On April 14th, 2013 I had the opportunity to speak at TEDxRutgers. Below is the text I wrote for my talk.
If it took the same effort, would you rather help one person, or a thousand people? I suspect we all think about helping people. We revere Oskar Schindler for saving around a thousand of Jews during World War II from imminent death. We respect firemen for risking their lives to save others. But most of us feel that opportunities to help others so significantly are outside the scope of our daily lives.
It might surprise you, as it did me, that we all can be such heroes without even risking our own lives! And if we are strategic about our actions, using proven methods, each one of us can save hundreds, maybe even thousands, of lives from suffering or even death. Blindness
Imagine your mother became blind and there is no way to recover her eye-sight, but you could provide her with a seeing-eye dog. The dog would be a welcome companion, allowing your mother to go places and significantly increasing her quality of life. How much would you be willing to spend? Would it deter you if it cost $40,000? That works out to only about $75 per week! That seems like a good bargain.
Now let’s take a step back and say you’re lucky and your mother’s eyesight is fine, but you still wanted to help a blind person in need of a seeing-eye dog. There is a US charity that does this. Though you might not have $40,000 to pay the full bill, you might decide to donate a smaller amount anyway, because with contributions from numerous other kind-hearted people like you, yet another blind person would be given the precious gift of a seeing-eye dog.
But let’s take one more step back and say you wanted to help as many blind people as you could with your donation. If you were only able to give $75, would you be able to do more than provide a seeing-eye dog for a week? This is the crucial question you should ask. With just a little research you can discover that certain kinds of blindness are entirely curable and medical procedures are less expensive in some developing countries. Making use of this information, you are in a position to help many more blind people with the same amount of money. Astonishingly, certain kind of cataract surgeries in some developing countries only cost about $35 USD. Depressingly, many cannot afford it. While $35 might not seem like a lot of money in the US, in a developing country, it could equal the entire month’s earnings! So by giving just $75 to a charity that uses the less-expensive methods, you would cure two people of blindness for the rest of their lives, that’s a lot longer than a week!
With respect to virtually any issue, the value of your donated dollar can vary significantly. To find opportunities to help more people, you need to pay attention to the effectiveness of the method a charity uses to help people. It costs a little under $1.50 per day to keep an HIV patient alive when treating her with antiretroviral drugs. Such a charity can keep a patient alive and well for a year by spending only $500! Even better, preventing a year of HIV/AIDS through mass media education costs around $1.25! So instead of treating a single person for $500 per year, a charity can prevent the disease for only $1.25 per year! With HIV, prevention is vastly less expensive than treatment. To put this in perspective, imagine you entered a store to buy a TV and were offered nearly-identical models at two different prices: $500for one TV and $1.25 for the other. It’s like one charity is having a 99% off sale on saving people’s lives!
Whatever problem you would like to tackle, I encourage you to ask “what’s the most good I can do with my donation?” You could reach a conclusion you didn’t expect: sometimes it can be more effective to attack the problem indirectly. There are many ways to improve education. Organizations out there build schools in developing countries and others send teachers to them – but what good are those schools and teachers if their classes are empty? Millions of children miss school every day because they are sick with intestinal worms. These worms cause pain, malnutrition, disfigurement, and damage to internal organs.
And how much does the cost-effective charity Schistosomiasis Control Initiative need from you to cure a child for a year? Fifty cents! There is probably enough change in your pocket right now to cure a child and improve her education!
I didn’t know all these things when I started giving. I knew Americans gave on average 5% of their income, and I knew I should be helping people, so when I was a college student, I started giving to charities. My donations surely helped others, but I felt like my contribution was insignificant. I used to focus my attention on charities with low administrative costs, so that as much of my donation as possible would go to help people … but that was a bad strategy. To help people well, an organization must spend money on research and continued monitoring to find and maintain the most effective ways to help.
I learned that from Nick Beckstead, a Rutgers Philosophy graduate student who is a part of the effective altruism movement; he doesn’t just want to make a difference – he wants to make the most difference. Nick showed me many numerous examples where a cost-effective charity did more good with a $1 donation than a merely good charity did with $1,000. When overhead costs differ by just a few percent, but the effectiveness differs by a factor of a thousand, looking at overhead is irrelevant!
I was inspired to give more. I realized that in my day-to-day life I could often get the very same things I liked without spending as much. By seeing a movie matinée instead of an evening show, I could take $2 I saved and cure 4 children of parasitic worms! I found other opportunities to fund my favorite charities. I started doing birthdays for charity, asking friends to donate to a chosen charity rather than give me material gifts.
Nick encouraged me to join Giving What We Can, an international society of people who pledge to give at least 10% of their incomes to the charities they think do the most in relieving suffering in the developing world. Though joining was a big step for me, it made perfect sense. I just imagined myself using 10% of my time at work to fund a cost-effective intervention to help others, rather than save to buy something for myself! As of today, several of my close friends have also joined the hundreds of Giving What We Can members by pledging at least 10% of their income to cost-effective charities.
Giving 10% turned out to be far easier than I imagined, and I ended up happier! There are research studies that strongly suggest that when people spend their money to help others, they end up happier than when they spend on themselves. To this day I’ve not regretted giving any of my money to cost-effective charities, and I don’t think that on my deathbed I’ll look back and think I should have spent more on myself.
For the past two years, the most cost-effective charity I was able to find was Against Malaria Foundation. For less than $5 AMF provides an anti-mosquito bednet for a family in need, usually protecting 2 people from malaria for almost 5 years! This is a proven intervention costing around 50 cents per person per year of protection! Donating from my teacher’s salary, last year alone I was able to protect some 9,000 people from malaria for the upcoming 5 years! AMF posts photos of bednet distributions; I shed a tear the first time I saw my contribution making a difference.
Even though I now give a large fraction of my income to charity, I don’t feel like I’m missing anything important in my life. In fact I’m confident I live better than most royalty have ever lived throughout history: I have wonderful friends, modern healthcare, fresh food from all over the world, music at a touch of a button, phenomenal books, and mind-blowing entertainment, and I don’t even have to worry about being assassinated!
So to close, I’m not going to preach – you’re smart people and I expect you to look into this as critically as I have. Go to sites like GiveWell.org and GivingWhatWeCan.org and decide for yourself. Both organizations share their research and recommendations about cost-effective charities.
Take the long-term view – if you’re like a typical American, you’ll give about 5% to charity each year. Through your life you probably will donate thousands of dollars. Think about how much good you can do with it! Take the short view – a dollar given to a cost-effective charity now, can spare two people of parasitic worms.
Long view or short view, it’s what you came to TED for – to be empowered to improve the world. We look to technology for the next miracle, and here you are with one that’s already been delivered to you. You don’t need to give 10% or 50% – though I won’t stop you. You don’t need to be Schindler in a perilous war era, or a fireman risking his life fighting through flames … because with research, technology, and careful application, becoming a life-saving hero is quite feasible. The change in your pockets can change the world – you can be a generation of heroes!