Contrarian Thoughts Concerning Do-gooding (Altruism, Charity)

Providing humanitarian aid and economic assistance to developing countries has always been a controversial subject.  Two recent articles in a popular magazine and journal provide some contrarian reactions to popular beliefs.

Sarah Begley in Time (6 & 13 Jul, 2015) suggests that quitting your job and moving to the troubled spot may not be an ideal solution, even if you are a doctor.

When British doctor Greg Lewis felt called to contribute more to the world, he looked into leaving the U.K. to serve less fortunate patients.  That seemed a better way to do good than working in a pristine hospital.

But when he crunched the numbers, they told a different story.  By treating patients in a poor country, he calculated he might save 4 lives a year.  By choosing a specialty at home home and working toward an annual salary of $200,000, he could donate up to half to a charity providing antimalarial bed nets–saving dozens of lives per year.  As William MacAskill explains in his forthcoming book, Doing Good Better:  Effective Altruism and How You Can Make a Difference, Lewis chose to earn in order to give.

She also reports about boycotts:

[William} MacAskill takes an irreverent approach to the rules of charity, suggesting that impulsive altruism can often do more harm than good.  Boycotting brands that use sweatshops, for example, risks putting workers out of much-needed jobs with better conditions than they would otherwise find.

David Miliband and Ravi Gurumurthy (Foreign Affairs, July/August 2015) take a swipe at at microfinance:

In the light of scientific evidence, some popular development ideas have been shown to have limited impact.  take microfinance, once seen as the game-changing solution to extreme poverty.  A body of evidence now shows that although providing small loans increases people’s consumption of basic goods and services in the short term, it does not achieve the transformative purpose of significantly lifting their incomes.

On a more positive side, the two authors report favorably on cash transfers:

Evidence-based solutions create a major opportunity for donors and agencies to make aide more productive.  Yet in many instances, their practices remain out of step with the data.  Take cash transfers.  As a substantial body of evidence now shows, money not only helps people buy essential items; it also helps families raise their income, so they can send their children to school rather than work.  Yet between 2009 and 2013, only an estimated 1.5 to 3.5 percent of humanitarian aid went to cash.

So you might want to consider keeping your job, but increasing your charitable contributions.  You might want to second guess a decision to boycott.  Personally, I’m supportive of microfinance (but I would like to see it combined with grants).  I also see a role for direct cash transfers.  For example, in Uganda it costs money to send children to school.  For poorer Ugandans, this money is difficult to come by and frequently causes children to drop out of school.

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