Dr Toby Ord, a post-doctoral research fellow in Ethics, has pledged to give away £1m to charity before he retires.
He is hoping that by living on a student budget for the rest of his life, the sum he donates from his future earnings will save thousands of years of life for those in the developing world.
Ord currently earns £33,000 a year, but has capped his spending at £20,000. He expects to earn £1.5 million by his retirement at 65, based on the average earnings of an Oxford don. Through his donations, which will be targetting poverty and disease in the developing world, Ord calculates he can save 500,000 years of healthy life for some of the world’s poorest people.
Ord launched a new society called Giving What We Can at Balliol on Saturday. Members of the society are to publicly vow to give at least 10% of their future earnings to charity. Ord has already persuaded Peter Singer and Thomas Pogge, the famous moral philosophers, to make the pledge.
Ord set up the society with the hope he could turn an idea into a movement. “I was contacted by a few people who I didn’t know on the internet who thought it was a great idea and said they would like to do it too, asking ‘how do I join up?’ But there was nothing to join.”
Ord is excited about the publicity the launch has stirred up, “We’ve had 45 new people ask to sign up over the last couple of days so its growing quite a lot.” Despite being established less than a week ago, the society is already looking at figures like £40 million going to save lives. A lot of interest has been coming from Oxford, though since launching they’ve had people who want to sign up from Hong Kong, Germany, France, Mexico, the US, Australia and Canada.
Ord explained that the work behind his society was all about factors of 10. “NICE, who look at the NHS in the UK, will fund medicines of up to £30,000 per disability adjusted life year (DALY). And I think that’s a pretty good deal, getting a DALY for £30,000.” DALYs are a measurement used in public health; they take into account the fact that some medicines do not cure disease, but result in additional years of life suffering from poor health.
However, when Ord started researching it, he discovered he could save the same number of DALYs for far less money. “In other countries there are interventions which are 10 times as effective, that’s £3000, 10 times more effective than that is £300 and then £30, then £3…. So the idea would be to spend the same £30,000 but instead of saving one of these things you save about 10,000 of them.” Ord has now worked out that donating in the right way he can get down to £2 per DALY.
Ord’s society will use research from the World Health Organisation on aid effectiveness. Although he does not promise to find the best charity, he hopes to find ones which are particularly effective.Ord will be sending his money to the SCI charity (Schistosomiasis Control Intiative – tropical diseases ), Stop TB, and the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition.
“The idea is also to focus on giving really efficiently and effectively, thinking about these ideas of factors of 10 and how much more improvement you could make by going for the most effective interventions. So it had these two focuses: one is giving a lot more than most people think about and the other is giving more effectively. The benefit you get is actually the product of these two if you multiply them together, the amount of money times the efficiency, so by increasing both those dimensions you can improve the amount someone achieves by a factor of more than 1000.”
“At the moment we have a particular focus on health because it seems like it’s a really effective area and it’s an analysable area; with other areas there is a worry that not much is being achieved or perhaps the bad sides, aid dependents and so on, could be overwhelming the good sides.”
Yet the organisation will keep looking beyond health for ways to maximise the good they can do. “If we lobbied to try to remove the Common Agricultural Policy in the EU that would have, as far as I can tell, tremendously beneficial effects, but the question there would be how much you get for your dollar. If I were going to donate all of my future income to some group lobbying for that and they succeeded because of my money, I’m sure that would actually do even more good, but what’s the chance that they only succeed because of that sum of money?”
One example of how the money will be spent is on soil transmitted helminths, parastic worms which cause serious problems for people when they get in the body. Ord explained, “There are about 1.2 or 1.4 billion people who are infected with these things so it’s not very localised, but it’s very easy to treat and there are many regions where almost everyone has this which means that its much cheaper to treat such cases.”
The academic said his study of Ethics at Oxford his what made him start taking the numbers seriously. He argues, “If someone were hit by a car outside we’d all want to rush over and help as much as we could, even it it took up all of our day afterwards and so forth, but when you talk about saving 1,000 lives making various sacrifices over your life we tend not to really imagine that as 1,000 times more important. Part of this idea is really having an appropriate sense of scale of things.”
Ord does not see budgeting as a student for the rest of his life as a great sacrifice, though he admits that he might have to change his plans if he had a child. “Often we remark that the best years of our life are our student years and you get a lot of things which are really meaningful to you… wonderful exciting conversation, time with your girlfriend or boyfriend or wife in my case, and also reading beautiful books or listening to great music, occasionally going out to listen to some fantastic local band. There’s just so many things you can do that don’t take that much money, so you gravitate towards them as a student because you don’t really have that much money.”
“I’m just happy to keep doing these types of things so I think its going to affect me very little. All it will mean is I won’t get extras in my life like a big house up in North Oxford, but I’ll probably get some nice small modern apartment and live my life and be very happy with it.”