We Must Reassess What Makes a Charity Effective

Let me pref­ace this ar­ti­cle by say­ing that I am an in­ter­na­tional de­vel­op­ment pro­fes­sional who has been liv­ing and work­ing in West Africa for years. I am a fan of the un­der­ly­ing prin­ci­ples of effec­tive al­tru­ism, that we need to in­vest in char­i­ties that do the most good, but I am very con­cerned with the meth­ods used for choos­ing these char­i­ties. I am not con­cerned that the char­i­ties are not ac­com­plish­ing the goals that they claim to be, or that their method for as­sess­ing these out­comes are sig­nifi­cantly at fault. My con­cern is that char­i­ties fail to in­vest in as­sess­ing the long term col­lat­eral harm of these in­ter­ven­tions which of­ten do harm which over­rides the good which is done by these char­i­ties. There are three met­rics which are ig­nored by char­ity rank­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions such as GiveWell, which from my ex­pe­rience on the ground are cru­cial to ac­tu­ally hav­ing a pos­i­tive per­ma­nent effect on com­mu­ni­ties. The are job cre­ation, com­mu­nity au­ton­omy, and de­pen­dence. Or­ga­ni­za­tions such as AMF con­sis­tently hurt all three sec­tors, and re­verse any good that their in­ter­ven­tions do. I have a video on the sub­ject here. (https://​​www.youtube.com/​​watch?v=cmzTAJUspc8) but I’ll sum­ma­rize the points here.

Job cre­ation. I can’t put this point bet­ter than Dam­bisa Moyo her­self: “There’s a mosquito net maker in Africa. He man­u­fac­tures around 500 nets a week. He em­ploys ten peo­ple, who (as with many Afri­can coun­tries) each have to sup­port up­wards of fif­teen rel­a­tives. How­ever hard they work, they can’t make enough nets to com­bat the malaria-car­ry­ing mosquito. En­ter vo­cif­er­ous Hol­ly­wood movie star who ral­lies the masses and goads Western gov­ern­ments to col­lect and send 100,000 mosquito nets to the af­fected re­gion, at the cost of a mil­lion dol­lars. The nets ar­rive, the nets are dis­tributed, and a ‘good’ deed is done. With the mar­ket flooded with for­eign nets, how­ever, our mosquito net maker is put out of busi­ness. His ten work­ers can no longer sup­port their 150 de­pen­dents (who are now forced to de­pend on hand­outs), and one mustn’t for­get that in a max­i­mum of five years the ma­jor­ity of the im­ported nets will be torn, dam­aged and of no fur­ther use.” When we fund char­i­ties that take jobs away from com­mu­ni­ties, we do more harm than good. The AMF does ex­actly that.

Free­dom to Choose: Now, let’s talk about au­ton­omy, I’ll en­list William Easterly for this one: “In for­eign aid, Plan­ners an­nounce good in­ten­tions but don’t mo­ti­vate any­one to carry them out; Searchers find things that work and get some re­ward. Plan­ners raise ex­pec­ta­tions but take no re­spon­si­bil­ity for meet them; Searchers ac­cept re­spon­si­bil­ity for their ac­tions. Plan­ners de­ter­mine what to sup­ply; Searchers find out what is in de­mand. Plan­ners ap­ply global blueprints; Searchers adapt to lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties. Plan­ners at the top lack knowl­edge of the bot­tom; Searchers find out what the re­al­ity is at the bot­tom. Plan­ners never hear whether the plan got what it needed; Searchers find out if their cus­tomers are satis­fied.” Effec­tive al­tru­ism pro­motes or­ga­ni­za­tions that plan, not or­ga­ni­za­tions that search, be­cause they fo­cus on pro­jects which ap­ply across com­mu­ni­ties re­gard­less of need. They do not build pro­jects from the bot­tom up, they drop things from the top down. This harms de­vel­op­ing democ­ra­cies, and it does not al­low for com­mu­ni­ties to de­cide what they need. Yes, sys­tem­at­i­cally bot­tom up work is harder to do, but the effects are worth it.

Depen­dence: Or­ga­ni­za­tions such as Give Directly may give some amount of choice to com­mu­ni­ties, but they dras­ti­cally in­crease de­pen­dence on for­eign aid. Here’s my thought ex­per­i­ment: “Imag­ine that you are a par­ent and your daugh­ter is get­ting bad grades at school. You hire a tu­tor and tell him you want him to en­sure that your daugh­ter gets bet­ter grades. The tu­tor asks if you would rather get her bet­ter grades through a data tested, effi­cient method with min­i­mal cost re­quired per grade, or a less effi­cient, more ex­pen­sive method that might not get re­sults and makes it harder to mea­sure suc­cess. You pick the first, and im­me­di­ately her grades im­prove. After a few months you ask the tu­tor what they have been do­ing. He ex­plains that he was sim­ply do­ing all the work for your child. Your goal was to im­prove your daugh­ter’s grades, the most cost effec­tive way to do that was to just do the work for her.” This is ex­actly what many or­ga­ni­za­tions, such as Give Directly do. They sim­ply do the work for a com­mu­nity, in­stead of build­ing ca­pac­ity and in­creas­ing au­ton­omy and de­pen­dence. This is great for the or­ga­ni­za­tion, since it en­sures that the com­mu­nity will need aid for­ever, by de­stroy­ing the in­fras­truc­ture that the com­mu­nity pre­vi­ously used to make a liv­ing. If you get rid of the need for struc­tures which pro­duce food, or or­ga­ni­za­tions which provide jobs, they will go out of busi­ness, so that when the com­mu­nity will be un­able to re­turn to them when the aid money even­tu­ally dries up.

There­fore I be­seech you, in­clude these crite­ria when as­sess­ing char­i­ties. Ask that char­i­ties pro­duce ev­ery­thing with fac­to­ries in lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties. Re­quire that in­ter­ven­tions be sys­tem­at­i­cally bot­tom up. Make sure that char­i­ties are work­ing them­selves out of a job, in­stead of deep­en­ing the need for char­ity by cre­at­ing de­pen­dence. It is an atroc­ity that so many peo­ple be­lieve that they are do­ing god by donat­ing to char­i­ties like AMF, when the peo­ple in these com­mu­ni­ties see that they are do­ing so much harm, and do not value the benefits that much. Malaria is treated like the flu here, and wor­ld­wide, they kill about the same num­ber of peo­ple. Peo­ple here don’t want these in­ter­ven­tions, they want jobs. The in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity ig­nores this need, and in­stead takes away the few job op­por­tu­ni­ties available to these com­mu­ni­ties.