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Doing Good Better:
Effective Altruism and a Radical New Way to Make a Difference
by William MacAskill
What does more good: a. Giving money to a disaster relief charity? b. Buying Fairtrade goods? c. Working in a City bank?
Answer: c. Working in a City bank and giving money to a small charity
"I'm a good person. I boycott fashion brands that use sweatshop labour. I donate to Oxfam and earthquake disaster relief. All the food I buy is locally produced. I'm eating less red meat and more chicken and eggs. I turn the lights off when I leave a room. I do the odd bit of volunteer work. I'd never become a City banker. Now, can you pass the Fairtrade South African pinotage?"
If you have ever said or done any of these things, you should take your locally sourced tomatoes out of your basket next time you go shopping and replace them with a copy of this book. It's the best £14.99 you will spend.
In a surprising and often counterintuitive look at the best ways to make a difference, William MacAskill, a professor in philosophy at Oxford University and co-founder of a movement called Effective Altruism, mixes economic and scientific analysis and reportage to argue that most of the altruistic choices we make may not only be wrong, they may, in fact, be harming the very people and causes we think we're helping. "Good intentions can all too easily lead to disastrous outcomes," he writes.
Take ethical consumerism. None of us would want our children, or anyone else's, to work in a sweatshop in Bangladesh. So, we should boycott firms that use them. Right? Wrong, he says. In many countries, working in a sweatshop, although harsh, is a lot less harsh than the alternative, which is often having no job at all. "Sweatshops benefit those in poor countries," MacAskill writes. He lists dozens of compelling examples, from Bolivia to Bangladesh.
Similarly, we think we are helping African farmers when we choose to buy Fairtrade coffee, tea or chocolate. Wrong, he argues. Fairtrade standards are hard to satisfy and most of the poorest countries in Africa cannot meet them, MacAskill writes. What's more, according to his book, almost all of the premium we pay for Fairtrade products goes to middlemen - as little as 1% reaches farmers. In his view, it's far better to buy non-Fairtrade products produced in the countries we want to help, or to buy cheaper non-Fairtrade products and give the money saved to other charities.
Many of us avoid imported food in favour of locally sourced fruit and vegetables because we think food miles are bad for the environment. But MacAskill argues that buying imported produce is often 'greener' because the environmental cost of producing fruit and veg in heated greenhouses in Britain is greater than trucking them in from sunny Spain. Similarly, giving up red meat may be good for the planet because the environmental cost of raising cattle is high, but replacing red meat with 'healthier' chicken and eggs increases animal cruelty because cattle are reared much more humanely than poultry.
It has become fashionable to try to reduce our carbon footprint by turning off lights and avoiding leaving our TVs and other electronic devices on standby mode. This is a waste of time, MacAskill shows. If we want to reduce our environmental impact, we should bathe less and drive less. "One hot bath adds more to your carbon footprint than leaving your phone charger plugged in for a whole year," he informs us. If we drive for two hours less a year, we will do more environmental good than turning off our TV properly over the same period. Lighting accounts for only 3% of household energy use.
When it comes to choosing the charities we support, we often choose ones we like the sound of or which chime with our values, regardless of whether they are the best at solving the problem we want to tackle. Many of us, for instance, have donated to charities that improve education in Africa by building libraries for schools or buying books. But if we really wanted to encourage more children to go to school and study effectively, we would back charities that deworm children. Parasites are the biggest cause of classroom absenteeism.
Every time there is a natural disaster, we watch relief appeals on television and reach for our mobile phones to donate money. It's natural but, says MacAskill, not a very good use of resources. More people die every day from poverty and disease than die in earthquakes or floods. If we want our money to save the greatest number of lives, we should give instead to charities that tackle those problems.
MacAskill debunks the conventional wisdom that if you want to make a difference you should volunteer for or work in the nonprofit or public sector or in corporate social responsibility. He makes the simple but powerful point that most of the incredible progress that humanity has made has been due not to the activities of nonprofits but to technology and innovation spurred by for-profit companies. Africa's extraordinary economic renaissance is being driven by technology, notably the mobile phone, which enables people to communicate and, therefore, trade easily and quickly and also bank. Most African banking is done on mobiles.
Volunteering for or working for a charity can do good, he acknowledges, but it is often better to get a well-paid job - even, or perhaps especially, at a City bank - and then give away a chunk of your salary to effective charities. Earning to give, it's called. "By being smart about where you give, almost anyone in a rich country can do a tremendous amount to help others," MacAskill writes.
He shows us how. Steer clear of some of the big charities, he urges. They fail to demonstrate that they are doing the greatest good for the greatest number and that they are efficiently run, he claims. Instead, he names charities that deliver the most bang for our buck.
If you want to help reduce global poverty, for instance, give generously to GiveDirectly and Development Media International. For health, support Deworm the World Initiative, Against Malaria Foundation, Living Goods and the Iodine Global Network. If combatting climate change is your priority, try Cool Earth and Climate Works. To improve animal welfare, it's Mercy for Animals, The Humane League, and the Humane Society of the United States.
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