In Peter Singer’s new TED talk, he tries to answer the question of how to give most effectively. The talk starts with a short summary of his famous argument for giving. The argument can be stated like this: 1) “If it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it;” 2) it is in our power to prevent bad things like malaria and starvation from happening to the global poor by giving money to charity organizations without compromise anything morally significant; so 3) morally, we ought give some of our money to charity organizations.
The most powerful thing about this argument is how little there is for anyone to disagree with, no matter what you think of social justice. At this point in the argument, Singer isn’t saying that you are required to give or that you are blameworthy if you don’t (though he does think this). He’s only saying that you morally ought to give and it is morally better if you do. Singer also isn’t saying that you can be forced to give (though some have taken this line). All he’s saying is, you should give some of your money to charity. You should.
But some readers may resist (2) on the grounds that donating money to charity organizations will be ineffective at preventing bad things from happening to the global poor. During the talk, Singer addresses the concern that large charities, like states, are often not effective, accountable, or transparent. He then endorses a wonderful website, Givewell, which rates charities on these dimensions. First in the Givewell ranking is the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF), which distributes insecticidal nets to populations at high risk of malaria. My family has been giving to AMF for a while now and we will probably continue to support it, but I’ve recently become more interested in the second-ranked charity, GiveDirectly, which provides direct cash transfers to poor households in Kenya.
The average recipient of a GiveDirectly transfer lives on $0.65 a day. Recipients use the transfers to improve their homes, pay school fees, and to buy food or invest in livestock. I decided to shift some of our giving to GiveDirectly because I think it is effective and also because it comports with my values of rejecting paternalism and giving everyone the opportunity to make choices that reflect her own values. After looking into it a bit, I think GiveDirectly is an ideal charity for BHL’s, here are five reasons why:
- Direct transfers are not paternalistic: The GiveDirectly website writes that “Recipients use transfers for whatever is most important to them; we never tell them what to do.” No strings attached. The goal is to “empower the poor to set their own priorities.”
- Direct transfers are an effective intervention for reducing the depth and severity of poverty (PDF)
- Direct transfers encourage investment: Recipients often save the money or pursue business opportunities and training. This investment helps their local economies to grow and creates further economic opportunities.
- GiveDirectly is data-driven: They use randomized controlled trials wherever possible to assess the impact of different distribution strategies and improve their operations.
- GiveDirectly aims to change the industry standard for evaluating charities. As Jacqueline Fuller writes, “GiveDirectly has a new concept: What if cash transfers are used as a standard benchmark against which to measure all development aid? What if every nonprofit that focused on poverty alleviation had to prove they could do more for the poor with a dollar than the poor could do for themselves?”
The organization is also remarkably transparent and it has just received a Global Impact Award to expand its operations. My favorite thing about GiveDirectly is that it shows how much good can be done by simply providing non-paternalistic judgment free assistance to those who need it most.
I also think that the cash transfer model could have revisionary implications for political philosophy. Here’s why—GiveDirectly changes the burden of proof for anti-poverty programs. Instead of asking whether an aid organization minimizes its operating costs or if it is comparatively effective relative to other organizations, we should instead judge aid organizations against the benchmark of cash transfers.
This model not only tells in favor of a new standard by which we should judge other charities, but also a standard by which we should judge the state. Many philosophers believe that coercive institutions should be arranged to make the worst-off in society as well-off as they can be. The people who endorse that position typically support a large welfare state to pull this off. Yet even if you think that distributive equality is required by justice (I don’t) we should still hold the state to the same standard as other aid organizations. So instead of asking whether more state programs are needed to benefit the worst-off, we should instead ask whether any particular state program makes the worst-off better than they would be if we just wrote them a check instead.