Dumbing down advocacy for the greater good

My heroes

Three is a crowd

In Nicholas Kristof’s op-ed in the NYTimes last week he considered factors that may have contributed to lack of international action on humanitarian issues. He uses Peter Singer’s drowning child argument to set up this contradiction: surely members of the G8 would be willing to jump into a pond to save the child – why aren’t they willing to save those larger, more distant groups of people? Krisfof gives some examples from (what I guess must be) the psych literature:

A number of studies have found that we are much more willing to donate to one needy person than to several. In one experiment, researchers solicited donations for a $300,000 fund that in one version would save the life of one child, and in another the lives of eight children. People contributed more when the fund would save only one life. For example, in one study, people donate generously to Rokia, a 7-year-old malnourished African girl. But when Rokia’s plight was explained as part of a larger context of hunger in Africa, people were much less willing to help.

Oh dear.

Professor Singer notes that in one experiment, students filled out a market research study while a young woman went behind a curtain and then appeared to climb on a chair to get something — and fell down. She then moaned and cried out that her ankle was injured. When the person filling out the form was alone, he or she helped 70 percent of the time.

But when another person was in the room, also filling out the survey and not responding, then only 7 percent tried to help. In the case of fighting poverty, there are billions of other bystanders to erode a personal sense of responsibility. Moreover, humanitarian appeals emphasize the scale of the challenges — 25,000 children will die today! — in ways that are as likely to numb us as to galvanize us.

Kristof doesn’t exactly recommend a full solution – but I find his train of thought a little troubling. Explaining the context of hunger makes people less likely to donate? Even if these experimental results aggregate up – is this a wise trade-off? Surely dumbing down the debate to better capture the public’s attention (and purse strings) carries with it the opportunity cost of poorly-targeted advocacy – recall as Mia Farrow’s short-lived hunger strike, during which she urged world leaders to support both the indictment of al-Bashir and the return of aid workers (two outcomes that weren’t exactly complementary). The headless heart reigns when we don’t give people a complete information set – even if that means we make a few people yawn.

I’ve always admired Kristof’s dedication to humanitarian issues, if not always with his conclusions. What would be the ideal advocacy in his opinion, given the above constraints? Michael Bear at the Humanitarian Relief blog has a solution: the return of Sally Struthers

Giving is believing

givewell

Just a tiny bit creepy

Several months ago I received a forwarded e-mail from a website called Givewell.net, inviting relevant researchers, policy-makers and academics to make suggestions and comment on their research, which aimed to find the most effective international charities. I was a little perplexed and delighted to find that someone cared about the opinions of grad students, so was keen to make a contribution. I went onto their website, expecting to be bombarded with gloss, and perhaps some distended bellies, instead I found what looked like an ugly marriage between a blog and a message board, under construction and difficult to navigate. The two blokes running on it certainly seemed keen enough to find out about what interventions worked and what didn’t, but less in the “I really want to understand this” sort of way and more in the “my book report is due Monday, give me Sparknotes for Development” sort of way. They seemed to be aggregating advice with the same nuance that Fox New uses in its world news coverage, so after registering I said adieu and returned to more important things.

In the meantime, Givewell began to pop up from time to time on the blogosphere. It was started in 2007 by two ex-hedge fund analysts, suddenly discovering that they had souls and and too much cash (New York Times article on the duo here). They decided to give some money to charity, but were upset by the lack of transparency and inability of most charities to properly demonstrate their effectiveness. So they founded Givewell, their attempt to reveal which charities would give you the best bang for your buck. So far, after two extremely strange years (more on this below), they’ve finally released their first report on the most cost-effective charities. Give it a look – especially if you work for a charity (where do you think yours ranks?). The findings are pretty scary, they haven’t even confirmed that their top-ranked charity, VillageReach, has a lasting impact!

I’ve always believed that charities should be subject to greater scrutiny – they tend to be given the benefit of the doubt by many in the development business, (mostly, I think, because many in the business work for charities). They have a comparative advantage in recruiting caring, motivated people, but are subject to the same incentive and administrative problems that you find all over the aid industry. World Vision (Paul Collier’s favourite charity) recently lost over a million dollars in Liberia. It is perfectly reasonable to demand more accountability from these organisations.

The big question is: can two former hedge-fund employees, with absolutely no experience in the subject, provide that accountability? As I mentioned before, their analysis, scattered around their still confusing website, seems to be hastily thrown together, a by-product of an era where a enough links = enough research (was that introspective?). For example, see their dismissal of the potential impact of schools on inequality, which they justify using the result of a single randomised study of vouchers (!). The claims they make aren’t necessarily wrong, just slap-dash – the equivalent of a high school science project.

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