- Met with staff at Oxfam America from their monitoring and evaluation team (full disclosure: I used to work there as an administrative assistant)
- Met with staff at Poverty Action Labs
- Spoke with Holden Karnofsky from GiveWell
One concern Oxfam raised, which I hadn't thought about before, is that basic health work really ought to be the concern of governments or local organizations, not international charities. GiveWell notes a similar concern. One Oxfam staff member pointed out that Americans would be upset if the Swiss started coming in and building roads or laying pipe, because we pay our government to do those things. Oxfam does some nice work encouraging government and corporate accountability, pushing for transparency so that citizens can ask their governments, “This money was budgeted for services to us – where did it go?”
And yet Oxfam and others do step in when a government's irresponsibility leads to disaster – as when a breakdown of sanitation systems led to a cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe in 2008. The government was obviously at fault – they had failed to maintain existing hospitals, or to buy enough chlorine to treat the water system – but international NGOs stepped in rather than watch millions of people die.
This happens on a slower, less obvious scale all the time. Whether from incompetence, corruption, or generally being screwed over by colonization, many nations do not meet their citizens' basic needs. If there were a charity that seemed really effective at getting governments to shape up, I might well support it. But I'm not convinced that most governments are going to get their acts together anytime soon, so I'd rather take action now.
If I could design a perfect nonprofit, it would be one that empowers local people to have more control over their lives. This might be through lots of means – gender equality, education, safe water, good nutrition, sustainable land use, access to healthcare, access to markets, government accountability, an end to violence, an end to economic policies that disadvantage poor people. The ultimate goal, after all, is for people to be able to take care of themselves and their families. Also, this perfect nonprofit would be monitoring its progress and learning from its mistakes.
I think Oxfam and others are doing good work on many of these problems. But at this point, they're also doing a lot of other things that I don't think are as worthwhile – disaster relief, work in the US, projects that haven't really been evaluated or whose evaluations aren't released.
So for this year, I'll be donating to Against Malaria Foundation. They're highly recommended by both GiveWell and Giving What We Can. I have mixed feelings about the decision, since I would prefer to fund something with a broader strategy. Malaria prevention does seem to help development in some ways, since kids who aren't sick or dead from malaria can grow up healthier, and adults can be more productive at whatever they're doing if they're not sick. But the bottom line is that bednets are a cheap way to prevent sickness and death of a lot of people.
I think this is a good choice, and that there are other good choices out there (including Oxfam). I expect to reevaluate this every year, so maybe next year there will be a better one out there.