When confronted with the many problems that we face, it’s easy to feel like there’s little we can do to help. However, we have robust evidence that shows that individuals can have a significant impact on improving the lives of others by donating to the best charities.
There are many ways in which we can have a large impact through our donations, and the effective altruism movement is continually searching for and evaluating the most promising opportunities. Looking at global poverty offers one example of how well-targeted donations can have a hugely positive impact.
The scale of poverty is immense, and it is easy to think that we in the developed world are powerless to do anything about it. However, the facts tell a very different story.
Official estimates from the United Nations 2015 Human Development Report, along with other sources like the World Bank, show just how unequally split the spending, income and health figures are for countries around the world:
- Military spending worldwide exceeded $1.7 trillion in 2015, more than the GDP of the world’s 100 poorest countries combined.
- Average gross national income (GNI) per capita in high income countries is more than 28 times that in low income countries.
- Life expectancy in high income countries (81 years) is a quarter higher than in low income countries (62 years. In 2015, the global under five mortality rate was 42.5 deaths per 1,000 live births, though spread unevenly across income groups. Low income countries had the highest rate (76.1 deaths per 1,000 live births) followed by the middle income countries (39.9), and high income countries (5.5 deaths).
These figures show just how unequal the global distribution of wealth is. However, they also suggest that those of us who live in affluent countries could have great potential to help others through our resources.
Maybe you don’t give much to charity, but feel like you should. Maybe you’ve been put off by scare stories about donations going to waste due to political corruption or poor planning. Or maybe you haven’t thought much about what your donations could achieve.
If any of this applies to you, our message is simple: It’s good to give generously, but it’s just as important to give effectively. The difference in effectiveness - the good done per dollar donated - between different charities can be startling.
For an example of the difference that effectiveness can make, suppose we want to help people suffering from blindness:
- In a developed country this would usually involve paying to train a guide dog and its new owner, which costs around $50,000.
- In 2010, there were about 20 million people, mostly in developing countries, suffering from severe vision impairments caused by cataracts. Many of these people could have their vision restored by a safe eye operation, costing only about $1000, according to GiveWell.org
- For the same amount of money as training one guide dog to help one person, we could instead cure about 50 cases of severe vision impairment.
And there are even more effective ways to give, which can transform the lives of hundreds of people. If a typical US citizen gave 10% of his or her income to the right NGOs, then every year they could:
- Distribute at least 1,100 mosquito nets, protecting up to 2,200 people and preventing about one death in expectation, or
- Treat at least 4,200 people for neglected tropical diseases.
Over the course of a lifetime we could leave an incredible legacy of diseases prevented or cured, and lives extended. We can do all of this without leaving our countries, without changing our careers, and within our means.
At Giving What We Can we feel compelled by these facts to take action. That’s why we've each made a public pledge to give at least 10% of our incomes to the organisations we believe will do the most good in the world. Whatever our incomes, we will all have a tremendous effect on thousands of lives.
If you're ready to start making a huge impact, you can join us today by committing to give 10% of your income to effective organisations (1% of the spending money for students and people who have little or no income). Alternatively, you can start with Try Giving, and choose how much of your income to give, and for how long.
Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. "Trends in World Military Expenditure, 2015", April 2016 <https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/Trends-world-military-expenditure-2016.pdf > ↩︎
Compare the World Bank figures shown here: <https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.PP.CD?locations=XM and https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.PP.CD?locations=XD> ↩︎
Compare the World Bank figures shown here (changing the "Low income" figure to "Middle income" or "High income" for those numbers): <https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SH.DYN.MORT?locations=XM> ↩︎
Based on the median personal income in the US of $30,240 according to US Census Bureau 2015 statistics. "PINC-01. Selected Characteristics of People 15 Years and Over, by Total Money Income, Work Experience, Race, Hispanic Origin, and Sex". ↩︎
Based on GiveWell’s estimates of the cost of distributing malaria nets through Against Malaria Foundation funded distributions. <http://www.givewell.org/charities/against-malaria-foundation> ↩︎
Based on GiveWell’s estimates of the cost of distributing a treatment through Schistosomiasis Control Initiative. <http://www.givewell.org/charities/schistosomiasis-control-initiative> ↩︎