Wednesday, July 16, 2014

When intuition isn't good enough

Recently I was at a talk given by Rachel Glennerster of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty
Action Lab (JPAL).  In speaking about cost-effectiveness, she gave examples from
several different education interventions in Africa:

1) merit scholarships for girls
2) free primary school uniforms
3) providing information to parents on how schooling increases income
4) deworming through primary schools

All the interventions sounded pretty good to me. I could see how all of them might increase the number of years children spend in school.

But JPAL compared randomized controlled trials of each intervention, and when they looked at the additional years of education you get for the cost, these are the results:

Source: JPAL
This isn't perfect information: the studies are from different countries, and as with any studies, there's some uncertainty. But it's a lot better than relying on guesswork.

In retrospect, it makes sense that parents would prioritize schooling if they know more about education's economic benefits to their children. But I can make up just-so stories for why any of these would be the most effective. You could have presented me with any of those interventions, told me it was a great method to get children more schooling, and I would have found it believable.

(In fact, the Madagascar study tested whether it works better to give parents statistics about children's expected earnings or to have "role models" speak to parents about how education benefited them. The role model intervention is more common, based on the theory that impoverished parents with poor literacy aren't able to understand statistics. But the study indicated that they are able to understand the information given, and that it actually works better than having role models speak to them.)

These studies go beyond asking "Does it work?" That's a good starting place  after all, some interventions don't work at all  but it's not enough. Everyone from small donors to government policymakers needs to know about cost-effectiveness. Unless we have infinite money, we need to know where our money will go the farthest so we can start there. If we have $100 to give, there's a big difference between buying school uniforms (which we expect to result in less than one year of additional education) and providing information to parents (which we expect to result in over twenty years of education!)

This is why research is important. I'm glad there are people out there like JPAL getting more information so we're not just guessing.  

You can hear Rachel Glennerster's talk and others from the Good Done Right conference here. Apologies for the occasional baby sounds in the background, which are my daughter.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The other mother

Years ago, I got in the habit of making financial decisions by considering someone I thought of as the Other Woman. Not a romantic rival, just a woman whose life is very different from mine. She's a mother somewhere in Africa, working hard to take care of her children. I think of how difficult it is for her family to get the basics: clean water, enough to eat, a decent dwelling, safety from disease, school fees.

I think of what that woman would want if she knew I was considering whether to spend the money on another pair of shoes or to give it to her. Maybe she would laugh at the absurdity of it, the excess of what I have compared to what she has. Maybe she would cry at the tragedy of it.  But I am almost certain she would want me to share some of my abundance so that her children could have the basics.

My first child will be born in a few weeks.  My life is about to change in a lot of ways.

People warned that parenthood would change me. Some of them said they would like to see me keep up my level of giving when it's my child screaming for sweets in the grocery store. Some of them indicated that it would be monstrous for me to even have children if I would potentially give money to help other people's children instead of spending it all on my own.

And of course parenthood will change me. The joys and fears will grip my heart like nothing else. My daughter will get more of my time, energy, and money than anyone else.  She will want for nothing that she actually needs.  But I reject the idea that I am responsible only to my child.  Not as long as the Other Woman has trouble buying food for hers.

Because I am a little closer to her now. That woman loves her child like I love mine.

New family, southern Somalia.  Photo credit: Trocaire / Foter / CC BY

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Too narrow?

I'm always interested to see what people criticize about the effective altruism movement. One critique I noticed lately is that we're too narrowly focused on a few interventions and instantly reject anything that doesn't have a GiveWell stamp of approval. There's some truth to that.

A related critique is, “If everyone focused so narrowly, virtually nothing would get done – no art, no civic projects, just mosquito nets all the time."

(The art thing is especially touchy. Every time someone from the effective altruist movement suggests that symphonies and museums might not be the best charitable causes, people freak out about how we hate the arts.  I'd like to invite them to see Robbie's photography, hear Ray's music, go to one of Catriona's Shakespeare productions, or talk architecture with Toby.)

While I'm thrilled to see more people interested in effectiveness, I don't see such a stampede to effective causes that I think we're about to fund all the best giving opportunities.  If that ever happens, I have no doubt that most effective altruist types will move on to whatever cause seems next best.  For example, smallpox was a huge problem well into the 20th century.  But now that vaccination has been so successful, people have moved on to other causes.

Aside from the fact that effective altruists will move on to next-best projects after the best ones are taken care of, I'm not concerned that a narrow focus will mean that all non-optimal causes get neglected. Even those of us who focus on finding effective causes don't spend all our time and money on them.  I spend my days as a mental health clinician for prisoners. I am about to start the (possibly even more emotionally intense) work of parenting.  I don't do those things because I think they're the most effective ways to improve the world – I do them because I want to, because I find them satisfying.  But at the end of the day, I want to give my earnings to the most effective organization I can find. And it annoys me when people categorize me as some kind of heartless utility-bot because of that.

If you're upset that effective altruist types don't seem concerned about some issue in your local community, the problem might not be that we're too narrow-minded.  In fact, one of us may well have a day job in that field, or have a special place in our heart for spending our Saturdays working against water pollution or homelessness or whatever.

But that's not the same as saying, "My pet cause is so important and has so much opportunity for change that everyone should drop what they're doing and work on this."  I have a special place in my heart for refugee services, and I've volunteered in that field for years.  But I don't think it's the best thing everyone should be doing, and I'm not saying it should get top billing as an effective cause.

Meanwhile, I think interventions like deworming, nutritional supplementation, and malaria prevention really do deserve top billing.  Some of my money and time will still go to other areas, but I will prioritize the causes that have been demonstrated most effective.

Sometimes it's good to narrow things down.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Deciding where to give

I kept delaying writing this post because I'm not entirely sure where I'm donating over the coming year. I tend to spread donations out throughout the year, so I don't feel a particular rush in December. But, since the end of the tax year is a lot of people's giving season, I want to share my thoughts.

My previous favorite, the Against Malaria Foundation, is not looking so good lately due to problems distributing their mosquito nets. I'm not super concerned about this – I think it's likely that they'll get their act together in the next six months or so and resume distributing nets. But I don't plan to donate to them until that happens. (This is the kind of thing I'm really glad GiveWell is here to tell me about – as a donor, I would never have picked up on the problem.)

My parents usually make a donation as a Christmas present to me, and they asked where they should make it.  I asked them to give to Give Directly.  I think the just-give-cash method makes a lot of sense, given the evidence that recipients choose quite well what they need, and I hope this idea will catch on.  The organization itself seems quite transparent and sensibly run.  I also found it encouraging that so many GiveWell staff are making their personal donations there.

I can see advantages to donating later, especially given the fact that the Against Malaria Foundation (which looked like the strongest contender for a good while) may catch up again soon.  So I'll probably hold most of my donations for about six months and see how things look then.

If I were holding off longer, like years, I would probably put my donations in a donor-advised fund like GiveWell's or Giving What We Can's.

I also plan to donate some to organizations like GiveWell, Giving What We Can, or 80,000 Hours (I haven't decided on the breakdown yet).  I think this is an important time both for exposing more people to the idea of effective altruism and for developing better knowledge about where to give.  I need to look more specifically into what those organizations would do with more funding.

Lastly, I'll make some feel-good donations to causes that aren't the most effective (a fundraiser for a friend's business, my Quaker meeting, etc.) These donations come out of my personal spending budget, not my charity budget.

One obvious question is: why divide up money rather than giving all to one place? Giving What We Can makes some good points in their recent post about why to donate all to one charity.  But I'm also persuaded that we should act how we want other people to act, and I wouldn't want the whole effective altruist community to donate to only one place.  So I'm okay with dividing things up a bit.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

669 lives

In 1938, a British stockbroker named Nicholas Winton was about to go on skiing vacation in Switzerland when a friend asked him to come to Prague instead. He arrived at a Czech refugee camp instead of his planned ski trip. The camp was filled with Jewish families trying to escape before the Germans arrived. In Winton's words, “I felt compelled to do something.”

He spent the next nine months using his money and organizational skills to arrange for hundreds of children to be evacuated by train and fostered by British families. He was 29 years old. He saved 669 children that year.  And afterwards, he didn't tell anyone what he had done.

50 years later, his wife discovered his journals in a briefcase in the attic. The children's names were in a scrapbook he had kept.  Here's footage of Winton realizing he's sitting next to dozens of the now-grown children:


We talk about “lives saved.” Mentally, I know that this year my donations will save several people's lives, and keep many more from getting sick. But it's so different to actually see those people assembled in a room.

Winton is still alive at age 104, and the children he saved are themselves old. One became a member of Parliament, another a groundbreaking geneticist, another a journalist and author. And most of them went on to do nothing especially remarkable except grow up, go to school, work, get married, have children, and generally do the things people enjoy doing when they don't die at age 6.

Recently someone asked me if it wasn't rather limiting, not getting to do as much travel as I might if I didn't donate. It's hard to imagine that Nicholas Winton regrets giving up his ski trip.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

But what will my friends think?

This week I talked to some students about what life is like for my husband and me as people who give away a lot of our income.  Some of them seemed worried about the social consequences: what happens when your friends all have expensive houses and cars? Won't you feel left out? Won't people think you're strange?

I don't remember exactly what my answer was at the time, but here are some better-thought-out ones:

A lot of our friends are also on small budgets.
The bartender? The grad student? The novelist? The one whose job you can't really describe, but it involves postmodernism?  They're not rolling in cash. Unless you actually reach a point when all your friends are corporate lawyers, you probably won't be the only one living frugally.

A lot of our friends are a little weird, too.
We have a friend who commutes to work by unicycle. Another friend believes bacon is a health food and eats it in according quantities. Another friend is a professional blacksmith. Maybe it's just living in the neighborhood of Cambridge, MA, but there are a lot of eccentric people around. I don't mind being one of them.

You can have fun with your friends for cheap.  
  • A lot of our friends are from the folk dance scene.  It doesn't cost much money, and participants tend to come from a wide variety of income levels.  It's not that easy to pick out who's a psychiatrist and who's an art teacher.  
  • I enjoy cooking, so we often have people over for dinner rather than going to a restaurant.  
  • Jeff and two of his college roommates have a standard arrangement whenever their wives are out of town: the bachelor-for-a-day invites the others over, and they play board games their wives don't like.  
Your friends aren't always into conspicuous consumption.
Jeff works as a computer programmer, and in his thrift-store work clothes he actually looks less scruffy than most of his coworkers.

There are lots of metrics to compare people on.
I have a partner I love. My parents are alive and healthy. I have all my teeth. There are lots of ways you can compare yourself to other people   you'll come out ahead on some, and behind on some. That's true no matter your income.

Some of your friends will follow you.
We've heard friend say they admire us for following our principles.  And some of them say they've changed because of us  looking for more effective charities, giving more, or asking people to donate instead of giving them birthday presents.  I love hearing that.

We've met some awesome people through giving.
Since we started meeting other people who are interested in effective altruism, we've really clicked with some of them. After college I missed being able to talk ideas with people, and effective altruism has brought that back into my life.  (The downside: you have to get over your stage fright about talking to people with impressive credentials. It turns out most of them are regular people.)

Monday, September 16, 2013

Book review: Reinventing Philanthropy

Eric Friedman's book Reinventing Philanthropy: A Framework for More Effective Giving came out this month.

The book opens with an example that I find particularly compelling. Friedman gives the example of two sick children, one who received world-class care at an American children's hospital, and the other who perished for lack of basic care at an underfunded clinic in Angola. Both healthcare facilities are “good causes,” and donors might feel proud of supporting either one. But one is funded to the tune of millions of dollars a day, and the other lacks basic supplies. Rather than patting themselves on the back for supporting the state-of-the-art American hospital, Friedman suggests donors should consider funding the Angolan clinic that would be able to save far more children with the same money.

The book emphasizes the difference between giving to feel good and giving to do good (or, as he calls it, the “do-gooder approach” and the “do-bester approach.”) He argues that too much charitable giving is focused on making the donor feel good, regardless of what their money is actually accomplishing. But he proposes that it's possible to have both – to choose effective giving strategies while feeling the warm glow of knowing you helped others the best you could.

I'm sure there are donors out there who will not be persuaded by Friedman's approach – if their mother had Parkinson's, they will devote their charitable giving to Parkinson's research. In fact, the whole industry of charitable fundraising is built around this type of donor preference – show the donor giving opportunities within their chosen area of interest, but don't suggest that they consider some other area, even if they could help more people elsewhere.

But I think others will be compelled by Friedman's questions: what are you actually trying to combat? Is it Parkinson's disease in particular? Is it grief at watching a loved one grow ill and die? Is it human suffering in general? And if what you actually care about is preventing human suffering, shouldn't you fund whatever cause will best accomplish that goal?

Reinventing Philanthropy also provides sections on choosing charities to donate to, choosing whether to restrict your donation to a particular fund within a charity, and choosing to fund innovation vs. proven approaches. It also touches on ways to use your time to help, whether that's working or volunteering for a nonprofit, choosing a career that lets you donate more, or just talking to other people about how you make giving decisions.

Parts of the book are aimed at donors giving substantial amounts of money – for example, those giving a few hundred dollars won't be able to meet with the leadership of nonprofits they are considering, as Friedman advises. But the book's principles are sound, regardless of how much you donate.  By putting in some thought and research, donors at any level can be "do-besters."