Simplifying what we can’t

A response to Giving What We Can

Cambridge cambridge fashion show cambridge students Cambridge University charity climate change giving what we can philanthropy

Charity isn’t as easy as you think

There is an emergent movement which is only too keen to put the complexities of the world to one side and try to convince as many people as possible to follow a simple ethos: to do as much good as you can.

You might have read an article on the Tab encouraging us to join Giving What We Can and give away 10% of our money earned in our lifetime to charity. This article implied that the reason that people are still dying in lower income countries is that we have been misled by our hearts, foolishly relinquishing reason and rationality, and given to the wrong charities. If only we’d all use our heads more often, we would give to the right causes and save the world.

I don’t know if this apparent simplicity looks suspicious to you, but I’ve grown wary of people advocating simple solutions to complicated problems (such as Donald Trump). Poverty is an almost impossibly complicated problem. To happily bypass the institutional, economic and political barriers to poverty alleviation and just advocate the need for more efficient charities strikes me as simple-minded in the extreme.

A flawed mindset

Giving What We Can’s strategy apparently applies to all of the world’s most pressing problems. To solve climate change, give to the ‘most effective’ climate charity. Concerned about animal welfare? Give to whichever charity persuades most people to go veggie. Take a second to imagine just how frustrating the world must seem to someone who took these solutions seriously: the reason the world is messed up is not because there are gargantuan structural obstacles to change for the better, but because people just don’t know which charities to give to.

It’s clearly great to advocate the use of evidence and reason when choosing between philanthropic interventions (the scandal over the fashion show more than proves that point) – but there’s more to it than that. If we rely on measurable impact and number crunching to be our only guides, we leave essential things out of the picture, such as the preferences and agency of the aid recipients.

Best to avoid this happening again…

Giving What We Can’s methods assume a completely passive role of the world’s poor. We work out what is best for them, and we go and do it. In fact, Gallup and Afrobarometer polls suggest there is a mismatch between Giving What We Can’s priorities and those of the Africans who receive our aid (for example they place much more importance on creating more numerous and better jobs).

There are also severe limitations to what you can measure when calculating the cost of saving a child’s life. What about the impact of our interventions on the politics of the countries we are trying to help? And why don’t we ask first why it is that there are no functioning healthcare systems in those countries, and why there are governments that seem to care little about the welfare of their people?

Giving What We Can loves to use the ‘drowning child’ thought experiment. They say that by not giving our money to their preferred charities, we are doing the equivalent of not jumping into a pond to save a drowning child because we do not want to ruin our expensive clothes. But, to stretch the analogy a little, Giving What We Can appear happy not to ask why there is a pond there in the first place.

A *shallow* way of looking at things

Don’t get me wrong, I have huge respect for the kind of people involved in Giving What We Can. To look beyond one’s own happiness and aspirations, and burden oneself with the task of changing the world for the better merits our deepest admiration, and more of us should do this more often. And I certainly would not want to dissuade anyone from pledging to give their money to charity: I have supported Giving What We Can in the past and think that much good can come out of it.

But I do wish these people did not oversimplify what are often complex and morally grey issues. Giving What We Can’s fondness of simplicity too often disempowers those it seeks to help and overlooks the inherent limitations of its own ideology.