While it is great to donate, it is more important to question why these donations are necessary” – Niall McGuirk on William MacAskill’s Doing Good Better

 I have an uneasy relationship with charities. My belief is that society should provide for its people, with its people not just being those that live on the same jurisdictional land mass that it is governed by. In the absence of such a society we have a situation where independent organisations are set up to assist, with groups trying to help with homelessness, poverty, deprivation and gaps in communities. There can be a feeling that a penny given (in descriptive terms) means you have done your bit.

It doesn’t.

While it is great to donate, it is more important to question why these donations are necessary. Rid ourselves of the underlying cause and the need for donations will reduce; maybe if we paid higher taxes that provided society the resources it needs, rather than have an insatiable feeling to reduce our contribution so we can have monthly direct debits on the go. How crazy is it that fund raising for hospitals, particularly children’s ones, has such a prominent place? These charities are doing governments work, but you can’t say no when asked to donate for a life saving operation for a child, can you?

With that in mind, I picked up Doing Good Better. William MacAskill tries to shine a light on how effective altruism can make a difference. I wondered how effective this can be to effect the real change required.  The book defines altruism as “improving the life of others”, and effective altruism as “How can I make the biggest difference I can”. MacAskill set up the 80,000 Hours organisation, which talks career choices with people. 80,000 hours is your typical working life. A lot of time, eh?  One astonishing fact is those earning over $16,000 per year are amongst the worlds richest 10%. Think of an Irish person struggling below minimum wage and still being part of the worlds richest 10%.

Ok, first box ticked: MacAskill asks that we think not only about the amount of donations, but what we are giving to. He mentions an indicator to get the most out of your donations and puts it in stark terms. Is it better to spend €50,000 on training a guide dog that can be used for one person to improve their quality of life, or using the equivalent to improve quality of life for hundreds? He is asking we think about it. He also asks we don’t donate blindly, comparing it to walking into a shop and handing the shopkeeper your money so they decide what you want.

Next box not really ticked but understood: Aid to Africa has come to $1trillion, approx $40 per person. Spending on the US military far far exceeds that. Smallpox has been eradicated, through the work of both aid organisations and governments, saving millions of lives. That alone is sign of positive work. Huge amounts of positive examples can be given but the question of society’s role doesn’t really get answered. However, as individuals we have the power to save dozens of lives through our giving. Imagine if you were to save someone from near death in a fire – How would that feel?

So what of donating to international aid after a crisis hits? Japan had an earthquake in 2011, thousands of lives lost but it’s the fourth richest nation in the world, simply put it didn’t need your money. 2010 and Haiti had a similar event. Again it raised a huge amount of money. More than was required. I’m not sure the case MacAskill makes is strong here. He says if a crisis receives a lot of publicity it won’t need your intervention, in much the same way as Britain’s NHS doesn’t need new doctors as it has over 800,000. so we are told it is best to practice medicine in a country that has less trained personnel as you will have a bigger effect. Of course he is right but what if everyone listens to his advice? Will we need another book telling us to spread our donations?

There are plenty of statistics on show here, stats around the likelihood of dying from different events and how much time they can take from you life.  Stats are there to dissect voting. Anarchists often argue that the case for not voting is the government will win. Well, economists agree with the bit about not voting as it has little chance of affecting an election’s outcome. However MacAskill then argues that the collective is made up of a group of individuals so you can effect change. His black and white dissection comes down to services. If a government believes in services everyone will benefit, if it’s tax cuts them the number of people gaining an advantage has drastically reduced.

For those who wish the give a real question of concern is what way should you spread your donations (not just financial). If it’s money you are looking to pass in then there are 5 questions you could ask:

  1. What does this charity do?
  2. How cost effective is each programme area?
  3. How robust is the evidence behind each programme?
  4. How well is each programme implemented?
  5. Does the charity need additional funds?

This sounds extremely long winded but if you were organising a benefit it may assist you with choosing a recipient. It will help me as I am doing something to coincide with suicide prevention week in September and then We Shall Overcome in October.

The book then takes another unexpected turn when the case for sweatshops is made. It rightly highlights the horrific conditions people are faced with during their working day: 16 hour shifts, boiling temperatures and no breaks. It also rightly highlights “the need to eradicate extreme poverty that makes sweatshops desirable places to work”. Passing reference is given to companies that provide better opportunities for the extreme poor. To me they then stop becoming sweatshops and these are the ones to support. Fair trade gets a hard time over the amount of real value it brings to the world’s poor; MacAskill recommends you buy the cheapest product and donate the difference to a cost effective charity, but for me the obvious failing is capital and the search for profit which overrides human rights concerns.

Thankfully we get back on track (or back in agreement from my perspective) when it comes to carbon emissions. The reality is that meat and dairy have a huge carbon footprint, and cutting them out for even one day a week reduces your annual emissions. However, again capital wins and the suggestion to get round your carbon use is to donate to those looking to lessen the impact of climate change – Eat all the meat you want once you donate to a programme like Cool Earth that does real work to save the rain forest. Personally, I think you should do both. Actions have consequences.

For those out there who have a chance to choose a career, there are suggested options from the author. After I finished school way way back during the last century I took a decision not to work for a large corporation and put my career into working for the state. While many of my friends were claiming benefits from the state due to being unemployed, I decided to take the money and work. It was a decision made of a time and although I wasn’t thinking about “doing good better”, MacAskill suggests asking the following questions when you choose your career:

  • How will I personally fit with this job?
  • What’s my impact while I’m working at this job?
  • How does this job contribute to my impact later on in life?

After all, we are talking about 80,000 hours here…

Through the music and bands that these pages promote there is a common reason for their inception: a need to change the world. That has evolved into changing our own personal world, but we are reminded by this book that we all have the ability to save lives and significantly improve the welfare of thousands every year through correct donations. Some tips include establishing a habit of regular giving (to the right organisation), plan and write down what changes you are going to make, join a community like effectivealtruism.org, and finally: spread the word.

By the end of this book you may end up more confused than ever. I would like to have seen more on the underlying problem, but maybe that’s a different book. Many questions are asked in these pages, and if you are of a giving nature you would be as well to get this from your local library and see just how effective you might be whilst spreading your cash around.

And you thought you could feel better by having that direct debit!!!!!

Doing Good Better