Home > poverty, world > Soup kitchens are for the soul, not the needy

Soup kitchens are for the soul, not the needy

Happy Valley racecourse: A former malarial swamp

The cure for malaria is economic development, as this one-time malarial swamp demonstrates

Scott Alexander has an interesting post describing Robin Hanson’s controversial views on efficient charitable donation. Put simply, he says that donors could maximise the benefit of their charity by investing during their lifetime and donating the accumulated proceeds in a lump sum at the end of their life — because investment returns outstrip economic growth.

People don’t do this, says Hanson, because it would mean forgoing the immediate sense of satisfaction that is the real motivation for most charitable giving. Ouch. The post has generated lots of comments about the maths (and ethics) of investing for tomorrow rather than donating today, and a good deal of contemplation on the most efficient way to give money.

But the problem as I see it is much more fundamental: is charity, in itself, an efficient way to effect meaningful change?

Many of the problems that charities try to address are symptoms of poverty, rather than causes of it. Malaria is a good example. One of Hong Kong’s swankiest districts used to be a malarial swamp. It wasn’t charity that got rid of the disease; it was economic development — the British colonists cleared the paddy fields and re-directed the waterway to build the now-famous Happy Valley racecourse, inadvertently solving the malaria problem.

(The valley got its name, by the way, as a superstitious protection against the mysterious deaths that occurred there, which turned out to be serendipitous for the property developers who later built on the site. Death Valley might not have taken off in quite the same way.)

Malaria was also widespread in the southern US as recently as the 1940s. It was eradicated as a result of economic development (when the knowhow and resources became available), as it was in Greece and Italy and other parts of southern Europe.

That’s not to say it’s impossible to eradicate malaria from poor countries, at least in theory. After all, we know perfectly well how to do it. But the reality is that controlling malaria depends on effective government action and cross-border cooperation, which is beyond the scope of most private charities — and typically beyond the ability of the poorest countries. Crappy governance is why they’re poor in the first place.

And that’s precisely the point. Africa’s problem is not Aids or dirty water or a lack of schools or hospitals (though it suffers from all of those things). The problem is poor governance, weak institutions and the ravages of war.

Where do I donate to fix that?

Well, I don’t. The reality is that charities actively avoid giving money directly to governments in the poorest countries because their donors are paranoid about corruption (and accountability). They want to see where their money is going, so they know how good to feel about it.

Indeed, in the US they even host conferences on “efficient giving” so people can make absolutely certain that not one penny of their charity is wasted.

But it’s hard to see how any of this bottom-up stuff helps to improve governance, which is the actual source of the problems.

It’s not even clear that people in the rich world really want to solve these problems. China’s growth since 1979 has lifted more people out of poverty than the total combined efforts of all the world’s charities, yet most Americans seem to think that China is “stealing” jobs and should be penalised rather than held aloft as a model for fixing global poverty. (Though they will donate money for China’s pandas, who, unlike China’s humans, are not considered guilty by association.)

It is therefore doubly ironic that Chinese investment in Africa will probably do more to alleviate poverty than the charities have achieved during the past 40 years.

If people were serious about making the world a better place, it would be a much better place already. Let’s face it, charity is all about the donors, not the recipients.

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  1. April 8 2013 at 5.59 pm

    I want to donate my money so that the most good will come of it. Through distribution of antimalarial nets [1] I can avert a deaths for about $2300 and by reducing malaria-related suffering give people more years of healthy life for about $30/DALY [2]. This is really good!

    You’re saying that this is inefficient, that other methods are better. That would be great news, in that they would let my donations go farther by switching to the more efficient approaches. But then you don’t go into enough detail. I agree that China’s growth has been very positive, but how do I contribute to that? And do those contributions go farther, on the margin, than when applied to fighting malaria?

    You say “if people were serious about making the world a better place, it would be a much better place already” as if we know what we need to do and it’s just a matter of doing it, but I don’t think that’s true.

    [1] http://www.givewell.org/international/top-charities/AMF

    [2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disability-adjusted_life_year

  2. April 9 2013 at 10.52 am

    In the US, Republican voters give more to charity than Democrats. In other words, these are people who vote for the world’s biggest military budget (bigger than the rest of the G7 combined), want to label China a currency manipulator and send immigrants back to where they came from.

    I think these folks know how they could make life better for the poorest people on the planet (ie, vote for politicians who share this goal), but prefer to look after their own self interests when it comes to the crunch. Jon Huntsman was the pro-China candidate, FYI. There’s always next time…

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