The GiveWell Blog

Don’t let Elie rip you off!

My buddy Elie, a member of the GiveWell project and a passionate diarrhea guy, is trying to get you excited about the idea of saving lives for about $1000 a pop (see below). Hey, it is a good deal, and I agree with his take that repairing someone’s fistula is pretty comparable to saving her life. Why settle for pretty comparable, though? How much would you have to pay to literally stop a child from dying?

Turns out, the answer is less. Way less. For your real charity bargain shopping, go on down to Africa, especially the regions afflicted by malaria. According to this study, “About six lives can be saved each year for every 1000 children protected with insecticide-treated nets.” Insecticide-treated nets can be had through Nothing But Nets for a whopping $10 each (transportation and distribution included), and they last 3-5 years and generally cover 2 people each … which means buying 500 nets (for $5000) can cover 1000 children and save let’s say 24 lives over 4 years … which comes out to ~$200 per life saved.

Hang on. This is crazy. Let me say that again.

$200 to save a freaking life.

But that’s not all. The weirdest thing about Elie’s high-priced offer is that he’s forgetting about his own favorite cause, fatal diarrhea. This is one we don’t understand as well, largely because the organizations we’ve seen in this area don’t seem as careful about tracking their results. So I can’t give you an exact dollar figure … but I can tell you that an ORT, a tiny packet of nutrients that a child can swallow and ensure that he survives his bout of diarrhea, costs … wait for it …

5 cents.

There’s a word for this, friends. It’s called a bargain. We’re all familiar with the idea as it applies to junk: if someone cuts prices enough, you’re usually in, even if we’re talking about a DVD of Deuce Bigalow, European Gigolo. (Admit it, you smiled just now. No, I’m not proud.)

Well, it just so happens that this is your lucky day! Cause thanks to a combination of global disparities in wealth, ineffectively distributed charity, and horrible disease epidemics, SAVING LIVES HAS NEVER BEEN CHEAPER! WE’RE PRACTICALLY GIVING THESE THINGS AWAY!! ACT NOW BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE!

(And hopefully, this sale won’t last much longer.)


  • Mike Strauss on January 2, 2007 at 5:00 am said:

    You say 5 cents is the cost for saving a kid by giving him/her a nutrition packet, great! Where do I send my nickel? Or a whole bunch of nickels? When I click the diarrheal page, GiveWell tells me that no one is recommended yet. So, how much does it actually cost to save a kid for 5 cents and is anyone doing it? Are you going to use this info to start a new charity called Nothing but Nutrician Packets? All the money goes to buying and delivering nutrition packets to some UN group?

  • Holden on January 2, 2007 at 5:03 am said:

    5c is one of “those numbers”–the one that gets you to open your wallet, but we don’t have any of the details. I cited it in the blog because, like you, we see that number and go “Holy crap, this is cheap, this must be a good cause!” But is it really true that there are all these kids sitting around about to die, there are aid workers standing there watching and wishing they had ORTs, and the only thing missing is cash? It’s possible, but seems doubtful. There must be other obstacles: distribution, circulation, education. I’d guess that when you add it all up, it’s still cheap as heck. But we don’t know. According to Elie, diarrhea organizations are generally horrendously opaque, complicated, and difficult to communicate with.

    All that said, Elie has finally found one he likes–Population Services International–and is working on a review as we speak. A blog preview would probably be a good thing (Elie: yo).

    We are also planning to talk to Nothing But Nets and ask them if they can distribute ORTs along with the nets–like your Nothing But Nutrition Packets idea. If it makes sense, this could be a way to knock out a lot of the distribution/circulation costs. December is the worst time of year to be trying to get information from nonprofits, but we’ll pick it up again soon.

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