Recently I ran into a volunteer for UNICEF who was gathering donations for helping malnourished children. He gave me some explanation on why child wasting is a serious problem and how there are cheap ways to help children who are suffering from it (the UNICEF website has some information on child wasting and specifically on the treatment of wasting using simplified approaches, in case you are interested).
Since I happen to have taken the Giving What We Can pledge and have read quite a bit on comparing charities, I asked what evidence there is that compares this action to - say - protecting people from malaria with bednets or directly giving cash to very poor people. The response I got was quite specific: the volunteer claimed that UNICEF can save a life with just 1€ a day for an average period of 7 months. If these claims are true then that means they can save a life for 210€, a lot less than the >3000$ that Givewell estimates is needed for AMF to save one life. Probably these numbers should not be compared directly, but I am still curious to know why there can be over an order of magnitude difference between the two. So to practice my critical thinking on these kinds of questions, I made a list of possible explanations for the difference:
- The UNICEF campaign has little room for additional funding.
- The program would be funded anyway from other sources (e.g. governments).
- The 1€/day figure might not include all the costs.
- Some of the children who receive the food supplements might die of malnutrition anyway.
- Only some of the children who receive the food supplements would have died without them.
- Children who are saved from malnutrition could still die of other causes.
Obviously I do not have the time nor resources of GiveWell so it is hard to determine how much all of these explanations count in the overall picture, or if there are others that I missed. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be much information on this question from GiveWell (or other EA organizations) either. Looking on the GiveWell website, the most I could find is this blog post on mega-charities from 2011, which makes the argument that mega-charities like UNICEF have too many different campaigns running simultaneously, and that they do not have the required transparency for a proper evaluation. The first argument sounds fake to me: if there are different campaigns, then can you not just evaluate these individual campaigns, or at least the most promising ones? The second point about transparency is a real problem, but there is also the risk of measurability bias if we never even consider less transparent charities.
I would very much like to have a more convincing argument for why these kind of charities are not rated. If for nothing else then at least it would be useful for discussing with people who currently donate to them, or who try to convince me to donate to them. Perhaps the reason is just a lack of resources at GiveWell, or perhaps there is research on this but I just couldn't find it. But either way I believe the current state of affairs does not provide a convincing case of why the biggest EA evaluator barely even mentions one of the largest and most respected charity organizations.
[Comment: I'm not new here but I'm mostly a lurker on this forum. I'm open to criticism on my writing style and epistemics as long as you're kind!]