Most people try to do good in their lives. We sometimes help friends, maybe donate or volunteer, or choose a career we think will help others.
But often we don’t really know what good we can do on a larger scale. Are we really making a difference? How could we attempt to do more?
By using evidence and rigorous analysis to sort out what actions lead to outsized impact, we can ensure our time and money are used well and that people are helped and lives are saved.
There have been countless attempts made by countless people to create good in the world, but not all attempts turn out how they are intended. In fact, most of the things we do to help others aren’t as effective as we perceive, but the best attempts can be tremendously fruitful, accomplishing hundreds of times as much.
The key to separating the effective methods of “doing good” from the rest is critical thinking and careful research. By comparing methods as rigorously as possible and using data, we can better understand which interventions are best.
Rigorous methods are important in determining how to do good because our good intentions, while a great starting point, are not often accurate.
In fact, a significant portion of social programs don’t fully accomplish their intended aims, according to 80,000 Hours.
We can examine a classic case study of a well-intended solution gone wrong as an example of a social endeavor that didn’t achieve its aims.
There’s a charity in operation today called PlayPumps International. They install water pumps in rural African villages, with a twist: the pumps they install are built like merry-go-rounds, allowing children to simultaneously play and pump water.
To sweeten the deal, corporations can place ads on the pumps, generating additional revenue for villagers.
Sounds like an all-around great deal, right? Villagers get otherwise hard to access water, additional income streams and a diversion for children.
It seems that is what everyone thought. People like the First Lady Laura Bush and Jay-Z pledged support for the initiative, which received millions in funding.
But eventually, the hype ceased when PBS’s Troubled Water documentary examined PlayPumps. It turned out, PlayPumps weren’t doing good at all. In reality, there were numerous logistical problems with the pumps. They produced less water and were more expensive than normal pumps, and children got quickly exhausted on a merry-go-round that required constant force to keep spinning.
Because no one had taken an evidentiary approach to analyzing the impact of the pumps, much time and money went down the drain.
While cost-benefit analysis might poke holes in a lot of the charities funded today, we can use the powerful tools of critical reasoning to find the best opportunities that can yield orders of magnitude more impact — evidence-based non-profits such as GiveWell, Founders Pledge and Giving What We Can.
For example, Helen Keller International, a charity recommended by GiveWell, distributes Vitamin A pills to prevent deficiencies that lead to large reductions in child mortality in developing regions.
According to GiveWell, distribution of HKI’s Vitamin A pills could save a life for, on average, $4,500.
Clearly, there are interventions that reputably show outsized results compared to others.
So what does this mean for the good we can personally accomplish?
First, let’s consider a hypothetical scenario. Elijah, makes $180,000 and donates 10% of his income to HKI, the vitamin charity from earlier.
Elijah’s $18,000 donation could save over 4 lives a year.
Our simple analysis has led us to the conclusion that Elijah can save hundreds of people in his lifetime.
Imagine if one day, you were able to save a child from drowning or getting killed. You’d feel like a hero!
A 10% income donation could be the equivalent of saving multiple times this many lives every year.
Ok, maybe we have some better ways to do good. Why should you get involved?
It turns out, there are a number of compelling reasons to try to do good with your time or money.
Sometimes we don’t realize it, but most of us are in extremely fortunate economic circumstances. According to Giving What We Can’s “How Rich Am I?” calculator, the median American’s income is in the top 4% globally.
Using a portion of this income to effectively help others would likely have minimal negative effects on our quality of life or this percentile ranking.
Actually, studies show that donating to help others could potentially have lasting positive effects for us.
Research conducted by the Harvard Business School supports this claim, finding that spending money for others promotes happiness.
So, by combining evidence and compassion, our “effective altruism” can change the lives of many while making us happier.
It’s easy to feel like the world is on fire, and there are too many problems that are too large for us to make a difference. But our efforts can have an impact on very real lives, and shouldn’t be dissuaded.
With a little critical thinking and a lot of heart, we can try anyways.
— By Saheb Gulati
Originally published in the Nov. 16 edition of The Octagon.