The GiveWell Blog

Natalie’s general notes from living in India

Previous posts shared Holden’s and Elie’s general thoughts from last year’s several-month staff trip to India. This post shares my thoughts; the next will discuss our thought process in deciding which local charity to support.

General notes on site visits

  • I was quite surprised (pleasantly so) by how receptive the charity directors we contacted in Mumbai were to our requests for visits. Unsurprisingly, none of the small organizations we contacted had heard of GiveWell, but nearly all were willing to show us their work and to let us publish our accounts of our visits online. We are very grateful for their openness and for the time they spent with us.
  • Some of the programs we saw were similar to programs found in the cities in the U.S., such as teaching parents and children about how to prevent and deal with child abuse, pre-schools, prison programs, after school tutoring, scholarships, and sports clubs. Others were very different from what I’d encountered here: helping slum dwellers respond to government agents who burned down their homes, building walls around wells, distributing goats and seeds, marketing chemicals used to clean water, providing tuberculosis treatment, orphanages, teaching elected representative about how government works, working with the daughters of prostitutes to prevent them entering the sex trade, and providing food and a place to sleep to children who spend their days on the street.
  • We often felt that the time spent talking to staff members, especially program staff in management positions was more informative than seeing the charity’s programs in action. From talking to staff, we learned about the organization’s priorities, the breadth of its work, how it judged its own performance, and what challenges it had encountered. Seeing programs in action provided a sense of concreteness and an emotional connection to the organization, but due to our short stay and the fact that we often saw only a portion of the work the organization did (and this portion was chosen by the organization), this on its own did little to improve our understanding of organization. That being said, we could see program visits being informative in cases where we have basic, factual questions about an organization we are reviewing. And given the need for translators in some cases and general communication difficulties, there was definitely value in the ability to have face-to-face conversations.


  • We met with an organization working to educate children and parents about child abuse. While we certainly believe this to be a worthy goal, our conversation highlighted the even greater difficulties involved in dealing with this issue in India than the U.S. The organization interviews children and when it finds instances of abuse (often by relatives), informs a non-offending parent. When made aware of abuse, parents often refused counseling for their children and caring adults were often unable to remove the child from the situation due to lack of alternatives.
  • We heard both about progressive government programs to provide guaranteed work for 100 days a year, food assistance programs, and day care services, as well as cases of government agents burning down slums to make way for higher-value developments and requiring bribes to process paperwork.
  • We heard from a few organizations about the need to build trust in communities before being able to fully run programs there. This process could take years. Building trust could involve providing direct services (such as day care centers) when the ultimate goal was to teach people to advocate for the government services they’re entitled to, or it could involve establishing village committees that need 75% participation by villagers before they can vote on which programs to implement.
  • When we visited a village in which Seva Mandir worked, 30-40 people (almost all men) showed up to talk to us and waited over an hour for our arrival.
  • Based on my experience with school libraries in the U.S., I expected the Room to Read library we visited to have hundreds of books, covering a range of reading levels and topics. I was surprised to find only a few dozen titles (with multiple copies of each title). The books we saw appeared to be for a very basic reading level (just a few words per page and lots of pictures), and the more advanced books were in a closed cabinet and appeared rather dusty.
  • I was surprised by the level of interest in the PSI street performances (see picture above). I didn’t expect that there would be a high level of voluntary interest in public service messages such as ‘use a condom even when you’re drunk’ and ‘use water purification products so you don’t get diarrhea.’ The messages appeared to be presented in an entertaining way (though I couldn’t understand the dialogue) and people were gathered around in large numbers and appeared highly engaged.
  • I went to a number of orphanages. These largely conformed to my expectations. As I had heard anecdotally before, few of the children seemed to actually have no parents or relatives. Instead they were mostly children whose parents could not or did not want to care for them. The orphanages for the most part seemed capable of providing for the basic needs of the children (food, water, shelter, and education), though in one case the orphanage director said his organization survived month-to-month, hoping that donations would come in time to pay the bills. Unsurprisingly, these places did not strike me as substitutes for family life, though I was somewhat surprised by a couple of cases of what I would consider minor mistreatment. One director told us that staff are not allowed to hit children because staff turnover is relatively high, but that the directors were allowed to spank them. At another orphanage, the children were kept from their naptime to sit in front of the director and I while we discussed the organization. I was also told that they are taken to sing at public events, which had led to donations in the past.
  • I was told by one organization that its measure of success is ‘the percentage of children who complete the program who do not enter prostitution.’ However, “completing the program” was defined as those who did not drop out of the program before the age of 21 and were settled and married. In other words, it seems that only success cases are included in the success rate. Unsurprisingly, the organization claimed a 100% success rate on this metric.


  • Vipul Naik on May 2, 2011 at 6:07 pm said:

    “… the breath of its work” — do you mean breath or breadth?

  • hazel on May 2, 2011 at 7:32 pm said:

    what a great experience. Working with children cannot be more accomplishing than anything in the world, watching the children’s progress is achieving.

  • Natalie on May 3, 2011 at 6:04 am said:

    Vipul – Thank you for pointing out that error. I have made the change in the post.

  • Recycling Facts on May 6, 2011 at 5:09 am said:

    Previous posts shared Holden’s and Elie’s general thoughts from last year’s several-month staff trip to India. This post shares my thoughts; the next will discuss our thought process in deciding which local charity to support.

  • That is a strange success rate and should never even be published. None the less this sounds like a truly great program and the work that is done for the children is going to give great rewards afterwards.

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