Friday, March 31, 2006

NGO moral priorities

Our honours class had a fascinating guest lecture today from Thomas Pogge, who at one point suggested that NGOs/charity groups do a lot less good than they could, if only they would get their priorities straight.

Of course, some such groups are merely self-serving bureaucracies who couldn't care less about achieving real good in the world. But let's put them aside and consider more sincere organizations. Pogge briefly mentioned two major flaws that are apparently very common, even in the best of them.

Firstly, they are too reluctant to specialize, or focus their resources where they could do the most good. Many people are apparently under the illusion that "fairness" requires them to spread their aid across a range of geographic areas. But that's silly; a needy person is however needy they are, regardless of where they live. If you could save either 2000 Indian lives or else just 1000 lives spread out across the world, there's really nothing at all to be said for preferring the latter. I think this is an especially pernicious case showing how intrinsic concern for "group welfare" leads us astray. Just because you've already helped a bunch of Indian people, doesn't mean that the next Indian person in need is any less deserving of moral consideration than someone from a different group. NGOs need to be more consistently impartial in this respect, seeking to maximize wellbeing without regard for group affiliations, or any misguided desire to be "egalitarian" in one's aid across groups. (Note: giving equal aid to groups who would benefit less from it is NOT the way to show equal concern for all people.)

The second problem is that they tend to commit the "sunk cost" fallacy. That is, once a project is begun, NGOs are very reluctant to abandon it, even when it is obvious that it is going worse than expected, and that they could do much more good elsewhere. Apparently many NGOs will only withdraw after it becomes undeniable that their efforts are doing significantly more harm than good. But in fact they should be far more flexible on this front. They should withdraw even if their efforts are doing net good, so long as they could do more good by reallocating their resources elsewhere.

Really, someone ought to create a charity organization that is explicitly utilitarian in its priorities. They would do careful research into how best to allocate their resources (including, of course, the question of how much such research itself is worth, for future reference), and then follow through accordingly. Most meta-charity "watchdogs" apparently don't track outcomes at all well. They might report how much money is wasted on administrative overheads, but that's not enough. It isn't enough to know how much money was ultimately spent charitably; we also need to know how effectively it was spent. Hence the need for a more accountable business of beneficence.

4 comments:

  1. next Indian person in need is any less deserving of moral consideration than someone from a different group.

    In part this is probably related tothe fact that if you distribute your aid across a number of countries it is easier to advertise (more projects to talk about and more areas that might relate to the donors special interests, eg india for expat indians).

    > The second problem is that they tend to commit the "sunk cost" fallacy.

    this is probably a biut like companies and "realization of loss" untill you admit it was wasted it is a sort of "asset". When you do admit it was a failure you be come subject to attack and have to admit you have lower effectivees than some other groups etc.

    Also there is a problem when the thing obstructing you is human (as it usually is) giving in to humans has on going implications besides the normal static analysis.

    > Really, someone ought to create a charity organization that is explicitly utilitarian in its priorities.

    Im sure there would still be a lot to debate but , go for it !

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  2. I'm not sure I understand what you're intending when you say the charity should be utilitarian. It seems to me that the weaknesses you're describing are not explicitly operating according to any fully fleshed out ethical theory. And it also doesn't seem at all obvious that the sort of flaws you're describing would appear if it operated according to a deontological or virtue-oriented theory, but would not occur on a utilitarian one. Neither of Pogge's criticisms seem to imply such a position, but rather that charities would be better served if they were aimed more at really helping people as much as they could without being hung up by group affiliations or a stubborn refusal to admit that a specific project isn't feasible.

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  3. I simply mean that the charity should aim to achieve as much real good (the most help for as many people) as it possibly can. Insofar as other moral theories include an equivalent component (e.g. in the virtue of 'beneficence') then they too will count as 'utilitarian' within this context.

    Many non-utilitarians want to hold to a sort of "incommensurability" principle concerning the value of human lives. For example, Doug Maclean in recent talks has explicitly suggested that there is no moral difference between saving one life or several other lives; faced with a "dilemma" you might as well pick the former. Other ways of being non-utilitarian might be to value some lives more than others (due to group affiliations or whatever), or having a stubborn obsession with "seeing through" one's present projects without regard for opportunity costs. (Note that even "feasible" projects might still be sub-optimal.) I mean to exclude such people from running my ideal charity organization.

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  4. "Of course, some such groups are merely self-serving bureaucracies who couldn't care less about achieving real good in the world. But let's put them aside and consider more sincere organizations."

    It seems to me that the major issue with most groups I'm familiar with is that while they are very sincere they often aren't very organized and effective. That is sincerity is confused for effective strategies and organization.

    The other problem I've seen is that all these groups want money, but very few want help. That is, from back when I had the time (but not the money) to do charity work it was actually very hard. Everyone was clammoring for money but no one wanted hands - even educated hands. It was a bit disappointing.

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