Charity Update

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollJul 28, 2011 5:52 PM


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It's been a while, and I've been meaning to provide an update on our little charity suggestion bleg. If you'll recall, I wanted to take my ill-gotten gains from the 3 Quarks Daily Prize and send them to a worthy charity, but rather than just defaulting to my usual favorites I sought from new wisdom from the collective intelligence out there. The bad news -- in some sense -- is that there are far too many truly worthy causes. Apparently we have a way to go before achieving a utopian condition throughout all the countries of Earth. Who knew? Nevertheless I was happy to learn about GiveWell, an organization whose purpose it to figure out what kinds of charitable donations actually have the greatest impact. (It was advocated by Ian, Edgar, and Rationalist.) It's obvious that different types of giving can have disparate impacts, but it's very hard to figure out what approach is most effective, and having an organization dedicated to doing the hard work of figuring that out is invaluable. Just to get an idea of what we're talking about: to rate the relative effectiveness of different programs, GiveWell uses a metric called Disability-Adjusted Life Years (DALY). It's a well-known (in these circles) number, also used by the World Health Organization and others. The idea is to make some attempt -- as hard as this may be from a rigorous philosophical perspective -- to boil different kinds of good deeds to a single number. Maybe you actually increase someone's lifespan, or maybe you prevent blindness -- DALY boils it all down to one quantity. And what you then find is -- an extraordinary range of different values for different forms of charity. At the extreme end, consider supporting improved water sanitation to prevent diarrhea, which certainly sounds like a good idea to me. That gets you $4,185/DALY, so it takes about four grand to do the equivalent of giving someone an extra year of life. Compare this to deworming programs, which come in at $3/DALY. In this metric, in other words, deworming is about a thousand times more cost-effective than water sanitation. Obviously this is a crude measure, but it gives some idea of the range of possible outcomes. When it comes to messy human problems, I don't actually valorize "metrics" and "data" above all else; sometimes things work but it's hard to quantify how much good they are actually doing. Nevertheless, in a situation of relative ignorance it's really wonderful to have an organization trying to work out these numbers the best they can. My favorite part of the GiveWell website was the page labeled Shortcomings -- not other people's shortcomings, but their own shortcomings. They want to be as upfront and transparent as possible about their mistakes, and strive to do better. Yay! After all that, I didn't actually give the donation to GiveWell itself. Rather, I just followed their advice and gave to their highest-ranked charity: Village Reach, an organization that works to improve access to healthcare in remote and underserved areas in Africa and elsewhere. (Immunization programs, in general, are extremely cost-effective ways of improving health in poor communities.) It's a relatively new, still quite small program, but with impressive effectiveness. I was very happy to donate, and certainly will continue to do so. Which doesn't mean that there still aren't many other great choices. Thanks to everyone for chipping in with suggestions.

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