In Which I Advertise for GiveDirectly

This is the fifth of six posts I’m writing for Effective Altruism Week.

There are a lot of options when it comes to charity, even if you’re only considering the ones that are plausible candidates for the most good you can do.

But if you’re looking for a charity to donate to—maybe for tax reasons, maybe because your group won a dollar auction like happens at my university and you have to decide which charity to donate the proceeds to, maybe for some other reason—and you want a single recommendation whose appeal is easy to explain and that isn’t going to change in the foreseeable future, then the winner is GiveDirectly.

Of course, that’s quite a claim, and to some extent it’s just my arbitrary and biased opinion. But in this post, I hope to convince you that it’s the right answer.

GiveDirectly’s model is unconditional cash transfers. In other words, they find the world’s poorest people and give them money.

That’s it. That’s the whole process.

Well, okay, I can elaborate a little. GiveDirectly currently operates in two countries, Kenya and Uganda. In those countries, they go visit rural villages and then find the poorest people living in those villages. (How do they know who’s poorest? The poorest people live in houses with thatched roofs, because they can’t afford metal ones.) They sign those people up for accounts with M-PESA, a Kenyan mobile-phone-based payment system (yes, Kenya has its own electronic payment system and everybody there uses it; they use different systems in Uganda). They then transfer the money to them (about $1,000 per person over the course of a year) and give them instructions on how to withdraw it from a money agent. The whole time, GiveDirectly’s field agents are going around checking that everything’s going smoothly and collecting data on recipients’ experiences and how they’re using the money. The overall overhead ratio is less than 10%, meaning that over 90 cents of every dollar donated to GiveDirectly ends up in the pocket of a recipient.

These cash transfers are unconditional, meaning that recipients don’t have to do anything other than be poor in order to be eligible for them. Some programs in other countries (often government-sponsored ones) have experimented with conditional cash transfers, meaning that recipients have to do something like make sure their kids are attending school or get them vaccinated in order to get the money. These can be a useful incentive for behavior modification, but studies suggest that unconditional cash transfers work best for increasing recipients’ overall welfare as much as possible.

Why are cash transfers such a great idea? Because different people need different things. Many recipients use their cash transfers to buy metal roofs, which don’t leak all the time like thatched ones do, and also are cheaper to own in the long run because you don’t have be constantly repairing them. Many use them to address immediate needs such as food or medical expenses. Some use them for startup costs in some business venture, like buying a motorcycle and using it to sell transportation services to neighbors, or buying a power saw and using it to cut trees and make charcoal. There are a lot of other potential uses besides; with cash, recipients can determine for themselves what they need most and then spend it on that, obviating the need for outsiders to try to do so (and probably get it wrong). Evidence suggests that cash transfers usually aren’t spent on things like alcohol or tobacco.

Based on this logic, you could reasonably conclude that cash transfers don’t need to meet the same burden of scientific proof as other interventions. But GiveDirectly apparently didn’t get that memo, because the quality of their science is second to none. They extensively survey recipients (sometimes to the point of measuring things like cortisol levels) in order to ensure that their cash transfers are having the best possible effect. They also conduct randomized controlled trials—the gold standard of science—in order to learn more about the effects of cash transfers. In fact, their last large experiment was preregistered, meaning that the results would be published whether they were good or bad—a standard which is rarely met in any field, let alone one where scientific rigor is as often neglected as in charity.

Not only is GiveDirectly one of the most scientifically-minded global poverty charities out there, but they’re also one of the most transparent. I don’t just mean publishing a lot of metrics (although they do publish a lot of metrics, and that’s very important and by itself brings them far above what most of their peers are doing). I mean things like this bit from one of their blog posts:

We believe that stories and qualitative information can be informative and powerful, but their value depends on the manner in which they’re shared. When individual stories are shared without sufficient context into how they were chosen or how they compare to the average, they can create a misleading picture of how the organization uses donors’ dollars and the impact they ultimately have. This would be unfortunate for individual donors—and could be dangerous for policymakers and institutional funders, who fund and influence programs at massive scale. If we shared our favorite stories without any context, you might think, for example, that the woman who was able to afford eye surgery and see for the first time in two decades is representative of the average recipient.

Their solution? Pick recipients literally at random and publish stories about them.

If you’re not familiar with how most charities communicate with the public, you might not realize just how unusual this is. It is really, really unusual. Fanatical, even. Nobody does this. It goes against all the conventional wisdom about how to present yourself and what you’re doing in the charitable sector.

Considering how much money the conventional wisdom ends up sending to programs that don’t actually work, I’d say it’s long past time to try something different. And an increasing number of donors seem to agree, since GiveDirectly raised over $17 million last year.

Finally, there’s one other factor that I think makes GiveDirectly the best choice: the possibility for them to bring about systemic change.

GiveDirectly has successfully transformed cash transfers from a crazy idea into an intervention taken seriously by experts, and produced high-quality research to back it up. If they continue growing, and unconditional cash transfers continue to gain acceptance, then there’s hope that cash transfers come to be seen as the baseline benchmark which other global poverty interventions are compared against. If that comes to pass, then when, say, the U.S. government is considering funding some foreign-aid intervention, they might ask: Why do you think that this is a better idea than simply taking however much money this will cost and giving it directly to poor people?

There are a few programs out there that might be able to meet that bar. But most of them can’t. We’d end up spending charity and foreign-aid dollars a lot more efficiently—and that means saving and improving a lot more lives.

A Brief Overview of the Effective Charity Landscape, Part 2: Systemic Change

This is the fourth of six posts I’m writing for Effective Altruism Week.

There are basically two ways that a charity can do good in the world. The first way is to run some program—preferably an evidence-backed and cost-effective one—that directly saves or improves individual people’s lives. As I wrote yesterday, the best opportunities within this approach are those that serve the global poor. The advantage of this approach is that it offers concrete, tangible results that you can be confident in. For this reason, most donations by effective altruists go to these kinds of programs. But there’s a limit to how much good you can do this way—and there are other downsides as well.

The second way is to try to produce systemic change that makes things better on a large scale. This doesn’t have to be political, though it can be. This is a high-risk-high-reward approach; most attempts to do this don’t pan out, but some problems are so important that taking a risk on them is worth it. Generally speaking, this approach takes the form of either research (to understand some phenomenon that causes harm, and what might be done to solve it) or advocacy (to get solutions actually implemented in the real world).

A quick note on politics. Many important problems can be addressed only through political change, and many effective altruists are interested in finding ways to bring this change about. That said, most effective altruists don’t believe that supporting one side or the other in mainstream electoral politics is a very effective way of doing good. There are so many players exerting so much influence there that anything you do as an individual is likely to be counteracted by someone on the other side. Instead, we’re interested in finding overlooked opportunities for reform that don’t already have powerful entities fighting either for or against them. Lots of people have strong opinions on, say, whether income tax rates should be higher or lower, and any individual voice there is likely to be drowned out—but how many people are already yelling about, say, land use reform? Not very many—which is why a concerted effort there just might be an effective way to do a lot of good.

Most causes that effective altruists are concerned about can be classified in one of four major categories.

Global poverty

I wrote yesterday about ways to help poor individuals. But it might also be possible to help the global poor on a larger scale through policy change in America and other rich countries. The Open Philanthropy Project is currently researching ways that this might be possible. A few of the more intriguing possibilities include:

  • Labor mobility. How can you massively increase the income of someone living in a poor country? By letting them come to a rich one. Advocates suggest that enabling migration could create trillions of dollars per year in economic value, possibly as much as doubling world GDP—and most of this value would go to the world’s poorest people. Of course, there are risks, and more research is needed into the probable effects of policy changes in this area—not to mention how to overcome political resistance to such changes.
  • Reforming foreign aid. The United States currently gives $30 billion per year in aid to other countries—but this money isn’t spent as well as it might be. It could be valuable to research better ways to provide foreign aid, or to politically advocate for more of it (as is done in other rich countries; the U.S. gives only about two-thirds as much foreign aid per dollar of gross national income as the United Kingdom). Policies that affect foreign aid indirectly, such as agricultural subsidies, could also prove important.
  • Addressing climate change. It’s generally believed that the worst effects of climate change will be in poor countries in tropical regions, as rising temperatures may harm agriculture and induce extreme weather events that cause mass loss of life and economic damage. This is an area where there’s already so much advocacy that additional efforts are likely to be drowned out, but there may be underexplored facets of it that provide good opportunities, such as research into geoengineering.

Existential risk

There are a number of threats that humanity may face in the future, that have the potential to kill literally everyone if things go wrong. Arguably, the single most important thing we can do is to prevent this from happening.

Most of the truly dangerous risks are man-made, the result of recent technology. This isn’t surprising; nature didn’t wipe us out over the past millions of years, so it’s unlikely to suddenly change and do so tomorrow. Technology, on the other hand, changes fast and at an accelerating pace, and if we’re not careful there may not be time to deal with its negative effects before they become catastrophic.

Thus far, work on existential risk is still in the realm of relatively speculative research. The major organizations devoted to it are the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge University, and the Future of Life Institute at MIT. The Open Philanthropy Project is also studying existential risk. Specific risks currently being studied include nuclear war, biotechnology (which could be used to engineer an artificial pandemic), artificial general intelligence, molecular nanotechnology, and extreme climate change.

Animal welfare

Many effective altruists are concerned not only about humans, but about all sentient life. In particular, if your goal is to reduce suffering as much as possible, then it’s a good idea to include animal suffering, since animals substantially outnumber humans and factory farming causes a great deal of suffering.

I’m not writing extensively about this cause because I don’t have much specific knowledge of it. Animal Charity Evaluators recommends The Humane League, Mercy For Animals, and Animal Equality as effective charities working in this area. The Open Philanthropy Project is also researching prospects for addressing harms caused by factory farming.


Charity recommendations don’t grow on trees. All of the research that I’ve written about in this and the last post was done by charities focusing specifically on finding out how do the most good.

GiveWell is by far the organization that has made the largest impact in identifying the best opportunities to do good. Each year, they issue recommendations for the best charities in the first category; most of the organizations mentioned in yesterday’s post come with their seal of approval. They also, in collaboration with Good Ventures, run the Open Philanthropy Project, which researches the kind of high-risk-high-reward opportunities that this post is about. Without GiveWell, almost none of the work I’ve written about here would exist and effective altruism could not have become the thriving high-impact movement that it is today. They deserve a round of applause.

Other organizations are devoted specifically to effective altruism outreach. Two of the more notable ones are Giving What We Can, which encourages people to pledge to devote 10% of their lifetime earnings to effective charities (I’m a member), and The Life You Can Save, which is based on the work of noted ethical philosopher Peter Singer and engages in more general outreach.

A Brief Overview of the Effective Charity Landscape, Part 1: Global Poverty

This is the third of six posts I’m writing for Effective Altruism Week.

As I mentioned in previous posts, effective altruists look for the best opportunities that we can find to do the most good. So what are those?

By far the most popular causes among effective altruists are those connected to global poverty. Over a billion people currently live in extreme poverty, which is generally defined as living on less than $1.25 per day. Approximately 19,000 children die every day of preventable diseases and other poverty-related causes. This is the great humanitarian crisis of our time, and it’s within our power to help.

Most of the best global poverty charities are focused on health interventions. A lot of people have had various bright ideas about how to alleviate extreme poverty, and a lot of those bright ideas ended up not panning out for whatever reason. But saving people from preventable diseases has generally worked pretty well.

According to the best research we have so far, the interventions that work best are:

  • Malaria nets. Malaria is one of the biggest killers in poor tropical and subtropical countries, especially in Africa. It’s caused by a blood parasite that’s spread by mosquito bites, so malaria infections can be prevented by sleeping under bednets treated with insecticide. The best life-saving health intervention that we know of is to distribute these nets to poor people living in malaria-affected regions. There are a number of charities working in this space, but by far the best is the Against Malaria Foundation, one of GiveWell’s most highly recommended charities. If your goal is to save human lives in the near term with the maximum possible cost-effectiveness, they’re the ones to donate to.
  • Deworming. Many neglected tropical diseases, most notably schistosomiasis, are caused by parasitic worms. Among diseases caused by parasites, the death toll of schistosomiasis is second only to malaria, and children who survive it often suffer from stunted development. Schistosomiasis and similar diseases can be prevented with inexpensive deworming pills. Two of GiveWell’s top charities are focused on deworming: the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, which directly runs deworming programs in sub-Saharan Africa, and the Deworm the World Initiative, which works primarily in India and provides technical assistance and advocacy for government-run deworming programs there.
  • Micronutrient fortification. In rich countries, staple foods are routinely fortified with micronutrients; iodized salt is a good example. People in many poor countries don’t benefit from this, and end up suffering from micronutrient deficiency disorders, which are especially harmful for children’s development (for example, iodine deficiency is a leading cause of preventable intellectual disability in Africa and Southeast Asia). Micronutrient fortification is actually quite cheap if you do it at scale; as such, most of the best charities here work with national governments to set up fortification programs for entire populations. GiveWell notes the Iodine Global Network (IGN) and the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) as standout organizations working specifically on salt iodization; Giving What We Can recommends Project Healthy Children, which works on a broader set of fortification programs.
  • There are a few less-studied interventions that show promise; GiveWell has a list of ones that they’ve looked at. Two other GiveWell standout charities are Development Media International, which produces radio and television broadcasts to promote good health practices in the developing world, and Living Goods, which supports a network of people in sub-Saharan Africa selling health products within their own communities. The Life You Can Save also has a list of recommended charities, most of which are focused on global health.

There’s also one well-studied global poverty intervention that isn’t specifically about health: cash transfers. How do you help poor people? By giving them money. The major player in the space of unconditional cash transfers is GiveDirectly, which is also recommended by GiveWell and which I’ll be writing more about in a later post.

Beyond the Warm Glow

This is the second of six posts I’m writing for Effective Altruism Week.

You often hear about the warm glow that comes from giving to those in need. It’s embedded in most of the rhetoric and conventional wisdom about charity. It’s been verified by scientific studies. There are even catchy show tunes about it. It’s probably safe to say that the warm glow is responsible for a great part of all the charitable activity that humans have ever engaged in.

As far as I can remember, I’ve never experienced it in my life.

I don’t really know why. It’s just the way I am.

For someone concerned about altruism, this might sound like a cause for alarm. But it needn’t be. Because the warm glow isn’t the be-all and end-all of charity. Remember, the goal isn’t to feel good—the goal is to do good.

The warm glow is powerful. But it’s also dangerous. The activities and interventions that feel good often aren’t the most effective ones for making the world a better place. Donors seeking the warm glow—and charities seeking those donors—may be lured towards programs that don’t work as well.

This is not a hypothetical concern. Most international charities have this problem to some extent or another. The message has to be optimized to make it sound as though something like a particular family getting a particular cow can be attributed directly to your donation. The truth tends to be more complicated—and after looking past this donor illusion, one might wonder whether a cow is the thing that family needs most at all.

So if the warm glow doesn’t motivate me, what does? Well, that’s really two different questions.

First, why have I donated to charities serving the global poor, and pledged to continue doing so in future? Quite simply, because I looked at the arguments and at the numbers, and concluded that it was the right thing to do.

This is not a very exciting answer. There’s no real emotion in it. But in my particular case, it happens to be true.

I can’t apply this dispassionate moral logic everywhere in my life. It’d be nice if I could, but I’m only human and there are plenty of times when I don’t do the right thing, even if in theory I know what the right thing is. In this particular domain, though, I’ve found that—again, for me personally—it works.

And in the end, as long as you do the right thing, it doesn’t much matter how you get there—so figure out what route gets you there, and then take it.

The second, and more interesting question, is this: What motivates me to advocate for effective altruism? Why am I interested in this idea?

That part is not a matter of dispassionate analysis for me. Quite the opposite—I care passionately about effective altruism. It might be the most exciting idea I’ve yet encountered.

Everyone wants to make the world a better place. And lots of people say they’re making the world a better place. But if you’re a person who’s inclined to be skeptical, the thousandth person asking you to support their pet cause—without demonstrating that it’s really better than the others you might be supporting—starts to wear thin.

But when someone comes along who’s actually waded through the chaos, not seeking to push a particular pet intervention but open to whatever might do the most good? And they’ve actually succeeded at finding opportunities that we could reasonably call the best there are? And they’ve shown their work, so you don’t have to take their word for it? And they’re continuing to actively seek opportunities that are even better than those?

That’s exciting. That’s what makes me believe that we have a shot at actually fixing this messed-up world.

That’s what makes me want to be an effective altruist.

Winning at Charity

This is the first of six posts I’m writing for Effective Altruism Week.

Effective altruism is a new idea that’s bringing about a revolution in charitable giving. This post is about why that’s a good idea—starting from the beginning.

The practice of charity is older than dirt; humans are social animals, and there have always been times when individual humans acted for the benefit of others. This behavior might have evolved so that we’d help our biological relatives, or so that those who might someday be able to help us in turn—but the human tendency towards altruism has long been broader than that. Even ancient religions codified the practice of alms-giving, showing that they valued helping the less fortunate for the sake of doing so.

This is how charity began—within the community. But over time, the world has become more interconnected. For an early human, the entire world was only about 150 people, but those hunter-gatherer bands gave way to larger villages, which gave way to cities. The spread of commerce brought distant corners of a civilization closer together. The printing press enabled the widespread dissemination of information, and the carrack opened the Age of Sail and closed the distance between the continents. Today’s transportation and communications technology has brought your community of 150 people up to seven billion and counting.

Seven billion—and all with their own needs and desires, coming from all different cultures and economic situations, and frustrated by myriad individual and social ills. In response to their needs, a dizzying array of charitable causes has arisen: from the classic assistance to the local poor, to aiding victims of war and famine and pestilence, to scientific research and the arts, and countless others besides.

That basic social instinct is still there; most of us want to do our part to help. But you can’t help them all. Your resources, your time and money, are limited. How do you choose where best to direct them?

The traditional answer was to help those in your community—because traditionally, that was all there was. In a more interconnected world like ours, you wouldn’t necessarily choose a cause that was geographically close to you (though you might well do that), but you’d likely choose one that you were somehow connected to. After all, what else would you do?

Perhaps, at some point in past centuries, as the world was growing more interconnected, some bright forward-looking soul might have wondered if this was the best we could do. Might it be possible to go beyond simply giving time or money to some cause or another? Might it be possible to sift through all the causes and charities, compare them, and find the ones which offer us the opportunity to do the most good with our limited resources? Might it be possible, in short, to start playing to win in the game of charity?

After all, surely some charitable opportunities are better than others. And some philosophers, such as the founders of utilitarianism, had started to think thoughts in this direction—that one should aim to do the greatest good for the greatest number, as that philosophy is commonly summarized. But for most of human history, the answer to these questions was no.

Because good intentions aren’t good enough, if you want to be truly effective, and not just able to say that you did your part. You need an understanding of those individual and social ills that prevent human flourishing, an understanding that can only come from science—both natural science, and social sciences like economic and political theory (to account for the roles of markets and governments in people’s lives). You need sophisticated statistical methods, in order to measure and quantify the impact that charities have, and compare them side by side. And you need that transportation and communications technology, to actually reach the people you’re trying to help, and to coordinate enough people from all over the world to start making a difference.

For most of human history, we didn’t have that stuff. But now isn’t most of human history.

In the early 21st century, some bright forward-looking souls—a mixture of financiers, philosophers, technologists, and social theorists—asked themselves if it might be possible to start playing to win in the game of charity. And they realized that in this century, the answer might be yes.

So they rolled up their sleeves and started doing research. And they got results. And they realized that these results would only be useful if others knew about them and could follow them, so they started a movement.

That’s effective altruism—the idea that we should, with the power of science and global coordination, find the areas where we can have the greatest positive impact, and then direct our limited resources towards those areas. The opportunity to save lives, or to prevent suffering, or to contribute meaningfully to a bright and secure future for humanity—once reserved for the likes of Carnegie and Rockefeller—is now accessible to ordinary people like you and me.

Let’s start playing to win.

Further information:

A Letter to the WPI Class of 2018 (and Everyone Else)

For all but three days out of every year, I’m an introvert. But not during New Student Orientation.

This stems from a ritual that I’ve done every year for the past three years. I’d move in on Monday, the second day of NSO—the day the residence halls open for upperclassmen—and then, for each meal of the next three days, I’d go to DAKA, sit down at tables with random groups of incoming freshmen, and try to get to know them.

Approaching groups of people and striking up conversations with them is something that would be totally out of character for me at any other time. But at NSO, it just feels right. One of the things I’m missing most about not coming back this A-term is not getting to do that—mostly.

Since they haven’t deactivated my card yet, I was able to come visit campus and swipe into DAKA earlier this week, just for one meal, and talk to an incoming freshman class for the last time. I won’t have the opportunity to meet nearly as many of you or to get to know you nearly as well as I wish I could. But I did get something of a picture of what you guys[1] are like. Plus, having gotten to know three previous incoming freshman classes, I’ve started to notice some patterns.

And as has been the case every year, one message has come in loud and clear:

You are at WPI because you want to do awesome things with awesome people.

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My Favorite Game

Compared to most of my friends, I’m not that much of a gamer.

There’s no one particular reason for this. Certainly, lack of time has been a factor since I became a college student; my class schedule is overloaded much of the time, and my extracurricular schedule is even worse. Also, as with anything that becomes a part of your identity, being a gamer is in a lot of ways about community, and I never really found a “gamer community” in meatspace that I clicked with on an interpersonal level. Finally, a lot of “hobbyist” games (of all kinds) require a significant investment of patience, which isn’t something that I have all that much of (at least not for games). The upshot is that when I have some time to relax, I’m more likely to spend it reading or messing around with code than gaming.

There is, however, one game that I’m pretty heavily into, that I try to make time for even when my schedule is tight: Magic: The Gathering.

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