The GiveWell Blog

Response to concerns about GiveWell’s spillovers analysis

Last week, we published an updated analysis on “spillover” effects of GiveDirectly‘s cash transfer program: i.e., effects that cash transfers may have on people who don’t receive cash transfers but who live nearby those who do receive cash transfers.1For more context on this topic, see our May 2018 blog post. We concluded: “[O]ur best guess is that negative or positive spillover effects of cash are minimal on net.” (More)

Economist Berk Özler posted a series of tweets expressing concern over GiveWell’s research process for this report. We understood his major questions to be:

  1. Why did GiveWell publish its analysis on spillover effects before a key study it relied on was public? Is this consistent with GiveWell’s commitment to transparency? Has GiveWell done this in other cases?
  2. Why did GiveWell place little weight on some papers in its analysis of spillover effects?
  3. Why did GiveWell’s analysis of spillovers focus on effects on consumption? Does this imply that GiveWell does not value effects on other outcomes?

These questions apply to GiveWell’s research process generally, not just our spillovers analysis, so the discussion below addresses topics such as:

  • When do our recommendations rely on private information, and why?
  • How do we decide on which evidence to review in our analyses of charities’ impact?
  • How do we decide which outcomes to include in our cost-effectiveness analyses?

Finally, this feedback led us to realize a communication mistake we made: our initial report did not communicate as clearly as it should have that we were specifically estimating spillovers of GiveDirectly’s current program, not commenting on spillovers of cash transfers in general. We will now revise the report to clarify this.

Note: It may be difficult to follow some of the details of this post without having read our report on the spillover effects of GiveDirectly’s cash transfers.

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New research on cash transfers

Summary

  • There has been a good deal of discussion recently about new research on the effects of cash transfers, beginning with a post by economist Berk Özler on the World Bank’s Development Impact blog. We have not yet fully reviewed the new research, but wanted to provide a preliminary update for our followers about our plans for reviewing this research and how it might affect our views of cash transfers, a program implemented by one of our top charities, GiveDirectly.
  • In brief, the new research suggests that cash transfers may be less effective than we previously believed in two ways. First, cash transfers may have substantial negative effects on non-recipients who live near recipients (“negative spillovers”). Second, the benefits of cash transfers may fade quickly.
  • We plan to reassess the cash transfer evidence base and provide our updated conclusions in the next several months (by November 2018 at the latest). One reason that we do not plan to provide a comprehensive update sooner is that we expect upcoming midline results from GiveDirectly’s “general equilibrium” study, a large and high-quality study explicitly designed to estimate spillover effects, will play a major role in our conclusions. Results from this study are expected to be released in the next few months.
  • Our best guess is that we will reduce our estimate of the cost-effectiveness of cash transfers to some extent, but will likely continue to recommend GiveDirectly. However, major updates to our current views, either in the negative or positive direction, seem possible.

More detail below.

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Our top charities for giving season 2017

This year, we added two new top charities, Evidence Action’s No Lean Season program and Helen Keller International’s vitamin A supplementation program, and retained our seven top charities from 2016. We also added Evidence Action’s Dispensers for Safe Water program to our list of standout charities.

We recommend that donors give to GiveWell for granting to top charities at our discretion so that we can direct the funding to the top charity or charities with the most pressing funding need. For donors who prefer to give directly to our top charities, we recommend giving 70 percent of your donation to the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF) and 30 percent to the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI) to maximize your impact. We expect Good Ventures, a foundation with which we work closely, to provide significant support to each top charity; our recommendation to give to AMF and SCI is based on how much good we believe additional donations can do.

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Are GiveWell’s top charities the best option for every donor?

We’re sometimes asked whether we think GiveWell’s top charities are the “best,” in some absolute sense of the word, or whether we’d ever advise that a donor give to an opportunity outside of our recommendations. This post aims to clarify how GiveWell thinks about different giving options and their suitability for different types of donors.

We believe that GiveWell’s top charities offer donors an outstanding opportunity to do a lot of good and are the best option for most donors. However, some donors—those with a very high degree of trust in a particular individual or organization to make this decision, donors with lots of time (in excess of 50 hours per year, and likely more) to consider their giving decision, or donors whose values point strongly toward a particular cause outside of the ones GiveWell covers—may find opportunities to have a greater impact per dollar than GiveWell’s top charities. Note that we think these characteristics are likely to be necessary, but not sufficient, for finding these types of opportunities; we still expect good giving to be hard, and spending, for example, 50 hours per year on research isn’t necessarily going to yield better opportunities.

In this post, we describe relevant considerations for donors in greater detail.

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Our updated top charities for giving season 2016

We have refreshed our top charity rankings and recommendations. We now have seven top charities: our four top charities from last year and three new additions. We have also added two new organizations to our list of charities that we think deserve special recognition (previously called “standout” charities). Instead of ranking organizations, we rank funding…

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Weighing organizational strength vs. estimated cost-effectiveness

A major question we’ve asked ourselves internally over the last few years is how we should weigh organizational quality versus the value of the intervention that the organization is carrying out. In particular, is it better to recommend an organization we’re very impressed by and confident in that’s carrying out a good program, or better…

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