveWell for a list of recommendations, or potentially maximise the impact of your donation by donating to expert-managed funds (a project run by my organisation, the Centre for Effective Altruism) that look for the highest-impact opportunities.

To find out more about how Effective Altruism can help you make high-impact decisions about your life, money and career visit

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