The GiveWell Blog

Internal debate on the goals of giving to charity

A donor wrote to us recently with a question (paraphrased):

Is it better to help people who cannot currently live a decent life or to help those who might be better off to start with but have more potential to live enjoyable and meaningful lives?

Ideally the answer to this question would be “let’s help everyone get to the point where they can live enjoyable and meaningful lives.” Realistically, though, resources available for charity are not unlimited and there are trade-offs involved in choosing where to give.

Recently, we’ve been internally debating the question above, which said another way is: “If you had similarly strong opportunities to help different groups, who do you help to do the most good?” and we have some differences of opinion. For example:

  • Holden believes that the ultimate goal, the highest moral imperative, is to achieve and help others achieve their full potential, i.e. help them do something great with their lives.
  • I believe that the ultimate goal is to reduce suffering and create happiness.

Holden and I agree, though, that these goals often lead to similar intermediate goals:

  1. Fulfill people’s basic needs
  2. Create environments in which there are plenty of good opportunities and people can choose for themselves what is best.

Where we tend to differ is the populations we are most concerned with helping. Given the choice, Holden would prefer to help those with high potential to do great things with their lives (one frequent example that comes up is young people in fast-growing, democratic India), whereas I most want to help those in abject poverty who suffer from hunger, disease, and uncertainty (this tends to be people in isolated, rural areas in developing countries).

That being said, Holden and I agree that within our current known charitable options, we choose to give to VillageReach. VillageReach’s case for impact and ability to use additional funds to have additional impact is significantly more compelling to us than that of any other organization we’ve found. If Holden had a similarly strong option to help, say, Indian youth, he would likely opt for that, but as it stands, VillageReach continues to be the best option we know of for helping any population.

We will continue to search for strong options for donors who most want to help different populations. In the meantime, we’d love to hear your thoughts on this debate in the comments section below.


  • Bradley Monton on April 29, 2011 at 12:08 pm said:

    Ah, this is an interesting debate. When I push people to donate to VillageReach, the standard line I hear from nay-sayers is a combination of (a) if these children are kept alive via immunizations, they’ll go on to have lives that aren’t worth living, and (b) by keeping more people alive in these impoverished countries, we are contributing to overpopulation and the resulting environmental degredation that makes people’s lives even worse.

    My standard reply is that we should care about individual people — these children are morally valuable, and are loved by fellow humans. But I worry that that’s not the best reply to give. I’d like to also be able to reply that in fact these children will go on to live lives worth living, and will go on to overall improve the lot of their society, but it’s hard to see how to have good evidence for those claims, and the whole motivation behind promoting VillageReach is that what they’re doing is backed up by good evidence.

  • Jonah S on April 29, 2011 at 5:07 pm said:

    Bradley: You may find the GiveWell page about The standard of living in the developing world (and specifically the cited article by Angus Deaton) relevant to the question of whether children in the developing world are leading lives worth living.

    I don’t think that there’s any evidence that even in the poorest regions in the world the typical person wishes that he or she were not alive. Of course, it’s in principle possible for desire to be alive coming from an irrational evolutionarily ingrained optimism bias (e.g. systematically imagining mistakenly that things will get better in the future). On the other hand one tends to get used to one’s conditions so that what might seem like a horrible situation from the outside may not be nearly as bad for the people who are living through it.

    As for the possibility of saving lives contributing to overpopulation, one view is that reducing child mortality rate reduces population growth on account of parents having confidence that the children that they do have will survive and correspondingly feeling less pressure to have extra children. Certainly historically there has been a correlation between improved health and drop in childbirth rate. However, the correlation may come from an unseen underlying factor (e.g. maybe economic growth causes both of improved health and improved womens’ rights and the cause of the reduction in population growth is improved womens’ rights so that improving health in isolation does not reduce birth rate). See Holden’s post GiveWell mailing list post titled Population growth & health.

    Overall, based on the available evidence I would guess that VillageReach saves lives that are of significantly lower quality than typical lives in the developed world but nevertheless still worth living. Like Elie (as of 2008) I would rather prevent a fistula than save a life (substantially raising the quality of a life rather than preserving one) but my impression is that GiveWell has not been able to find a good charity which focuses on this health intervention

  • Jonah S on April 29, 2011 at 5:33 pm said:

    Natalie: I’m personally torn between Holden’s position and your own position regarding what the “ultimate goal” of altrustic endeavors should be. One thing that I would say is that I think that what matters most is what happens in the long-run. Only, it’s very unclear on how to have a positive impact on what happens over the long run.

    One remark that I think worth making is that if the GDP of the United States were ten times as high as it currently then assuming that the percentage of income that was donated to international aid remained constant, the amount of money flowing to the developing world would in principle be enough to alleviate most of the problems in the developing world for which money is the limiting factor. In practice there seems to be substantial ambiguity as to the overall effect of generic international aid so the problem of global poverty would not immediately be solved, but the overall point that I’m making is that economic growth could make a huge positive difference in the lives of the poorest people even if the economic growth is very unevenly distributed in absolute terms. This suggests that the achievement of Holden’s ultimate goal may naturally lead to the achievement of your own.

    It’s harder to imagine things going in the other direction – the gap between being in abject poverty and achieving one’s full potential seems too great for there to be a substantial chance of bridging it.

  • Jacob P. on April 30, 2011 at 9:58 am said:

    Hello to the fellows at GiveWell! First of all, my thanks for your work, as I have used your reasearch repeatedly in the past.

    First, by the “degree of suffering” approach, a measure of DALY’s could be used, though with Holden’s approach, I must ask, is:

    1)The argument that it is simply preferable to help those in a setting like democratic India if a similar a similar amount of suffering, death, or DALY’s could be prevented, or is–

    2)The position held by Holden stating that once a person is lifted from abjectness to having a meaningful life, then that resultant happiness (or elimination of suffering) counts more than the happiness of others who have had their lives improved, yet continue to suffer? [I.e. does a person’s happiness recieved from less suffering expand as there is more happiness, so that an equal amount of suffering prevented will result in more happiness for those who are already happy?] Or,

    3)Something other than what I’ve suggested here.

    In either case, I would personally agree with the “preventing suffering” measure.

    Seperately, but of intrest to the Givewell program, something from Malcom Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point” strikes me at this time. Gladwell cites, in his psychology work, that (paraphrasing from memory) “while donors, shown pictures of impoverished children alone, and then statistics alone, by one charity and a second, tend to donate to the first, there is a more suprising phenomena in the psychology of charities. Donors, confronted with a choice between charities displaying pictures alone, and those displaying both pictures and statistics, tended to prefer those without statistics, as if the figures somehow hindered the donors.”

    With this, I would not recommend the entire book for your purposes, as only a few pages are dedicated to the psychology of charities. Still, with that observation, I would offer one comment: perhaps Givewell could consider focusing not only on the charities and their effectiveness, but on donors, and their aversions (or lack of support) for transparency in giving.

  • Yi-An on May 1, 2011 at 8:00 am said:

    My two cents: I think the idea of reducing suffering and creating happiness is important, but when seen as an end, it often results in programs that create dependency, lead to unintended consequences, and don’t solve the real problem.

    For instance, I walk by street children everyday. I might buy lunch for them which would reduce their suffering and make them happy. But it would also do nothing to help them transition to a better life and would in fact potentially draw more children to the streets and out of school.

    I think the idea of helping people fulfill their potential is better guidance as a goal since it necessarily includes things like meeting basic needs. It also gives people dignity and agency – they are partners, not merely recipients of aid.

    The more time I spend in the NGO world, the more I see that this is the ultimate goal. NGOs start with something like HIV treatment or de-worming, and end up expanding into things like education or economic empowerment because they see that their patients, once healthy, are still struggling to make a living.

    However, I think the way that Holden has phrased it conflates two ideas which confuses the issue. The idea is for people to achieve their full potential, regardless of what that potential is. Whether that potential is great or common is a separate value which should be discussed independently.

    I would therefore agree with Holden that the goal of aid is to help people reach their full potential, but disagree that it must be “great”. Helping a rural African widow grow enough maize so that she can feed her children and earn enough to send them to school is just as noble a goal as helping young, entrepreneurial Indians start successful businesses. Perhaps there are spill-over impacts in the latter case, but I wouldn’t say that one achieves more “good” (however ambiguously defined) than the other.

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