(Not-so) radical giving, day 1: The Against Malaria Foundation

Jen Knoch
3 min readSep 1, 2018
image via Pixabay

There are so many places we can give our money, all doing important work. Deciding between them can be supremely overwhelming, comparing aims, staring down financials, wondering how much good your dollar is actually doing. “NGOs are so corrupt and ineffective,” said a friend over dinner once. “We don’t support them.”

That may be true in some cases, but hardly seems the rule to me. Sites like Charity Intelligence, Charity Navigator, and Charity Watch allow users to see financials and where money is going, including how much funding goes to admin, salaries, etc. That said, if the programming you’re supporting isn’t actually effective, then even 100% of funds going there aren’t useful. So how can we know what to do?

Enter: effective altruism, a movement that goes beyond looking at how much of a donated dollar goes to programming, and instead analyzes the actual effects of that programming. A couple years ago my friend Holly introduced me to Willian MacAskill’s Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference, which presents these five assessment points:

  1. How many people benefit, and by how much?
  2. Is this the most effective thing you can do?
  3. Is this area neglected?
  4. What would have happened otherwise?
  5. What are the chances of success, and how good would success be?

For example, it costs about $50,000 to train a seeing-eye dog, which is, anyone would argue, a good thing. However, that same $50,000 could completely cure blindness in 500 people with trachoma. Effective altruists would give that money to the 500 people whose lives would dramatically improve over the one person’s life which would improve somewhat. This might seem too calculating or callous, but consider the tremendous impact of setting aside biases, like our tendency to favour giving to a cause we know, or a person we see, over someone faceless and far away. What seems less caring actually might be more caring.

The American non-profit GiveWell.org puts MacAskill’s five questions into action, doing in-depth research on the efficacy of various non-profits, and annually releasing a recommended shortlist of NGOs. (I’ll be referencing their research often.) The Against Malaria Foundation is commonly at the top of the heap.

Against Malaria has a very narrow focus: they provide insecticide-treated sleeping nets that, used properly, can reduce malaria and child mortality. At under $5 for a net that lasts four years, the program is cost-effective, well-monitored, and has a significant funding gap, meaning there’s room for them to do a lot more work if they had more money. You can read GiveWell’s detailed report here. To date, AM has distributed 78,940,067 nets. So my $20 CDN might buy eight people (two per net) four years malaria-free. Which means, well, they’re alive, and they’re not suffering from fever, vomiting, and other symptoms that mean they can’t work, can’t take care of children, can’t go to school.

Malaria is something richer countries have eliminated altogether, but according the the 2017 World Malaria Report, there were still 216 million cases worldwide, which resulted in between 445,000 to 731,000 deaths. 90% of them were in Africa. In his book The Life You Can Save, Peter Singer relates a story of parents who have to watch their child die of measles. But, he rightly points out, the child did not die of measles. The measles are treatable. But since his parents couldn’t afford that treatment, he in fact died of poverty.

If you’re giving along with me in, residents of many countries (including Canada and the U.S.) can get a tax receipt even if you donate directly through Against Malaria.

And spoiler alert: all the international aid organizations will be ones recommended by GiveWell, Giving What We Can, and/or The Life You Can Save. It’s the best assurance I can give that my hard-earned cash (and hopefully yours) will be a sound investment.

--

--

Jen Knoch

Book editor, occasional writer, constant try-hard. I love gardening, cycling, cats, swimming, and things in jars.