How Not to Be a “White in Shining Armor”

by Holden Karnofsky, origi­nally on the GiveWell Blog

GiveWell’s cur­rent top-rated char­i­ties fo­cus on proven, cost-effec­tive health in­ter­ven­tions. Th­ese in­ter­ven­tions ap­pear to solve cer­tain prob­lems (malaria, par­a­sites) quite well, while mak­ing no di­rect at­tempt to solve other prob­lems (eco­nomic growth, ed­u­ca­tion, gen­der equity, and more). One of the com­mon lines of ob­jec­tion we get to these recom­men­da­tions goes some­thing like: “Why should I put all my money into fight­ing malaria, ig­nor­ing other im­por­tant prob­lems? Isn’t it un­eth­i­cal to ig­nore the other es­sen­tial needs?”

We be­lieve this ob­jec­tion com­mits the com­mon fal­lacy of view­ing the de­vel­oped-world donor as the only per­son who can im­prove things for the benefi­cia­ries. One term for tak­ing this men­tal­ity too far is “Whites in Shin­ing Ar­mor” – of­ten, in the me­dia and in non­prof­its’ com­mu­ni­ca­tions, global poverty is pre­sented as a sim­ple fight be­tween lo­cal prob­lems and de­vel­oped-world heroes. The prob­lem is that as out­siders, we of­ten havev­ery poor un­der­stand­ing of the true dy­nam­ics be­hind over­seas prob­lems – and by at­tempt­ing to solve prob­lems that we un­der­stand poorly, we can make things worse.

We fun­da­men­tally be­lieve that progress on most prob­lems must be lo­cally driven. So we seek to im­prove peo­ple’s abil­ities to make progress on their own, rather than tak­ing per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity for each of their challenges. How can we best ac­com­plish this?

Lo­cally driven projects

A com­mon and in­tu­itively ap­peal­ing an­swer is let­ting lo­cals drive philan­thropic pro­jects.This an­swer has some ap­peal for us; we have writ­ten be­fore about, and given a small amount of money to, “low-in­su­la­tion char­i­ties” that seem adap­tive, lo­cally con­nected, and over­all driven by lo­cal needs rather than donors’ plans. At the same time, we have noted some ma­jor challenges of do­ing things this way. Which lo­cals should be put in charge? There are in­her­ent risks that the peo­ple who least need help will be best po­si­tioned to get in­volved with mak­ing the key de­ci­sions. In our re­flec­tions on our visit to In­dia, we noted that some or­ga­ni­za­tions seemed to con­sist sim­ply of lo­cal elites mak­ing ad-hoc de­ci­sions, and that to truly reach those who most need help seemed to re­quire be­ing “sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly­bot­tom-up,” a more com­plex and difficult ap­proach.

Global health and nutrition

Another ap­proach to “putting lo­cals in the driver’s seat” is quite differ­ent. It comes down to ac­knowl­edg­ing that as fun­ders, we will always be out­siders, so we should fo­cus on­helping with what we’re good at helping with and leave the rest up to lo­cals.

Here I think an anal­ogy to helping friends and fam­ily is some­what illus­tra­tive. I try to help my friends and fam­ily in do­mains that I’m rel­a­tively knowl­edge­able about (for ex­am­ple, com­puter is­sues) and I tend not to put much effort into helping in other ar­eas I’m not so knowl­edge­able about (for ex­am­ple, pick­ing clothes) even if the lat­ter are more im­por­tant is­sues for them. I know I ap­pre­ci­ate when my friends and fam­ily deal with me this way, and I don’t ap­pre­ci­ate peo­ple who are de­ter­mined to help me in do­mains that they don’t un­der­stand very well (even if these do­mains are very im­por­tant to me).

We be­lieve that the track record of out­side aid points to health and nu­tri­tion as the ar­eas that de­vel­oped-world out­siders un­der­stand best and are best-po­si­tioned to help with.

It’s not that we think global health and nu­tri­tion are the only im­por­tant, or even the most im­por­tant, prob­lems in the de­vel­op­ing world. It’s that we’re try­ing to fo­cus on what we can do well, and thus max­i­mally em­power peo­ple to make lo­cally-driven progress on other fronts.

Cash transfers

One more ap­proach to “putting lo­cals in the driver’s seat”: give to GiveDirectly to sup­port un­con­di­tional cash trans­fers. We feel that global health and nu­tri­tion in­ter­ven­tions are su­pe­rior be­cause they reach so many more peo­ple (per dol­lar), but for those who are even more con­cerned than we are about the trap of “whites in shin­ing ar­mor,” this op­tion has some promise. [Ed: GiveWell now no-longer rate global health and nu­tri­tion in­ter­ven­tions as su­pe­rior, rather they rate GiveDirectly as one of its top three char­i­ties]

Part of In­tro­duc­tion to Effec­tive Altruism

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