Saturday, March 31, 2012

Objections to giving

These are arguments I've heard against giving, or against the type of giving I do.

“I have no obligation to solve other people's problems.”

I don't know exactly what to say to this. I don't think there's a report card in life where someone will eventually grade me and check off the “helped others” box. I don't go around thinking everyone around me is a bad person for not giving all their money away. But I do think that if they gave more, or gave more wisely, the world would be a better place. (If you want to get into philosophy jargon, it's because I'm a consequentialist and not a deontologist. I think it's because I'm a social worker and we focus on solutions, not blame.)

So I guess this is true: I don't consider giving a mandate, but rather an option. A really, really good option that will greatly improve other people's lives at a low cost to you.

“Aid just hurts poor countries.”

This is only partly true. Yes, there has been a lot of bad aid out there – aid that amounted to buying food from Western farmers and shipping it to places where it would put poor farmers out of business. Or tying aid to lots of rules about what countries had to do in exchange. Or as Cold War political leverage, or a way to unload useless goods and get a tax break.

We can obviously do better than that. Rich countries need to reform their aid policies, and individual donors like us can make better choices.

"My tax money is already going to foreign aid."

Well, depends on where you live. If you're Swedish, congratulations - your country tops the charts by donating over 1% of its gross national income. The US is down there with 0.21%. Twenty-one cents for every $100 earned is not my idea of generous.

The way the US allots our foreign aid money is pretty ridiculous. The top receiver of US aid is Afghanistan, which seems legit as the place really could use some development. But the next biggest receivers are Israel ($2.2 billion, highly developed), Pakistan ($1.5 billion, somewhat developed), and Egypt ($1.3 billion, somewhat developed). Israel has half the population of Mali (a desperately poor country) and gets 20 times the aid money. In other words, if you're poor and politically unimportant, you're out of luck.

"So much aid goes to corruption."

This is an undeniable problem. A lot of aid money has gone astray, and some has probably made things worse. It's part of why I look for transparency in a charity. One benefit to relatively small, single-issue charities like the ones GiveWell recommends is that it's clearer what your money is going for.

“Saving lives will lead to environmental destruction from all those extra people.”

The easiest lives to save are in developing countries. For example, Against Malaria Foundation gives out more nets in Malawi than any other country. Your average Malawian produces .7 tons of carbon annually. Your average American produces 28.6 tons annually – that's 40 times the carbon output of a Malawian. Yet I've never heard anyone carry this concern to its logical end and advocate letting Americans die to reduce our carbon footprint.

Almost 10 tons of the American's carbon output is from manufactured goods and transportation. If you want to reduce environmental damage, you could buy less stuff and drive less, and use the money you save to save the lives of people in countries with very low carbon footprints. Win.

“Saving children now will just lead to overpopulation, food shortages, and more suffering later.”

The global trend is that a lower child mortality rate goes hand-in-hand with a lower birthrate. Correlation is not causation, so if the two changes happen at the same time we can't be sure the lower birthrate didn't cause lower child mortality somehow. Or maybe something else caused both of these changes. But there are factors that appear to really decrease birthrates and increase people's ability to feed themselves. Those are things like female literacy, better access to contraception, and better farming methods.

In the end, if you think overpopulation is the greatest problem, there are charities out there doing that work. Funding them would be better than sitting around complaining!

“There's some more pressing problem (climate change, existential risk, etc.)”

Again, if you've done your homework and you think that's the best use of donations, go for it.

I don't think most of these reasons are people's real objections. I think the real objection is usually "it seems hard." And I am here to tell you: it's not that hard.

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