We have all given a coin to a homeless person begging or to a street musician. The drivers of such action are typically: empathy for a person finding themselves in a precarious situation; the sincere wish to contribute to reducing distress and suffering, to making the world a better place, however small it may be; and the feeling of satisfaction provided by the accomplishment of a generous or altruistic gesture.
Despite these good reasons, you may also have doubts about the rationality, effectiveness or even the fairness of this action: the fact of giving directly to a person in need has not Are there not undesirable side effects, such as encouraging begging? Is it right to give to this particular person, who took the step of begging and happened to be in our path, and not to others, who were perhaps even more in need? By what criteria do we choose those to whom we give a coin? Physical appearance ? The quality of their music? Are these criteria fair? And finally, is this approach of giving a few coins to certain people really effective? Couldn’t the same amount of donations have more positive effects if spent differently?
Do a hundred euros of donations do more good in France or in Africa?
These legitimate questions are good reasons for some of us to direct our donations towards charitable organizations that provide food, accommodation, care, or other essential services. A priori, these organizations provide their services to all people who need them, without favoring those who beg, nor discriminating against applicants based on their appearance, their artistic talents or any other conscious or unconscious criteria. They should therefore be able, more than our occasional and subjective charity, to better cover all people in distress, and to respond to their needs in a more complete, rational and effective manner. On condition, however, that they are well organized, have efficient processes, and do not swallow up an excessive portion of donations in management costs.
At this stage, the rational donor who wishes to maximize the impact of his donations has something to worry about. How can we choose, among all the existing charitable organizations, those which will do the most good for the beneficiaries per euro spent? A review of the public accounts of the associations will only provide very partial elements to make a valid comparison. Even if it were able to compare the effectiveness of two organizations providing the same services in the same country, how could the comparison be extended to different services and different countries? Does a hundred euros of donations do more good if they are spent on providing meals or medical care? In France or Africa? And how can we compare different methods to achieve the same goal? If, for example, we want to promote access to education for children in poor countries, is it better to give to invest in schools, increase teachers’ salaries, buy textbooks, finance school transportation, give monetary incentives to families, or improve the health of children? If we want to improve their health, is it better to finance the monitoring of pregnant women, vaccination, antiparasitic treatments or even the distribution of mosquito nets?
It is not enough to devour billions to have a positive effect
For most of us, the feeling of doing good by giving is enough to motivate and justify our action without thinking excessively about the trade-off between the different possible donations. But we clearly feel that there is vast potential for optimizing generosity, if only we had the right methods to evaluate the different actions and the right tools to quantify the effects of each euro of donation. Fortunately, some people have already thought about all this for us, designed such methods and tools, conducted evaluations and produced comparisons of different actions and charitable organizations.
On the research front, the same methods that are used to rigorously evaluate the effectiveness of medical treatments – randomized controlled trials – have shown their usefulness for also evaluating all types of public policies and all types of charitable actions. THE MIT Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) has made it its main activity. The results are sometimes counterintuitive and show that it is not enough to devour billions on the basis of good intentions and common sense to have a positive effect on populations. Some actions have 100 times more positive effects per euro spent than others, hence the importance of such evaluations. For example, J-PAL researchers showed that the most effective way to increase children’s schooling in very poor countries was to give them antiparasitic treatments to reduce disabling illnesses and school absenteeism. All of this work was rewarded by the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics awarded to Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer.
Effective altruism to guide professional choices
Nourished by this research, the associative movement of effective altruism is conducting a general reflection on the different ways of doing good. Beyond immediate help to people in difficulty, effective altruism broadens thinking to include, for example, the prevention of global catastrophic risks and animal welfare. In this context, the NGO Givewellrelayed in France by the Don Efficace association, conducts extremely rigorous and comprehensive evaluations of different charitable programs. The 80,000 hours association, she proposes to use the same principles to guide professional choices towards activities that generate a maximum positive impact on the world. In other words, how to use your work time in the most beneficial way. Of course, all this work requires setting a certain number of principles, methodological criteria and weightings with which we are not obliged to agree. Furthermore, French readers will remain frustrated to find among the recommendations almost no French charitable organizationnor any of the large international organizations with which they are familiar (at least in part for good reasons).
In any case, there is no obligation to blindly follow the recommendations of these associations. Nevertheless, these works are the best source of information and reflection for anyone who wishes to give more, give better, act better, and therefore be more rational and effective in their generosity.
Franck Ramus is Director of Research at the CNRS and director of the “Cognitive Development and Pathology” team within the cognitive and psycholinguistic sciences laboratory at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris.