A New Year’s Cure for the Spleen: Giving What We Can

After the Ball — Ramon Casas

Today many of us will be suffering the spleen of New Year. I don’t mean the bodily organ; “spleen” is “melancholy with no apparent cause, characterised by a disgust with everything” according to Le Nouveau Petit Robert (2009). It is the traditional condition in which to greet the first of January. In this misery of spleen we often start making foolish promises; such as “I will genuinely use my gym membership this year,” or “I’m going to start writing that novel.” We start with good intentions but rapidly forget our goals or slip into our same old routines. But it needn’t be like that this year. There is an alternative. Taking the Giving What We Can pledge allows you to genuinely change the world for the better.

For we needn’t always act helpless witness to the evaporation of our feckless self-improvement promises. I know the pain for I too am an oath-breaker. Year after year I stare (with jaundiced eyes and upset digestive system) at the list of things I would like to give up in the New Year: foods rich in anything but fibre; alcohol; TV; contemporary affairs. Yet within hours my consumption is greater than ever.

Here is the solution. This year, we should make our New Year’s resolution to stop going to the gym. Which? states that in the UK alone £37 million is spent on unused gym membership. That’s a shame given there are so much better ways to spend that money. On high-impact charity for instance. If we gave the Against Malaria Foundation £37 million each year, then we could prevent around 12,000 unnecessary deaths, according to GiveWell.

This kind of thinking is motivating a lot of people to join the Giving What We Can’s “Take the Pledge” campaign, led on Facebook. Since November, hundreds of people have vowed to donate 10% of their income to charity. I did this years ago, and it is the only New Year’s pledge I have ever kept. It has done me good, providing partial protection from the spleen during this most vulnerable time of year. But more importantly it allows good for others to emerge from the mental and physical damage we annually inflict upon ourselves. It is a beautiful thing, that all that quick-fix chasing of chocolate, whiskey and cigarettes can be transformed, caterpillar-to-butterfly-like, into freedom from disease and escape from extreme poverty for someone you will never even meet.

The Giving What We Can pledge, better than any antacid or aspirin, is to donate 10% of your income to high-impact charities and tell others about it. A simple three-point programme. There is more information on it here and you can sign up (after due consideration) here. I know what you’re thinking, though: will giving 10% of my income really make me feel better? And will it really do others any good? Effective giving is an abstract concept, so I will attempt in the remaining space to make the effects of the pledge more concrete.

What will happen to you, the generous donor?

My first and most important act after taking the pledge was to sign a direct debit giving the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI) 10% of my income. Great feeling, good enough to counteract most hangovers. But since then I haven’t given much thought to what exactly I’ve given up. Logically I know I must be spending less on something. Presumably that 10%-less-income-per-year is spread across all my spending. If I am normal — let’s assume I am — that means I drink one fewer pint per week, I buy rice that costs 90p instead of £1, I live in a house with 7.6 sq. m less space, my laptop is 2.5 months older than it might otherwise be, and I spend 84 pence less on my mobile phone bill per week. That’s not a comprehensive list, but it’s probably enough to give a sense of what the change in my lifestyle amounts to.

What happens to the recipients of your money?

SCI get my 10%, and they use it to facilitate deworming of sub-Saharan African children. I give enough to treat about 3000 children per year. What do they get, in return for my less-flashy smartphone and smaller TV? It is difficult to say exactly, as this analysis from GiveWell makes clear. But deworming is in one sense more cost-effective than distributing anti-malarial bednets, which is the most cost-effective intervention GiveWell are confident in recommending. In that case my yearly donation provides roughly thirty additional years of life lived at full health, spread across lots of people. That’s still quite an abstract idea. The actual benefits are outlined here. Worms don’t usually kill but they do cause anaemia, nutritional deficiencies, lethargy, stunted growth, missed schooling, and in extreme cases major organ damage.

It may still be hard to imagine this. So let’s instead try extrapolating from this New Year’s bout of spleen. (Or you may, by some miracle, have escaped the spleen this year. Recollect instead your most recent bout of suffering.) Now extend that suffering to an entire continuous year; and then extend that suffering for a further thirty years. Those thirty years are (to a first and probably untenable approximation, but adequate for illustrative purposes) the amount of suffering you can hope to avert every single year of your life by taking the Pledge.

Over 150 people have pledged since the Take the Pledge campaign began on 29 November. Join them! Give up your gym membership. Convert your temporary suffering into highly-effective evidence-based reduction of extreme poverty. That way, we and hundreds of others can create the possibility of a truly happy New Year.