Why we continue to recommend the Against Malaria Foundation

Just over two weeks ago, GiveWell (GW) chose to remove Against Malaria Foundation (AMF) from its list of top charities, citing concerns about AMF’s room-for-more-funding (RFMF). (See GW’s blog post here.) Having considered this issue and spoken with both AMF and GW, we at Giving What We Can have decided not to remove AMF from our own list of recommended charities, as we continue to believe that AMF represents one of the very best opportunities for those who want to give now. However, Giving What We Can and GW do not really disagree on this issue as much as it might appear. Read on to learn more.

GiveWell’s decision to de-list AMF

The decision by GW to remove AMF from its list of top charities was made based on concerns related to RFMF. These concerns have arisen in light of AMF’s failure to finalize large-scale distributions over the two-year period in which AMF have been GW’s #1 recommended charity; GW drew particular attention to the recent failure of AMF to negotiate distribution of nets in Sierra Leone. Summarizing their position, GW write: “given the significant amount of time that has passed, it now seems to us that there is a substantial risk that AMF will not accomplish [one or more suitable distributions] in the near future, and that having more funds to commit would steepen rather than lessen its challenges. … Therefore, we believe it is most prudent to donate elsewhere until and unless AMF commits the bulk of the funds it currently holds, at which point we will revisit its ranking.”

GW also criticise certain aspects of AMF’s approach to negotiating distributions, which they believe may have hindered progress. For example, GW suggest that the stringent monitoring and evaluation requirements set out by AMF for potential partners are in some cases too strong. However, GW note that AMF have already taken steps to address concerns of this kind.

What we’ve learned by speaking to AMF

AMF were kind enough to speak to us at length about their views on GW’s decision and AMF’s plans for the immediate future. Many details relating to these plans are confidential, and are not discussed in following. Overall, AMF’s position is that GW have underestimated the value of additional funds donated to AMF.

AMF are highly confident that they will have allocated all present funds within the next 6 months. They are currently involved in a number of negotiations. Some of these negotiations have made significant progress and one pre-registration survey is already beginning. Some of these distributions are sufficiently large that AMF could potentially be facing a significant funding gap early in the new year. Consequently, AMF is presently seeking funding of an additional $5m to be able to fund those distributions it is currently discussing that will require a decision before the end of March 2014.

AMF offered a number of reasons to suppose that current negotiations are more likely to succeed than those in which they have been involved in the recent past, particularly Sierra Leone. For example, a smaller number of partners are involved, meaning that negotiations are simpler and more likely to follow through. In addition, AMF suggested that, on the outside chance that longer delays are experienced in disbursing funds, they saw no reason to believe that a distribution of nets carried out in the near future would be significantly less effective. Thus, even if AMF do continue to experience delays in securing large scale distributions, we should expect that money donated now will eventually be used to fund net distributions relevantly similar in cost-effectiveness to what we’ve come to expect from AMF. AMF pointed to the large gap that exists, (and is projected to continue to exist) between the need for nets and the funding available.

What we’ve learned from speaking further to GW

Besides contacting AMF, we’ve gained considerable insight from speaking to GW about their decision, particularly GW Co-Founder Elie Hassenfeld. I found it notable that GW’s views about AMF, as expressed in conversation, were not quite as pessimistic as their blog-post on the 26th of November had led me to expect. GW believe it is more likely than not that AMF will disburse all funds within the next 6 months. They believe that it is definitely defensible to give to AMF at present, though the better policy would be to wait and see whether AMF succeeds in those negotiations which are expected to be finalized within the first quarter of 2014. Furthermore, GW have suggested that part of the reason for their decision to remove AMF from their list of top charities has to do with the public significance of their recommendations and the incentives provided to charities by managing these recommendations as they currently do.

Elie expressed some degree of skepticism with respect to the likelihood that AMF’s current negotiations will yield fruit, appealing to AMF’s underwhelming track record over the previous two years. He did not wish to rule out, however, that current negotiations might have properties that are more likely to lead to success and noted that AMF has made positive steps to address some of GW’s critical comments.

What should we conclude?

Having considered the issue, Giving What We Can has decided to keep AMF on its list of recommended charities. We believe that, for donors looking to give to charity now, AMF remains among the very best opportunities for doing good. Whereas the concerns regarding RFMF raised by GW shouldn’t be taken lightly, we do not believe, based on what we’ve learned, that these are sufficiently serious that the expected value of donating to AMF should not continue to rank very highly. That having been said, we give considerable credence to the view that those who are not committed to giving now may do well to wait and see whether AMF’s current negotiations are successful (but see below).

The question of when to give is a difficult issue that we’ve addressed on a number of occasions (here and here). I typically give at the beginning of each month, and I’m inclined to believe that there’s value in establishing a rhythm of this kind in terms of ensuring that we follow through on our commitment to give. However, there are other reasons that may lead us to believe that it is better to give later: in particular, we may have better evidence.

Fortunately, there’s a way to give now and give later, all at the same time. As we discussed in a post earlier this week, it’s possible to give now to the Giving What We Can Trust while choosing to delay the disbursement of one’s donation. Absent this kind of recommendation, the Trust pays out quarterly to our recommended charities. The best strategy may therefore be to give now to the Trust, indicating that you would like your donation to be spent in accordance with Giving What We Can’s recommendations when the Trust pays out at the beginning of the second quarter of 2014, at which point we expect to know a lot more about AMF’s room for more funding.