Gage Weston, Luke Freeman and I made a video on international giving! We give our responses to some of the most common objections against donating and mention GiveWell and effective charities a lot. We also talk about the Giving What We Can pledge.
Feel free to give us any feedback in the comments here or on YouTube. I'm also curious to hear: did you learn any new things? Has it changed/updated your mind on anything?
If you liked the video, I would encourage you to share it with your friends (especially those who aren't in the effective altruist movement). You're also welcome to use it for any EA events you're hosting! In case you do, let us know how it went!
More on A Happier World in this earlier EA forum post.
Sources are marked with an asterisk. Text might differ slightly in wording from the final video.
If you live in a developed country, you probably don’t worry about getting clean water. But in some poorer countries, safe water is scarce. 1 in 4 people globally don’t have access to drinkable water in their home, and over 700 million people lack even a basic water service nearby, often having to trek several miles for mere gallons at a time.**
Fed up with these inequities, a South African named Ronnie Stuiver invented the Play Pump in 1989. Unlike traditional hand-powered pumps, children would play on a merry-go-round to pump water into a storage tank. The chore of pumping water would now become a source of joy, which meant more water and happier children. This simple idea got many people excited.
PlayPumps raised millions of dollars, installed thousands of pumps and received praise from the likes of Bill Clinton, Jay-Z and the first lady Laura Bush. The problem is: They were a lot worse than conventional pumps.
They provided less water at greater cost and required much more force to pump. Children didn’t even want to play on them! Eventually most pumps fell into disrepair and the project lost support, leaving many villages back where they started.****
Some people see examples like these and conclude that international efforts to help the poor don’t work. More severe critics claim charities hurt more than they help and call for giving to stop altogether. Others believe helping the world’s poorest should be our top priority. So who’s right?
Hey! I’m Luke from Giving What We Can and I’ll be your co-host for this video. Giving What We Can is a community of effective givers. We inspire people to give more, and give more effectively.
In this video, we’re discussing charitable donations individuals can make to help the global poor. Specifically, the extremely poor. The World Bank defines extreme poverty as living on less than a dollar and 90 cents per day, and that’s after adjusting for prices in different countries. Roughly 1 in 10 people live on this tiny amount, most of them in Sub-Saharan Africa.*
Living in extreme poverty often means you struggle every day to have enough food; you can’t save money or plan for the future; you can’t afford healthcare or school for your children. Less than 10% of households possess a chair or table. Most lack electricity, toilets and tap water. Life is stressful and opportunity is rare.*
International giving is controversial, so we decided to focus on common objections and give our responses to them. Gage and I will each do half of the objections. We think a few are reasonable, but disagree with most of them. Feel free to use the YouTube chapters to skip to objections that interest you! Let’s get started!
Charity doesn’t work (Gage)
Charities don’t always achieve their goals and often show little evidence of working at all, as we saw with Play Pumps.
Other projects work, but don’t have a big impact. Buying textbooks for schools in poorer countries boosts the grades of top students, but has little effect on everyone else.*
Other efforts may actually hurt people instead of helping them.
But even if some projects fail, international giving as a whole can still succeed. After all, most private businesses fail, but the rest grow and prosper.
Research suggests that some charities are 100 times more effective at improving lives than others, so we can achieve a lot by prioritizing the very best programs.***
One organisation that does this is GiveWell. They do intense research to find which charities help poor people the most for each dollar donated. After looking at hundreds of charities, they now recommend fewer than a dozen
One of GiveWell’s favorite charities is the Against Malaria Foundation, which distributes bed nets to protect people from mosquitoes that carry malaria. GiveWell estimates you can prevent a child’s death by donating between three and five thousand dollars to AMF.
Here’s another number. The United States makes domestic policy using a number to represent the value of one American life. As of 2021, that value is about ten million dollars. In other words, an American regulation is thought to be cost-effective if it saves a life for less than ten million dollars.**
Meanwhile, a cost-effective health charity like AMF can do the same for less than five thousand dollars.* So it’s very clear that charity can work incredibly well. The key is to find the right way to do it. To learn more about AMF and preventing malaria, check out the previous video we made on this topic!
But if charity can work, why do we still have so much poverty?
Extreme poverty actually declined dramatically in recent decades. Unfortunately, it’s hard to know how charity affected this since countless variables influence a nation’s economy and the prosperity of its citizens.
Still, international philanthropy, particularly around global health, is responsible for some of history’s greatest achievements. Smallpox was eradicated in 1977*. This probably saved over 100 million lives for only 300 million dollars. Health campaigns have drastically reduced malaria, polio, guinea worms and countless other diseases. None of this would have been possible without support from foreign funders.***
Charity starts at home (Luke)
Should we focus on helping people close to us? You may have more faith in local organizations because you know what problems your community faces, and you can physically see the impact your dollars have.
However, it’s easier than ever to find well-run international charities that won’t waste your money, thanks to GiveWell and other charity evaluators. And when you spend your money well, it goes much further overseas.
Imagine giving a hundred dollars to a random person from your country. Now imagine giving that money to someone very poor in your country — so poor they can barely afford food for their children. The second option clearly helps more.
The difference between countries can be even bigger. A hundred dollars might be one day’s income in a country like the UK, Japan or the US. To a poor person in Kenya, that money might be two months of income. If they use it to buy things, they’ll get much more benefit than basically anyone from a wealthy country.*
Still, you may feel a duty to those in your community or home country.
But no one chooses where they are born, just as they don’t choose the color of their skin or their sexual orientation. Should lines on a map really determine who deserves our compassion and who doesn’t? Why should the amount of distance between nations influence the amount we care?
The United States and Europe own 40% of the world’s wealth*, but make up only 14% of the population*. Nearly all developed countries spend less than 1% of their gross national income on foreign aid.*
The global median household income is 236 US dollars per month*, which is lower than the poverty lines of the richest countries. So if you care about inequality, you may want to look beyond your home country.*
Overhead is too damn high (Gage)
You may worry that too high a percentage of charitable money is spent on administration, fundraising or the CEO’s salary rather than programs.* But some programs require high administrative spending to run properly, and discouraging fundraising prevents charities from scaling.
More importantly, financial statements can’t tell us much about the impact your donation will have. Which is what we should ultimately care about.
If you buy a phone, you wouldn’t bother to check how much the company spends on overhead; you care about what the phone actually does for its price! Of course organisations should put their resources to good use. But overhead isn’t a good indicator of that.
Charity is too paternalistic (Luke)
International giving reminds some of colonialism, undertaking a “white man’s burden” to “fix” poor countries. People point towards the fact that many charities don’t really listen to recipients, handing out items they don’t actually need or even actively causing harm. All just to make the donors feel better about themselves.
There’s a lot we can do to avoid paternalism. Often, giving people money is better than handing out items, because they typically know more about what they need than you do. A nonprofit called GiveDirectly does just that: recommended by GiveWell*, they give cash to very poor people, no strings attached. The overwhelming majority is spent on necessities like food or better housing, not drugs or alcohol.
You can even see who is receiving this money on a live page, where they also share what this money means to them and how they used it.*
But sometimes health programs, like deworming, are significantly more cost-effective than cash transfers as they may increase the recipients earnings a lot more over their lifetime.* This could be because diseases prevent people from learning valuable things at school or doing work.
Countries need policy change, not “band-aids” (Gage)
Rich countries have sent food to poor countries for decades. While this sounds awesome, food aid may simply be replacing local farmers with foreign ones. For example, Haiti went from producing nearly 50 percent of its rice in 1988 to just 15 percent in 2008, possibly because aid decreased the demand for local food. Aid can sometimes even cause food shortages in years when less food is received because domestic farmers cannot increase supply fast enough.*
Examples like these show that direct assistance to the poor can cause dependency that may even make the recipients worse off. Then again, we shouldn’t reject solutions just because they won’t last forever. While even effective interventions like mosquito nets may be temporary to some recipients, they still create lasting change to the people who get to live out the rest of their life instead of dying an early death.
Some critics instead advocate for institutional reform, such as policies that promote economic growth. Economists argue that China achieved its astonishing growth not due to charity but to pro-business strategies like trade liberalisation, high infrastructure spending, and support for export-led manufacturing.
Others believe capitalism is the problem, not the solution. They picture foreign corporations extracting natural resources without compensating the native population and exploiting miserable workers through low wages and long hours.
Policy reform has more room for error and is inherently more controversial than more targeted programs. Success is also much harder to measure.
However, policy change could have a great positive impact. The Center for Global Development, a think tank that lobbies for development policies, has fostered markets for vaccines, helped nations escape debt crises, and is reportedly consulted by 86 percent of US congressmen.* GiveWell is also considering more policy-based charities. Right now, more research in this field seems necessary.
Helping the poor leads to overpopulation (Luke)
The number of people in existence has skyrocketed, increasing four-fold in the past century. How long can we sustain this level of growth?
It turns out, birth rates are actually declining very rapidly. As countries grow richer, families have fewer children.
Saving the life of a child in a poor country might intuitively seem to add 1 more person to the world, but research suggests reducing child mortality also decreases the number of children families have since parents expect more of them to survive. So helping the global poor may actually help combat overpopulation, instead of making it worse.
The UN thinks we’ll hit a maximum population with another 3 billion people, and then we’ll plateau. This expected maximum amount could be lower if we help the poor sooner.****
The world is much better off today than two centuries ago. Extreme poverty has declined radically, most people have a basic education and are literate, few still die before the age of 5 and most of us are vaccinated against awful diseases.*
All despite having a much bigger population. If these trends continue, should we really worry about 3 billion more people?**
There is, however, one trend which is worrying. Namely: rising greenhouse gas emissions.* So how should that impact our decision-making?
Economic growth destroys the planet (Gage)
Improving people’s standard of living increases their carbon footprint, as they’re able to spend more money on the things they want. So how should we compare the value of, say, someone moving from a slum into a more comfortable home or being able to eat more meat, versus its environmental harm? These value judgments lay outside the scope of this video, so we’ll leave them up to you.
But we can still help the poor without damaging the planet, such as by improving their mental health. For example, StrongMinds trains laypeople to treat women suffering from depression in Uganda*. It’s a very cost-effective way to drastically improve people’s lives!
And work on climate change and poverty doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive. You can support the climate through your consumption choices and political voice while fighting poverty and disease through your donations.
I’d like to focus on myself first (Luke)
You might genuinely care about poverty but avoid helping because you just can’t afford to. Maybe you’re living paycheck to paycheck, or you’re trying to pay off debt or take care of your children. I don’t know the specific situation of you, the viewer, right now. In some cases this feeling is absolutely true and you really shouldn’t donate. However, many of us are much richer than we think. However, many of us are much richer than we think.
Consider taking a look at this calculator on the website of Giving What We Can. If you live in the United States and you earn 29000 dollars post-tax, you are part of the global richest 5%*. Same if you live in Belgium and earn 22500 euros, or in the UK and earn 20000 pounds, in each of these cases you’d be 10 times richer than the global median!
700 million people still live in extreme poverty today* and over 5 million children die before their fifth birthday*. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by such vast suffering and think anything you’d do would just be a drop in the bucket.
But even a small donation to an effective charity can have a big impact on the people you help. For example, if you donate just $50 dollars to the Against Malaria Foundation, you’ll protect around 15 people against malaria for 2-3 years.*
Giving to charities like these is not a drop in the bucket. It’s a tsunami to a parent whose child is saved. If you were one of those people, you wouldn’t think it was pointless.
We all spend money on things we don’t need, whether buying expensive clothing, a new car or going to a fancy restaurant. Think of how much suffering this money could alleviate if it went to effective charities instead! But instead of agonizing over each new purchase, you can simply pledge a portion of your income to donate each year.
As of 2021, over 6000 thousand people have taken the Giving What We Can pledge to donate 10% of their income to effective charities for the rest of their lives, with over 200 million dollars donated and over 2 billion dollars pledged*. If 10% is too much, you can take our Try Giving pledge which is any percentage you want to for a period of your choosing. You can also take 1 for the World’s 1% pledge, or visit The Life You Can Save to take any pledge amount. Links to all of these are in the description!
While pledges aren’t legally binding, research shows you’re far more likely to adhere to your goals if you state them publicly, so if you do take a pledge, tell your friends and family – Maybe they’ll be inspired, too!***
Charity demands less sacrifice than you may believe. A survey of 30 000 American households found that those who gave to charity were 43% more likely to say that they were “very happy” about their lives than those who did not give.****
So when you say you’d rather focus on yourself first, think of the fact that giving to charity could make your life more fulfilling! You can see taking the pledge as choosing a job that pays less, but you’d enjoy more.
This other issue is more important (Gage)
In this video, we’ve shown how you can make real progress to help the world’s poor right now.
But perhaps you think issues like climate change, animal welfare or biological risks are more important.
Giving What We Can recommends charities from GiveWell, but also recommends other effective charities that focus on these causes and more.*
Our YouTube channel covers a range of issues, so subscribe to learn about more ways to move towards a happier world!
Hi! Jeroen here. A big thanks to Luke Freeman for co-hosting this video, check out his YouTube channel too! I personally really liked his video on how change happens in the world.*
If you liked the video you’re watching now and you think it’s important, share it with your friends! We’ve tried our best to explain this topic as accurately as possible. But since we’re human, there’s a good chance we’ve made mistakes. If you disagree with our assessments, or if you have another objection to international giving that we didn’t mention, leave a comment! Thanks for watching!