Doing good with a billion dollars #3
It's more complicated than you think.
Welcome to Future Potentialis #3
I’m Andreas Freund. I’m exploring pressing issues in tech, science, and society with sources and inspirations to let you dig deeper.
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Doing good with a billion dollars
Let’s say suddenly you are filthy rich and want to use one billion dollars to do good. How do you go about? That is a surprisingly hard question. Most people would name a cause that is dear to their heart and say something like “I would combat climate change”, but pressed on what they would do exactly, to lay out specific measures, they rarely come up with much. You would need to have a pretty good cause-effect relationship between $ spend and the amount of good you brought into the world. That it is hard to straightforwardly identify a cause, where a donation makes the world significantly better, is a testament to the advancement and increased wealth of our societies.
So let’s say you start out lazy and want to give to an existing charity that fits your cause. To illustrate that this isn’t straight forward as well, let’s examine three popular causes and well-known charities:
Knowledge: You most likely already benefited from Wikipedia’s gigantic drove of knowledge, so it’s reasonable to want to give back. But they already have more than enough money: Wikipedia is mostly operating by volunteer editors and has in principle relatively low operating costs, yet has continuously increased their marketing headcounts. They relentlessly optimized the effectiveness of their calls for donations. While I love their work, the Wikimedia Foundation received more in donations than their operating costs for years and now has over $160 million in assets.
Environment: For some reason, Greenpeace has a good reputation and quickly comes to mind as a candidate, despite causing a lot of damage. Their unscientific opposition to nuclear power and Golden Rice, a genetically modified variety that contains more vitamin A and has the potential to reduce or eliminate much of the two million deaths a year caused by a vitamin A deficiency, led to an open letter signed by 155 Nobel laureates (pretty much all novel laureates currently alive), where they call Greenpeace’s actions “a crime against humanity” and urge them to alter their position.
Freedom of Information: You want more transparency and light into opaque power structures, so you would donate to Wikileaks, which brought you the Collateral Murder Video and the Iraq and Afghanistan war documents. But even though founder Julian Assange’s tarnished reputation partly has been restored by the findings of Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Wikileaks has lost its credibility by picking sides in the 2016 election campaign.
You are not alone in finding it difficult to find the best charities to donate the money to. This quest led to the creation of Give Well, an Effective Altruism focused charity, whose mission is to find outstanding giving opportunities. It aims to determine how much good a given program accomplishes (in terms of lives saved, lives improved, etc.) per dollar spent rather than traditional metrics such as the percentage of the organization's budget that is spent on overhead.
One of effective altruism’s most influential philosophers, Peter Singer, argues in his drowning child thought experiment that geographical distance should not influence moral decisions. Singer says that most people would find it morally imperative to jump into a pond to save a drowning child, even if it means you destroying one’s expensive clothes. Consequently, they then also shouldn’t hesitate to save someone from starvation in a faraway country, if they could do so with a small donation.
While I agree with this line of thinking in principle, extrapolating that thought to a bigger problem like world hunger, focuses too little on sustainable solutions.
One of Give Well’s top recommendations for years has been the Against Malaria Foundation, which distributes insecticide-treated bed nets. And while they do fantastic work, and satisfy Effective Altruists at the same time by saving a statistical life for about $5,800 (which is also based on very subjective projections), to me, it gives too little consideration to long term improvements, especially when considering an increasing resistance to insecticides.
Ideally, we should aim to create conditions, where these lives do not need to be saved at all. That's why I am an advocate for disease eradication campaigns. Surprisingly, humanity has only managed to eradicate a single disease from earth: smallpox. We are also very close with polio, which thanks to efforts by the Gates Foundation dropped to fewer than 40 cases a year and the Guinea worm - which even more astonishingly would be eradicated without a vaccination. The Carter Center has reduced the number of Guinea worm infections from 3.5 million per year in 1986 to just 54 in 2019 and confined the disease once prevalent across Asia and Africa to a handful of nations on the continent. Unfortunately, the last mile is always the hardest and most important: A series of puzzling discoveries however pushed back the 2020 eradication target and has some public-health experts wonder whether wiping out the Guinea worm is even possible. And if you don’t make it to the finish line, a lot of resources are completely wasted.
Despite insecurities like these and the monumental long-term effort needed in time and resources, disease eradication would be my answer to the initial question. To me, it is an undeservedly underappreciated cause, because success has an infinite payoff, as it not only benefits the presently affected people but all future generations as well. An estimated 150 to 200 million lives have been saved since the eradication of smallpox.
However, along with eradication efforts, a more conscious view on the danger of storing pathogens is needed: Accidents, endangering decades worth of effort occur regularly: In 2014, GlaxoSmithKline accidentally released 45 liters of concentrated poliovirus into a river in Belgium. There was also an explosion in one of only two laboratories in the world that stores the smallpox pathogen (it did not escape).
So in my view, one should also try to eliminate malaria and novel approaches are needed. The International Atomic Energy Agency, for example, developed an environmentally-friendly and residue-free nuclear technique, that uses radiation to sterilize male insects. However, as mosquitoes have important functions in the ecosystem, like pollination, they should not be indiscriminately eliminated, but instead specifically targeted: This would protect humans while keeping the ecosystem function of mosquitoes intact. Another possibility would be to make mosquitoes themselves immune to pathogens and thus unable to spread them.
Mathew Snow argued convincingly in Jacobin magazine- that effective altruism "implores individuals to use their money to procure necessities for those who desperately need them, but says nothing about the system that determines how those necessities are produced and distributed in the first place.” So in our malaria example, it would ask why people are even in need of bed nets, not able to produce or afford them themselves, and why malaria is still prevalent in Africa when it formerly was endemic in Italy but has been eradicated decades ago.
The philosopher Konrad Paul Liessmann is also disturbed by Peter Singer’s drowning child example.
“It is always about weighing goods against each other and fails to see the underlying systemic problem with how the food industry and speculation work.”
He criticizes the money-centric world-view because then it would be sufficient to convince a billionaire like Bill Gates or Warren Buffet. Yet clearly the problems are deeper and more complex than that. Snow also criticizes the capitalist system itself and says “capital will let the drowning child die unless it receives adequate payment” and that capital creates drowning children because the “inability of companies to profit from those with little or no purchasing power is the reason why so many poor people need altruists to save them.”
Snow points out that “developing countries” lose around $1 trillion annually through illicit financial flows. Governments’ lost revenues then lead to the cutback of essential services like malaria eradication programs — one of Effective Altruists’ favorite philanthropic causes. The $142 billion the thirty countries in the OECD Development Assistance Committee give in development aid looks seems petty in compensation.
So it goes to show that doing good is surprisingly complicated and should be well-thought-out. Efforts that try to achieve lasting and sustainable improvements should properly be considered. Please let me know which causes you would tackle with $1 billion and as an inspiration, I leave you with the surprisingly reasonable answer of the GPT-2 AI, which I asked the same initial question.
“If your net worth was $1 billion you may have a couple of ways of trying to do the most good in the world. You could give 100% of your income to the Salvation Army, and not donate a cent to anything else. You could start an NGO and go there trying to do the most good. You could drive a cab and stop at church and let them use you for rides. You could donate all your money to the ACLU and visit the American embassy. You could contribute all your money to international non-profits and visit each country.”
As always, thank you for reading!
Some interesting links I want to share:
Interesting collection of 19th-century predictions for the year 2000. My highlights: the very first prototype of the Roomba cleaning robot, and instant transmission of knowledge from books to brains.
Thanks to Lisa Nolte for her input and feedback.