I want to maximize world happiness as efficiently as possible.
July 29, 2010 8:47 AM   Subscribe

How can I help the greatest number of people on the planet, by the greatest amount, per dollar?

I want to donate money to a cause -- let's say $100. I'll assume the following:

(1) the life of someone halfway around the world whom I will never meet is just as important as the life of someone in my community; (2) it's better to help five people than one person; (3) it doesn't matter how my donation makes me feel -- what matters is what it does for someone else; and (4) a given amount of money will do more per person in the developing world than here at home (right?).

Where should I send my money so I can improve life for the greatest number of people per dollar I donate? I'm thinking of things like mosquito nets, clean water, crucial medical operations for children, and so forth.

I'd like specific organizations and links to their sites.

And again, I don't just want to donate to a worthy cause -- I want my money to do as much good as possible.
posted by Tin Man to Society & Culture (36 answers total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
 
Malaria. Malaria kills children. A cheap net can save many lives.
posted by uauage at 8:53 AM on July 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


I suspect cheap, clean, renewable energy will have the greatest benefit for greatest number of people. Not sure where you'd donate your money to make that happen, though.
posted by 6550 at 8:55 AM on July 29, 2010


$10 buys a malaria net and covers its distribution and education on how to use it. You can read about the horrors of malaria here, but it kills one million people a year, mostly kids under five. Every 30 seconds in Africa, a child dies from it.
posted by GaelFC at 8:55 AM on July 29, 2010 [4 favorites]


I think most microlending operations meet your criteria. By extending small loans to people in developing nations, the recipient is able to start or expand a business, providing income and overcoming poverty for themselves, their families, and their communities. FINCA is a good organization; kiva is also very popular and has the wrinkle of allowing the donor to decide whom should receive their money.
posted by DrGail at 8:58 AM on July 29, 2010


You know that old "give a man a fish/teach a man to fish" thing? The motto of the Sarvodaya Shramadana organization in Sri Lanka and Nepal is "We build the roads, and the roads build us." I could give you any number of real examples and even get you to go on a trip and work with these people. You've got preschools, credit unions, small manufacturing orgs that allow a poor woman to support her large family with special needs and have the first permanent home that they've ever had. The work stresses self-empowerment and sustainability for all.

More than that, however, it's a Buddhist peace movement seeking to address conflict and violence by building support and sustaining local economies. It's paid off in over 11,000 villages.
posted by Madamina at 9:03 AM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't know what organizations are working on this (from what I've read I think they're mostly small, local organizations, but maybe someone else here knows names), but I think one of the most pressing health/quality of life issues in developing countries is open defecation. Illnesses resulting from water-borne pathogens kill tens of thousands of children every year.

If people don't have toilets, they have to poop outside, and sometimes directly into the rivers that supply their drinking water. I would want to donate my money to places that educate people about how fecal bacteria pollutes the water supply and work hard to get whole communities to move away from open defecation and to support toilet use.

This is a huge problem in SE Asia right now.
posted by phunniemee at 9:04 AM on July 29, 2010


Seems like people who are better at economics than I could do a pretty simple analysis of this. Seems like you'd have to calculate:

- The number of people affected, worldwide, by each of the top 10 (or 20) causes of death/disease/illness/destruction (I'd imagine malaria, AIDs, malnutrition, cancer, etc. would all be on here).

- The top 10 (or 20) methods of helping/preventing/alleviating each of the items in #1.

- The average cost per affected individual of implementing each of the items in #2.

Multiply each of the values in #1 by each of the values in #3. Sort 'em in ascending order and the first one ought to be what you're looking for.
posted by julthumbscrew at 9:05 AM on July 29, 2010


Microlending has pretty good return on your personal dollar (since you are really only spending the interest unless the loan defaults) but then again it doesn't generally result in wells being dug or hospitals being built.

In terms of giving rather than loans, CARE is a large organization that does a lot of good work in the developing world and has low overhead expenses.
posted by phoenixy at 9:09 AM on July 29, 2010


Thanks, this is great stuff. Keep it coming. I'm sure too many choices will wind up paralyzing me, but I'll pick one eventually.
posted by Tin Man at 9:14 AM on July 29, 2010


One thing to keep in mind when choosing- is the intervention something that the people receiving it truly want? Or is it imposing Western ideas of how things should be? A historical (extreme) example of this is missionaries converting native peoples to Christianity. It's a hard thing to parse out, but it can be important.
posted by emilyd22222 at 9:21 AM on July 29, 2010


(note: I work for one of these organizations)

I would advise you that if you want your money to do as much good as possible for as many people as possible, you should consider donating to a large organization (governmental or non) that has long-term established field operations. Organizations I have worked for and/or with that I would recommend include:

Unicef
World Food Programme
CARE
Oxfam
Save The Children
World Vision
International Rescue Committee

Issue wise, I would say focus on 1) malaria, 2) water / sanitation (often referred to as "WATSAN"), and 3) health (HIV / AIDS, hygiene projects, nutrition programs, etc.), in that descending order. Malaria's a big enough problem in Africa that it doesn't even fall under health, most organizations consider it a beast of its own. My organization's work affects the lives of literally millions of children across the continent on a daily basis.
posted by allkindsoftime at 9:23 AM on July 29, 2010 [5 favorites]


This charity is along those lines, and they require recipients to pay it by helping others in their community.

Also, Planned Parenthood. That would help uncounted future generations, in many ways.
posted by annsunny at 9:23 AM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Family Planning-- giving the option to those who want it. Overpopulation affects absolutely everything, from depleted food supplies to lack of sufficient clean water to the destruction of natural resources. Reduced family size can increase a child's chances of a good education and literacy. Education in turn can help these children decide the family size they want. Maternal mortality rates and unsafe abortions are rampant in developing countries, not to mention HIV/AIDS. The article linked is pretty comprehensive.

I decided a long time ago that this will be my cause when I'm able to donate, as it seems to me that it will affect the greatest number of people and will effectively "snowball" down to future generations.
posted by mireille at 9:24 AM on July 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


If you consider overpopulation, HIV and STIs to be a major issue, you could always contribute to the UNFPA who promote good reproductive health and the distribution of contraceptives to countries that need it.
posted by Hiker at 9:28 AM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm sure too many choices will wind up paralyzing me, but I'll pick one eventually.

I've had this problem too and I've found the easiest thing to do is just make a quick, educated decision, and run with it. When my Kiva loan just got fully repaid, I didn't dilly-dally with the literally thousands of options, I just picked the map, clicked on Sudan, and funded the 2nd interesting profile I hit. Boom, done. For Mother's Day, same thing - dialed up The IRC, picked sending a girl to school for a year in Afganistan, boom, done.

I'm not advocating ignorance in the management of your giving, but once you get familiar with a couple of organizations that you believe in the work of, its sometimes good to just hurry up and get started giving, rather than to get paralyzed, wait, and reduce your chances of giving in the first place. Another kid died of malaria while you were reading this comment, eh?
posted by allkindsoftime at 9:29 AM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Peter Singer wrote a book about this question, The Life You can Save. The website that goes with the book lists a number of recommend organizations, including one of my favorites Partners in Health.

Singer refers frequently to a non-profit rating organization called GiveWell, which is much hated on Metafilter due to a poorly thought out and executed astroturfing campaign some while ago.
posted by ChrisHartley at 9:41 AM on July 29, 2010


Let me quibble with your premise a bit. Sure, there are more efficient ways than others to ensure that the $100 you spend has maximal impact on individual happiness.

But in order for your $100 to work in the developing world, for instance, you need a bunch of other people spending their benjamins on less sexy, foundational projects like administration, institution building, peacekeeping/security, infrastructure, etc. These are necessary but insufficient conditions for general happiness. And if EVERYONE wanted their $100 to receive the glory of making the most people most directly happy, no money would go to projects that couldn't be directly attributed to smiling faces.

So a malaria bed net is great, if people know what to do with it (and fighting malaria is their primary concern). But if you're a villager in disputed territory in the Congo or Darfur, you'd probably much rather have a functioning government that can provide peace and security. In that case, you could probably make a pure economic argument that a well paid, well trained militia man acting on behalf of a legitimate government could protect more lives than an internist from Doctors without Borders could save.
posted by BobbyVan at 9:43 AM on July 29, 2010 [4 favorites]


Nthing malaria and large organizations. The best organization varies by region/issue.
posted by SMPA at 9:51 AM on July 29, 2010


(Of course, my cautionary note above shouldn't stop you from giving to any of the worthy charities mentioned by others in this thread. I'm simply noting that if all charitable giving/development assistance had to meet the standards you outline above, many necessary programs would go unfunded -- making lots of people unhappy.)
posted by BobbyVan at 10:06 AM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


I had your same question a while ago, and did some research (not a giant amount, but fair), and decided that, for me, a lack of clean, safe drinking water was the absolute baseline for everything else. I chose charity:water as my default charity. I agree that HIV/AIDS is an important cause, and malaria nets are invaluable, and all of the suggested charities are important. But more children die of diarrhea, caused by unsafe drinking water, each year, than of AIDS and malaria combined.

From their website:
Almost a billion people on the planet don’t have access to clean drinking water. Unsafe water and a lack of basic sanitation cause 80% of all disease and kill more people than all forms of violence, including war.
You can read about the founder, and about the organization, in the NYTimes.
posted by tzikeh at 10:19 AM on July 29, 2010


I teach development economics and work in the field as a researcher. Deworming is usually suggested as the best bang for the book development aid. I have an economist friend who only donates to deworming for the very reason it is the best bang for the buck. Estimates are that 50 cents can provide one extra year of life. I don't have suggestions for specific charities, but I do like this article on deworming.
posted by akabobo at 10:22 AM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


phunniemee: Illnesses resulting from water-borne pathogens kill tens of thousands of children every year.

From 1.5 to 2 million child deaths from diarrhea alone, stemming from polluted water supply, according to WHO.
posted by tzikeh at 10:24 AM on July 29, 2010


Free the Slaves
There are 27 million slaves existing in the world today, this very moment. Free the slaves has a mandate of bringing that number to 0 in 25 years.
A fascinating Ted Talk by the founder about slavery and the organization can be found here.
They have also done some cold hard number crunching to let you know exactly what can be achieved with your money:
Given your $100 example - through Free the Slaves, $92 is the cost per child to rescue one of a group of child slaves in the fishing villages in Ghana. Or $14 pays for school books a uniform and a satchel for each Ghaninian former slave to attend school for a year. Example cost break downs can be found here - and you can specify to which specific cause you want your money to go to.
posted by Arlecchino at 10:36 AM on July 29, 2010


I want to donate money to a cause -- let's say $100.

Well, say you have two friends who feel the same way, and it is $300.

Sun Ovens is a small company outside of Chicago that are sort of evangelists for the cause of solar cooking. Their basic idea, is that in most of the third world, much of the work involved in cooking food is finding wood or some sort of fuel to do so with. With one of their ovens, families can cook, and even boil water to purify etc. using something they already have plenty of...sunshine.

They have the basic box sized model, and also make one about the size of a small trailer, that is designed to use as a bakery of sorts, allowing folks to provide fresh bread as a source of both income, and sustenance. The equipment itself is incredibly low tech, and would not require much, if any maintanance.

Anyway, I think it is a pretty boss idea both from the tech, and humanitarian possibilities, literally a gift that will keep on giving. (FWIW, I have no connection to to company other than hearing a thing on the local NPR about them years ago)

Here's some demos/reviews etc, and I'm sure between their site and general googleness, you wil get the info you need.
posted by timsteil at 10:39 AM on July 29, 2010


I don't know what organizations are working on this (from what I've read I think they're mostly small, local organizations, but maybe someone else here knows names), but I think one of the most pressing health/quality of life issues in developing countries is open defecation


Water Aid. They are international (good folks too, at least the ones I've had dealings with).
posted by tallus at 10:47 AM on July 29, 2010


Anything that goes directly to the education of disadvantaged women - this has the highest beneficial ripple effect.
posted by meepmeow at 11:35 AM on July 29, 2010


Planned Parenthood. Broadening access to contraception and abortion in the United States does more to reduce global resource depletion than anything you can do with equal funds in the developing world.
posted by gum at 12:18 PM on July 29, 2010


So it seems to me that the trick isn't figuring out what produces the most immediate social good, but instead figuring out what you can do with your small amount of money that will result, in a small way, in a continual and ideally continually expanding stream of increasing social good. Basically, you want something with the big advantage of capitalism — the tendency that capital/capitalism has, when left to its own devices, to breed more capital/capitalism — but with less amorality and rapacity. Microloans, halfassed as they are, are the best attempt that I know of to engineer this sort of white-hat economic virus.

(randomness: is it ever the case that microloan recipients eventually end up reinvesting their profits back into microloans, or are the systems exclusively set up for 1st-world lenders and 3rd-world borrowers?)
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 1:30 PM on July 29, 2010


is it ever the case that microloan recipients eventually end up reinvesting their profits back into microloans, or are the systems exclusively set up for 1st-world lenders and 3rd-world borrowers?

Grameen Bank was set up to provide loans to poor women in Bangladesh. It seems to be doing pretty well.

Grameen Bank finances 100 per cent of its outstanding loan from its deposits. Over 54 per cent of its deposits come from bank’s own borrowers. ... In 1995, GB decided not to receive any more donor funds. ... GB's growing amount of deposits will be more than enough to run and expand its credit programme and repay its existing loans.

(My answer to this question came down to giving my money to Médicins sans Frontières, fwiw).
posted by Lebannen at 2:46 PM on July 29, 2010


Malaria. Malaria kills children. A cheap net can save many lives.

But is saving children's lives the most effective way to provide help? Children can be a burden and cosr more then they produce, would it not be more effective to help an adult who can then provide better economic support for others, including children?
posted by biffa at 4:55 PM on July 29, 2010


Seconding the education of women.

Essentially, educating a women leads to her having fewer, healthier babies, as well as a higher earning potential. It also means that her daughters will be educated.
posted by kjs4 at 6:10 PM on July 29, 2010


Fund four microloans through Kiva.org, and as they are repaid, use them to fund more microloans. Providing low-interest working capital is of enormous help to developing local economies and thus, standards of living.
posted by holterbarbour at 9:24 PM on July 29, 2010


Check out www.globalgiving.org. They connect donors with small organizations all over the world. You can search by your area of interest such as environmental, health, water, farming etc and you can see what the amount you give can fund. You can give in several small sums or all in one donation or set up a series of donations. They have hundreds of worthy and diverse opportunities to help people worldwide.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 9:39 PM on July 29, 2010


So a malaria bed net is great, if people know what to do with it (and fighting malaria is their primary concern). But if you're a villager in disputed territory in the Congo or Darfur, you'd probably much rather have a functioning government that can provide peace and security... (Of course, my cautionary note above shouldn't stop you from giving to any of the worthy charities mentioned by others in this thread. I'm simply noting that if all charitable giving/development assistance had to meet the standards you outline above, many necessary programs would go unfunded -- making lots of people unhappy.)


Right. Given that, the real cost of a bed net might be $20 or $25. Still pretty cheap.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 5:55 AM on July 30, 2010


allkindsoftime, your comment was incredibly helpful. You're right, doing something is better than doing nothing at all. I donated money for five malaria nets today and I'll probably do more as well.
posted by Tin Man at 2:37 PM on July 30, 2010


If you want to see what happens when economists get together and try to actually calculate the marginal impact of an additional dollar of aid, spent towards different potential problems, you should look at the Copenhagen Consensus .

Somewhat controversial (primarily because the argue we would be better off spending money on almost any other form of aid than spending it to try to prevent global warming), but it is interesting work, and addresses directly the question you are interested in.

The only wrinkle is their assumption is what would benefit the most form an additional $50 billion investment, rather than say a $100 addition, but I think the argument still holds.

According to them, the best bets are (in order): Prevent spread of AIDS, Reduce vitamin deficiencies among poor children, liberalize trade, fight malaria.

Here is a TED talk.
posted by vegetableagony at 1:23 PM on August 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


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