Blog post

Effective Altruism on a Tight Budget

4 min read
3 Apr 2015

Let’s face it: while money isn’t everything, not having enough of it certainly isn't much fun. I want to show how you can still have a lot of altruistic impact without a big budget, something that has become a personal project for me.

The idea came from suddenly being in a position where I didn’t have as much money coming in as I did before, but still wanted to make a difference as an effective altruist. While cheerfully using terms like ‘bankrupt’ and ‘skint’ in my blog, I realised I needed to make a vital proviso to this.

I am not poor.

Even by the standards of my developed nation, I am spectacularly lucky to have a job and a wonderful family who helped me out when I stopped studying earlier this year (and thus suddenly lost a large amount of my income from a student bursary).

Indeed, what we judge as ‘a lot of money’ or ‘not enough money’ is completely relative. You might feel well off if you’re the first one to have the latest gadget, but hard done by if all your friends have it and you don’t.

Similarly, there are presumably millionaires struggling to get a yacht as nice as their neighbour’s and feeling overstretched financially, and subsistence farmers feeling newly wealthy when they are able to furnish their home with a concrete floor. This is critical to our understanding of wealth, poverty and need.

In the UK, a household in poverty is usually defined as one receiving less than 60% of the median income of the other households in the UK. This means that right now, the poverty threshold in the UK is just under £14,000 per year per household.

It’s even harder to make a judgement on what poverty is across nations and societies. This isn’t just down to money; poverty also depends on factors like how supportive the community you live in is, or how able you are to take part in a full and active life.

However, we can draw this contrast – in the UK, there are measures in place to prevent people from starving, dying of preventable diseases or failing to receive a basic education. Millions of people across the world do not have these measures in place for them. 1.2 billion people live on under $1.25 a day.

Clearly, this is not the same thing as living on less than £14,000 a year.

This brings up several conclusions. One happy conclusion is realising how lucky we are and being grateful in this. Generally speaking, we know there are people who are in need in a way unimaginable to ourselves; hopefully you already realise the vital importance of giving, and crucially, giving what you can.

Whatever you can commit to giving can and will change and save lives if given consistently, which is why pledging a percentage of your income is such a great idea.

Another conclusion is that while poverty relative to the rest of your nation does deeply matter, poverty relative to the whole world also deeply matters. Increasingly it is being suggested that we should be focusing on the concept of ‘inequality’.

Giving What We Can’s ‘How Rich Am I?’ calculator takes into account the number of people in your household and the cost of living in your nation. Instead of telling me how high or below a global poverty threshold I am, it tells me how rich I am in comparison to everyone in the world, with issues like cost of living taken into account.

Even while I’m adjusting to having a little less, the calculator let me know that I am still within the richest 10% of people in the world, and my income is more than 11 times the global average. Donating 10% of my relatively small income to effective charities would still be equivalent to saving one life per year.

Of course, there are still actions you can take without spending any money at all. On a national scale, we can use our local knowledge and geographical position to volunteer our time to local organisations, help ensure our communities are inclusive and raise concerns with our political representatives.

On a global scale, keeping up a discussion with others around inequality, both face to face and through social media, is vital for raising awareness of the issue. Actions speak louder than words, but these actions will make the biggest impact when we are all involved, and that means talking about solving global inequality together.

One of the best ways to do this is by participating in or setting up a Giving What We Can chapter, where people come together to discuss how to give most effectively and spread these ideas to others. Giving What We Can will provide support for anyone wanting to set up their own chapter, and it’s surprisingly easy, needing just a few hours of commitment a week. If you persuade another person to donate or volunteer in an impactful way, you double your own impact. Persuade 50 people who go on to persuade another 50, and your impact will grow to amazing proportions.

Worldwide and locally, we can tackle inequality by understanding its nature and importance in both contexts. Now there’s something you can give no matter how poor you feel.