Blog post

The drowning child on a Thursday evening

3 min read
17 Feb 2020

It happened on a mild summer evening. We were relaxing at the Marzili, Bern’s free swimming pool on the riverside. When I close my eyes, I can still see the boy’s eyes underwater — wide open.


Is he just playing and diving, or might he be drowning? I notice he is moving slowly. And he doesn’t emerge from the water to breathe! After some initial hesitation, I had no choice but to pull him out of the water. I shouted for help, and others took over. In retrospect, I am incredibly glad about my decision to take a closer look at the child. The boy was actually drowning – if I had waited longer, his short life might well be over now. To this day, I don’t know the boy’s name. I don't know who he is, where he comes from, or where he will be heading in life.

That was an extraordinary evening.

Extraordinary? Was the evening really extraordinary? After all, I am confronted with the same situation every evening. Every evening, countless children die whose names I do not know and whose lives I could save with very little effort. The costs of saving a life are estimated to be just a few thousand dollars – in the form of shifting some money from by bank account to one of the most effective charities. With a normal Swiss salary, I wouldn't even have to give up nice holidays, eating out, or a big place to live, and I could still give several children per year the opportunity to make something out of their lives rather than having to die. I could repeat the evening at the Marzili multiple times a year! Why not?

Yes, why not? The rescue in the Marzili definitely didn’t feel heroic. Rather, it seemed like the obvious thing to do (though I admittedly felt some initial hesitation about touching an unknown child). Neither did a sense of duty play a role. On the contrary, it still fills me with deep gratitude to know that the anonymous boy's life intersected with mine in this special way. Why, then, do we view donations as something particularly generous rather than taking them for granted? And why do we experience them as a burdensome duty rather than as a beautiful opportunity? If it’s so easy to achieve so much with our money, why should we hold back?

This is where the effective altruism movement comes in. One of the movement’s roots is the Giving What We Can pledge. I signed the pledge along with over 4000 others – it was one of the best decisions of my life. I have committed to keep at most 90% of my income and donate the rest.

Note, however, that how much I donate isn’t even the most crucial part of the pledge. Where I donate is even more important. By carefully selecting which charity to use for serving others, I can open the door to life to 10, 100, or even 1000 times more people than if I gave the money thoughtlessly. Such a careful selection means refraining from simply donating where it feels good, where administrative costs are low, or where I have a personal connection. Rather, it means donating where my financial resources will help as many people as possible. When it comes to finding out where money serves as many people as possible, the effective altruism movement has taught me to discard my prejudices and intuitions and to instead listen openly and humbly to the scientific evidence.

We often see donations of money as something cold, abstract, or even heartless in comparison to helping others in a direct and personal way (such as when I looked into the eyes of the drowning child). However, true love has few more powerful tools at its disposal than donations of money. Carefully chosen donations are my opportunity for making sure the Marzili evening doesn’t remain a one-off experience.