Effective altruism: a better New Year’s resolution?

This year I’m pledging with ‘Giving What We Can’ to donate 10% of my future income to the best charities I can find, every year, for the rest of my life.

It is an amazing stroke of luck that I’m able to do this. It’s the same luck that has seen me born in a place with access to water and electricity, health-care and education. It’s the same luck that means that I don’t have to worry about whether I’ll have enough food for the day.

If you’re reading this you are probably one of the few people lucky enough to be studying at Oxford University and living among a community that is one of the most fortunate in the world in terms of access to education and opportunity. You’re likely to be living, and on track to live the rest of your life, well above the poverty line.

I don’t think we should feel guilty for having been outrageously lucky in our lives: surely the better thing is just to pay the favour forward. We can make other people lucky too. I was granted a roof over my head by random chance, but I can help someone else buy a roof who really needs one. By sheer chance I was born in a country with outstanding free health-care, but I can aid a family with bed-nets to ward off malaria-transmitting mosquitos.

I’m sure you remember not too long ago the various Occupy movements protesting against the greediness of bankers, and the slogan, “We are the 99 per cent” chanted in the streets.

But, actually, it turns out that we – including very many of the protesters – are the one per cent.

According to the Oxford University website (and it is similar at other universities), 94 per cent of us will be in a job or further study soon after we graduate. The average starting salary for us is £23,000 a year. With just this starting salary of £23,000 we are immediately rocketed up to the richest 3.6 per cent of the world’s population. Yes, if all goes to plan we’ll be richer than 94 per cent of the world, at barely the age of 22. Those with prospects for a job in consultancy, the city, or law will easily be in the richest 0.8 per cent of the world with their first paycheck fresh out of university.

We were just born in the right place at the right time. Of the 7.15 billion people alive:

One third live on less than two dollars per day;
One in seven lack access to clean drinking water;
One in nine go to bed hungry each day;
More than six million die each year from preventable diseases;
About one billion cannot read.

The scale of poverty in the world is immense, and it is easy to think that we in developed nations are powerless to do anything about it. But there’s no cause for panic. Many experts consider that now for the first time ever in human history, thanks to technology and globalisation, it is very possible for us to eradicate extreme poverty for good.

What can we do as individuals? Giving money to charity is one of the most effective things we can do, since we are some of the richest people in the world. Money from us is the closest we can come to balancing the cosmic scales of luck and fortune in life.

But we shouldn’t donate to just any charity. Many charities and NGOs are – it’s time to admit it – not effective. Many charities and projects have wasted our donations due to political corruption and half-baked ideas.

That’s why I think it’s so important that we are able to scrutinise charities, so that they are forced to prove to us that the work they do is effective and that they are making the most out of our money. Charities should have to demonstrate that they have well thought through projects which have a funding gap and are not blowing money on ideas that don’t work. I’ve often found it difficult to know who to donate to, with so many charities demanding our attention and money. Often my reaction has just been to shut down and ignore them all. The independent charity evaluators, ‘GiveWell’ and ‘Giving What We Can’ exist to help us decide, and they have worked hard to decide what charities will do the most good for our cash.

On the 10th January I will be taking the Giving What We Can pledge, to donate 10% of my future income to the charities which I feel will do the most good in the world. I have no interest in making anyone feel guilty, as I know that I have been especially lucky in my life. But if you like the idea of levelling a battering ram at global inequality, if the problems in the world frustrate you, if you want to commit to a cause you care about, you might get a lot out of joining me.

More information about ‘Giving What We Can’ and the full text of the pledge may be found on their website.