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.