The GiveWell Blog

What’s a life worth?

There’s a scarcity of $250,000 Ferrari 599 GTB Fioranos, and that’s ruining Christmas for 49 investment bankers who can’t buy the Christmas gift they want. I have an idea of what they can do with their money instead: Save 250 lives. How, you ask?

I recently learned about the problem of Obstetric Fistula. Briefly, childbirth is often more than a young, teenage girl’s body can bear, and it leads to, essentially, a hole in her body that does not close. Because of the hole, the young girl cannot control her wastes, and is often sent to live alone, far from other people. While these women don’t die, it’s hard to see the lives they end up living as anything much better than death.

Currently, approximately 2 million women have the condition, and the UN estimates that there are approximately 100,000 new cases each year. The Fistula Foundation and the UN claim that it costs $300 to perform one operation. (I’ve also seen estimates of $450.) We’ve found that a per-person cost estimates are often understated (ignoring necessary overhead, for example), so let’s be conservative and estimate the cost of curing one Fistula at $1,000. Assuming that there are currently 2 million afflicted women and that it costs $1000 to cure each, the total cost of curing everyone with Fistula is $2 billion. Assuming that 100,000 women are newly affected each year, it would cost $100 million/year going forward.

OK, not pocket change. On the other hand, this is the season of the Wall Street Christmas bonus, and stories abound with what the newly minted bonus babies will buy. The New York Times reported that Goldman Sachs will pay about $16.5 billion in employee compensation this year, much of it coming in year-end bonuses. Yes, that’s right. $16.5 billion. If each Goldman Sachs employee contributed 1/8th of their bonus, Goldman Sachs alone could essentially eradicate the problem of Obstetric Fistula. And that’s only Goldman Sachs. Well, that’s just Goldman Sachs – why put all the onus on them? CNN estimates that bonuses paid to the people working in the securities industrey will come to approximately $24 billion in 2006.

So, I’d like to offer a different perspective on bonus season. For each $5,200 hour you choose not to ride on a Gulfstream IV chartered jet, you can save 5 women. And, if you just can’t believe that there’s a dearth of Manhattan properties being offered in the $20 million range, don’t worry. You can spend $10 million on a starter apartment, and use the savings to save 10,000 lives.