The Life You Can Save went on sale in the U.S. on Monday. First, disclosures: the book prominently features GiveWell, a portion of the book’s proceeds are being donated to GiveWell, and I was sent an advance copy. I have strong incentives to encourage people to read and buy the book.
So let me start with a reason not to read it: it will make you uncomfortable. It certainly made me uncomfortable. It started by asking me a simple question – would I sacrifice time and money to save a stranger’s life? If so, why don’t I give more of my income to charity? – and pounded away relentlessly, tearing apart every excuse I had until I was left with “I’m really selfish.”
I’ve appreciated many books for making me feel scared, or angry, or sad. Now there’s one to make me feel personally guilty. (How’s that for a blurb?)
Of course the goal of the book isn’t to make people feel guilty, it’s to get them to give a lot (even if not as much as they, strictly speaking, could). And unlike the IRS, Prof. Singer doesn’t see supporting the local museum as equivalent to saving children’s lives. He’s specifically advocating more giving to developing-world aid, a goal we strongly agree with (as our research agenda demonstrates). You could think of this book as an End of Poverty on a personal rather than global scale – instead of arguing that the international community has the power to end poverty, it argues that you have the power (and thus the responsibility) to save a life.
But can a donation really save a life?
As with The End of Poverty, the moral argument depends on factual questions, and meets some skepticism from William Easterly, who argues – partly from GiveWell’s experience trying to find great charities – that saving a life is not as simple as it’s often made to sound.
There is merit to this. We’ve put a lot of effort by now into finding charities you can be confident in, and we still consider it an open question whether a $1000 donation really translates to a saved life. We estimate that it can in PSI’s case, but there are all kinds of room for uncertainty.
For example. To me the biggest questions with PSI are, (1) Is it getting its subsidized life-saving materials (mostly condoms and insecticide-treated nets) to people who need them, rather than to people who don’t? (2) Are these people consistently and correctly using the materials? One of the reasons I really like PSI is it seems very concerned with these two questions, and attempts to collect data specifically on them; the data it makes available imply success. On the other hand, a lot of monitoring and evaluation isn’t getting done (see the research scorecard, which to its credit PSI makes public), and none of it appears externally audited. How reliable is this data? How representative is the information we have?
And that’s PSI, our current top-recommended charity. Even if $1000 can save a life, your $1000 isn’t unless it gets used well. There’s no charity that makes me even 90% confident this is happening, and with the “average” charity I’d bet that it isn’t.
We can do more – not just give more
However, the bottom line is that I don’t think these concerns mean that Prof. Singer’s challenge can be dismissed. For one thing, even if 90% of PSI’s activities accomplish nothing and the other 10% are in line with our impressions, that’s still $10,000 per life saved – enough for the moral argument to remain very relevant, in my opinion. Based on the limited information we have, it appears that donating to our recommended charities likely is saving lives at some relatively good rate. It might be more uncertain and probabilistic than pulling a drowning child out of the water, but it’s still a compelling value for your money.
And the other issue is that there are more charities out there to be examined, and more improvement to be had from holding them accountable. As Prof. Easterly acknowledges, there are many proven life-saving programs. There may not be infinite room to expand these programs; these programs may not be able to end poverty by themselves; but they can absorb at least a few million more dollars. And that does mean that nearly all of us could be doing more to save (or change) lives than we are.
It’s just that “doing more” has to mean more than “giving more.” Picking your charity – and doing your part in holding it accountable – is at least as important as giving generously. We’re trying to make this task easier for time-strapped donors: if you put credence in our analysis, it can mean simply basing your giving on our recommendations (informally, or formally via GiveWell Advance Donation).
Unlike many “give more” advocates that target only dollars spent, Prof. Singer recognizes the challenge of translating generosity into results (hence his interest in GiveWell, as well as J-PAL, which we’re big fans of). His book challenges you to give more and give better. Neither of these is easy … nor is reading The Life You Can Save. But they’re worth it, because even for an individual donor, saving a life is within reach.