I’m Sorry, But Charity Works

It is remarkably convenient to say that charity doesn’t work.

That conclusion could save us billions in aid, allow each of us to personally save money in donations, and we could finally ban all those heartwrenching pictures we see on TV and in the post. Knowing that charity didn’t work would allow us to feel helpless, remove all guilt and let us conveniently blame ‘them’.

And a lot of people are telling us this.

Warren Buffett’s son was the loudest most recently – he explained that “giving back” keeps the structure of inequality in place. “No charitable intervention can solve any of these problems.”

And anecdotally you’ve probably read about a failed project, met someone who has seen a charity wasting money, or heard about a fat cat charity CEO sitting on a throne of gold human skulls. The latest charity CEO salary debate saw responses exclaiming that little or no money gets to the people that need it. That charities are not motivated to fix problems as it keeps them in employment. They’re corrupt, they’re inefficient, they’re not transparent.

Yes, I’m sure you can find that charity (although most critics don’t have any facts to back up their claims). I personally struggle with charities like the Iona Institute, those that promote homeopathy, and specific organisations I’ve seen managed badly.

But there are hundreds of thousands of charities who are making a difference. Charities who are transparent, will answer all your questions and will publish all of their achievements and failures. There is independent research and analysis showing projects and work that succeeds…that is working, and will continue to work as long as there is money coming in. Organisations like GiveWell are thoroughly researching charities and publishing exactly how well they are doing what they do.

And anecdotally try talking to someone who has seen the good work a charity has done or even benefitted directly from it. Try calling the Samaritans phone number or visiting an animal shelter and then saying it isn’t “working”. Look up how many people the Red Cross have trained in First Aid or how many wells Charity Water has built. Try talking to one of these fat cat CEOs or their staff and asking for the results.

But, as Stewart Lee said, you can prove anything with facts.

Of course they don’t all work. In the same way that not all ‘businesses’ will succeed, not all ‘politicians’ are effective and not all ‘scientists’ are right. But you can’t dismiss ‘charity’ because of another’s failures. You wouldn’t give up eating forever because you got food poisoning.

Unfortunately, it comes down to research and a little bit of trust. Research in the same way you would research the creche you leave your kids at or research a car before you buy one. And trust in the same way you have to trust that not everyone on your flight is a terrorist and not everything is a scam.

The Effective Altruism movement is the desire to make the world as good a place as it can be; the use of evidence and reason to find out how to do so; and the audacity to actually try.

Massive inequality, unethical companies and immoral governments and laws are making it more difficult to have an impact (and of course that needs to change). But that’s no excuse to give up improving lives within the constraints we have.

There’s no easy way to say this. You can make a difference and change the world.

But it’s going to take a little work.


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