Thursday, December 18, 2008

Oxfam for Xmas

It's a good time to help out a worthy charity,* and to do so publicly.** So I hope that any friends who would like to find me a Xmas present will instead donate that ten bucks to Oxfam MIT's Poverty Action Lab, and let me know (preferably in the 'comments' below) so that I can reciprocate. This offer is also open to "blog friends" -- and if you have a blog of your own, I'd encourage you to post a similar offer for your own readers. (Changing the details as you see fit, of course.)

My plan is to donate to Oxfam Poverty Action Lab a base of $100, which will increase by $10 for each reader who promises to donate to charity at least ten bucks themselves, up to a $300 cap (i.e. if I get twenty positive responses).

So: let me know if you're in! [Update: $170 it is. Thanks to all who chipped in!]

* = According to ReliefWeb:
International aid agency Oxfam has estimated the global financial crisis will create a $2 million hole in its budget before the end of this year, and is appealing for urgent help from its supporters.

** = As Peter Singer writes:
One of the most significant factors determining whether people give to charity is what others are doing. Those who make it known that they give to charity increase the likelihood that others will do the same. Perhaps we will eventually reach a tipping point at which giving a significant amount to help the world's poorest becomes sufficiently widespread to eliminate the majority of those 25,000 needless daily deaths.

See also the very successful UNICEF Facebook Chain.

18 comments:

  1. This is bad form for a consequentialist. Singer promotes giving to Oxfam in public speeches because it's easier for most people to understand the direct benefits of their work, but in private conversation he agrees that it is far better to donate to meta-charities. For instance, you can donate directly to the Poverty Action Lab, which conducts rigorous controlled, randomized studies to evaluate the effectiveness of interventions, often finding that billions of dollars are being wasted at low cost.

    http://www.povertyactionlab.org/getinvolved/?type=3

    Singer agrees that donations to the Lab are vastly better than Oxfam for the welfare of the poor on a per dollar basis, but thinks that fewer people can be persuaded to support it than Oxfam. It would be very sad if you, an intelligent and well-educated nominal utilitarian, were to give money and attention to Oxfam in this post rather than to superior alternatives.

    Another strong candidate meta-charity would be the start-up nonprofit GiveWell, which seeks out the most demonstrably effective charities at improving human welfare in a transparent published research process to guide individual donors.
    http://www.givewell.net/

    All of this neglects to mention that Oxfam's activities are a sideshow for utilitarians in light of the bigger picture (as discussed in Nick Bostrom's old Utilitas article):

    http://www.nickbostrom.com/astronomical/waste.html

    You can donate to the Future of Humanity Institute through the Oxford Foundation.

    If you're not sure what's the most effective thing to donate to (and you clearly should not be confident), but worry that your willpower to donate isn't conserved across periods, then put the money in a donor-advised fund where it can grow tax free (and inaccessible for private consumption) along with your knowledge. Because efficacy varies by orders of magnitude, the likely benefits of waiting and researching rather than giving to Oxfam now are good. See this link for more analysis:

    http://www.felicifia.com/showDiary.do?diaryId=37

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  2. At times like these I'm a satisficing utilitarian. It would provide an unfortunate disincentive to engage in charitable giving at all if doing so risked inviting pressure to maximize, and criticisms of 'bad form' for one's failure to do so well enough!

    It would be costly for me to invest time and energy into researching "superior alternatives", or to choose between them. Given my background knowledge, Oxfam seemed a good enough default. But since you have been so kind as to inform me that the Poverty Action Lab is even better, I will accordingly opt for that instead.

    (But again, I really don't want to burden readers with the expectation that they evaluate too many options, or they're apt to do nothing at all.)

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  3. Great, I just heard from my first generous friend... (thanks Jack!)

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  4. I made my donation to Oxfam last week. I hope you'll count that, and I'll look into making that donation to Poverty Action Lab next time.

    Also, I'd recommend doing a full post on meta-charities, to persuade more of your readers to give their charity dollars more efficiently. Spend a little time to help others get over that information hump.

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  5. Singer is quite right to think that fewer people can be persuaded to support Poverty Action Lab rather than Oxfam; it's an extremely indirect way of helping people, and for it to work requires that lots of people are already donating to other programs -- you can't test the effectiveness of Balsakhi remedial education if people aren't already supporting Balsakhi remedial education, through Pratham and the like. It does not follow from the fact that donation to A has a more beneficial result for the poor on a per-dollar basis that therefore all or most or even much of the money available for donation can or should be donated to A, nor that all or most or even many of the people donating should be donating to A.

    Advent giving -- count me in. I took you up on the offer and donated to the Poverty Action Lab Fund. So that's one more.

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  6. Richard,

    "At times like these I'm a satisficing utilitarian. It would provide an unfortunate disincentive to engage in charitable giving at all if doing so risked inviting pressure to maximize, and criticisms of 'bad form' for one's failure to do so well enough!"

    If satisficing results in saving one life instead of a thousand, or a trillion, and there's a small chance the critique will be effective in changing behavior in a positive way, critique seems wise even if in most cases it results in no help at all. There are many orders of magnitude of efficiency in charitable giving available, and smart professed utilitarians are more likely than most to actually try to do more good rather than less for a given level of personal sacrifice, so it seems reasonable to bring it up now.

    "It would be costly for me to invest time and energy into researching "superior alternatives","

    If you're willing to give $300, you could switch it to $100 and spend time worth $200 to you on learning about effective giving (which could be quite interesting reading and discussion). You can deposit the money in a donor-advised fund, allowing you to spread your research out over time, so economies of scale aren't a justification for being careful.

    http://blog.givewell.net/?p=316

    Brandon,

    "It does not follow from the fact that donation to A has a more beneficial result for the poor on a per-dollar basis that therefore all or most or even much of the money available for donation can or should be donated to A, nor that all or most or even many of the people donating should be donating to A."

    Some non-standard meta-charities and causes (e.g. existential risk mitigation) have both higher average and marginal benefit per dollar. Further, elite PhD philosophy students with interests in ethics, and similar potential rational altruists are an extremely unrepresentative subclass of donors. That group should pursue the high-marginal-benefit projects that are overwhelmingly grasped only by its members.

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  7. Does anybody have any evidence that giving to either Oxfam direct or the Poverty Action Lab has any real impact on the livelihoods of the global poor? There seems to be a fairly large assumption here that giving to a charity automatically has an impact.

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  8. Paul,

    What am I doing if not attacking that assumption? Follow the GiveWell link to learn more.

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  9. That group should pursue the high-marginal-benefit projects that are overwhelmingly grasped only by its members.

    I see no particular reason to regard this as true or even plausible; there are lots of different groups of highly unrepresentative candidate donors in this sense, and projects of this sort are in any case arguably more adequately supported by stable institutions than by occasional private giving, however much the latter may be welcome. The focus, I would think, should be on those who 'grasp' the project making sure that the work is being done to maximize benefits rather than on the very different task of calculating how they themselves can maximize the benefits that they themselves effect, which is generally a useless and time-wasting consideration. What this means in terms of their own giving will vary massively from case to case, depending on the circumstances of the donor, the interest of other donors, the nature of the charity, the perceived urgency of various needs, and the live alternatives on the table; sometimes it will mean giving, sometimes it will mean pointing out the charity to those who might find it interesting, sometimes it will mean actively fundraising, sometimes it will simply mean checking up on the charity to see how it is doing on its own, sometimes (in cases like this) it will mean giving to charities it has discovered to be effective.

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  10. I have a new post, 'Meta-Charities', for discussing the relative virtues of various charity options.

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  11. Back to the count: we currently have 3 positive responses to my offer...

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  12. Carl, the post opened by saying that it's a good time to support a "worthy charity" and then named Oxfam. Once somebody had pointed to the Poverty Action Lab, it was changed to that. I'm not attacking the decision to give to charity itself, or Oxfam or MIT (although I'll happily attack UNICEF).

    I could probably phrase my question better by asking on what basis we can believe the entire project of "development" (as in the formal structures that have grown up around the development industry, rather than the basic idea that human life can be improved in a programmed manner) is "worthy", and thus giving to organisations pursuing that project worthy?

    With regards to your suggestion of Givewell - I'll have a look at their work, but a first glance at their website doesn't fill me with confidence in terms of either their approach or their rigor. The problem is not that these organisations don't realise that their projects don't have the impact that they intend, but that they fail to learn from their mistakes. Personally I think you'd be better off giving to ALNAP, but not by much.

    I found the Nick Bostrom paper quite funny, though - thanks for the link. This is probably not the place to discuss why I find it funny, though. Maybe in another venue?

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  13. Paul - you're welcome to discuss existential risks here instead.

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  14. +5 now (with thanks to Nathan and Andrew)

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  15. Count me in. Needless to say, I completely approve of your public giving and will give a couple of thousand dollars to the most effective developing world NGOs that I currently know of. I was going to give this anyway, but I don't think you ruled that out in your post...

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  16. +7 (thanks Vanessa, and now Toby!)

    By the way, it'd be great if you could share (perhaps in the Meta-Charities thread) your assessment of "the most effective developing world NGOs"...

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  17. I would happily give now if I didn't think it would be better to give later. A post by Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias made me see that helping future people is even more cost-effective than I thought it was. (Hanson draws a different normative conclusion from this fact, but I remain unpersuaded by his argument; he is a much better economist than he is a moral philosopher.) Consequently, I'm saving all the money I can for as long as I think it'd best to do so, while publicly pledging to donate my future assets when the time is ripe for giving. (This need not happen during my lifetime, and I’d be happy to bequeath my estate to someone whose judgment on these matters I could trust. But it’s more likely to happen during my lifetime that one might think, given the prospect of individual superlongevity, on the one hand, and the comparatively much lower cost of reducing near-term risks of human extinction, on the other.)

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