You’re more powerful than you think – and it matters that you know

SEBASTIAN OEHM will give 10% of his income to charity, and he wants you to do the same

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What should I do with my life? A common answer is: Be happy. It’s sweet. It seems so reasonable, so correct, so obvious.

There will hardly be anyone who disagrees with it.

And yet, something in me is not convinced. A part of me is looking at a future with a nice house, a loving family and an enjoyable 9-5 job, and feels like something is missing.

I am exorbitantly rich. I mean, I am an average student, but I’m rich compared to the rest of the world. It might not always feel that way living on a student budget, but we’re all aware how good our situation is. And my average Cambridge starting salary will put me in the richest 3 % of the world, earning 20 times the global average.

Posing with my privileges

So don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about my life, I don’t want more. But I bet I’m not alone in thinking that a life focused just on your own happiness and success can hardly be fulfilling.

This is why I started thinking about doing good and trying to have an impact in the world. I recently told two of my friends I wanted to pledge to donate 10 % of my lifetime income to charity. One of my friends told me this was great. He said that we should have hope and do something good with our lives. That, no matter how small it is what we can achieve, if it’s the right thing, we should do it.

The other one said that the west had already spent trillions of pounds on international aid, and is still nowhere near ending extreme poverty. I’d love to agree with both. It is true that we should do good things. And it is also true that we’re often terribly bad at it. What is going on?

In a study, three groups of subjects were asked how much they would pay to save 2,000, 20,000 or 200,000 birds from drowning in an uncovered oil pond. The groups respectively answered $80, $78 and $88.

Humans aren’t great at feeling numbers. We can imagine the one bird, its feathers soaked in black, viscous oil, unable to escape. This image is live and clear in our head. But when we look at 20,000 or 200,000, all we see is another trailing zero.

We do even worse when a crisis is going on for too long. For instance, in the 2011 Tohoku earthquake in Japan around 16,000 people died. The international response was heart-warming, over three billion pounds were donated. And yet, 16,000 children under five died every day in 2015, many of which could have been saved by easily available interventions, and they receive nowhere near the attention and help they deserve.

The consequence: Donations go to the charities that are best at marketing. They do not go to the charities that are best at making the world a better place. People told me to accept this. They say, it is human nature to follow your heart rather than your calculations when doing good.

I wonder whether they realise that this misallocation of resources means that right now children die who should have been saved. Yes, this is an abstract comparison. But people are still dying.

I think we can do better. If we use evidence and reason to determine how much good a charity does, we can identify outstanding opportunities to give. Luckily, there are now organisations like GiveWell and Giving What We Can that investigate charities and determine their impact.

Remember my two friends? One thought I couldn’t achieve anything at all, and the other that it would be right to do it anyway. But if I were smart about giving, would my impact really be small, as both assume? What could I achieve as an individual? Let’s do the calculation.

GiveWell ranks the Against Malaria Foundation as the best charity in the world. They estimate it costs $3,500 to save the equivalent of one human life. The average lifetime income of a UK citizen is £1.2 million. That is equivalent to 40 years of work with an annual salary of £30,000. So if I donate 10 % of my lifetime income, I could expect to give £120,000, the equivalent of saving more than 30 lives.

I have taken the pledge to give 10 % of my lifetime income to charity this New Year. And I am not alone. Giving What We Can is a community of people worldwide who have made this commitment, and over 2,500 have signed the pledge. More than 150 of these are from Cambridge, and just this winter another seventeen Cambridge students signed the pledge with me.

How much good can you do? How much good could you do if you and two of your friends did this? How much good could we do if, say, 10 % of Cambridge students pledged to give 10 %?

You can do the maths now.