Whom should you support this Christmas (or in your will)?
As we’ve discussed here before, the data on charities’ effectiveness is really ropey, so this question is harder than it should be.
In international development, there are some reliable independent analysts which recommend high-performing charities. The Life You Can Save (disclosure: in which I am involved), founded by the ethicist Peter Singer, recommends 21 charities, each of which either delivers work based on decent evidence, or creates new evidence about what works.
An oddly-effective gift can be something given to somebody else. And actually these aren’t just for people who has everything: our gifts ‘to’ our nieces last year included warm jackets and school books for refugee Syrian children. They were from the charity Help Refugees which last year had a shop in London called ‘Choose Love’, and this year has shops in both London and New York City. You receive a certificate saying that you’ve bought some item for a refugee, and that’s what you give to your friend. You can buy boots, a tent, legal advice, food, etc. – or everything in the shop. I was a bit apprehensive, but actually our nieces were impressively understanding and grateful: perhaps any child knows the horrors of being cold.
Various charities offer these kinds of gifts: Oxfam does through its Unwrapped catalogue, and the Good Gifts Catalogue collates them from various charities.
Odd though it may sound, the trick here is to ensure that the charity does NOT specify that the money will be used for precisely the object described. This is because you and I have not the faintest idea about what is really needed. Those decisions are much better taken by the people affected and/or people who work directly with them. For example, the Good Gifts Catalogue offers ‘soap for an African hospital’. Well, I have never done an assessment of the most urgent needs of hospitals in ‘Africa’ (which is a big place and heterogeneous place!) Maybe they need soap, maybe they don’t. I do not want my money buying soap for some hospital which already has loads of soap but is desperate for, say, needles – or for nurses doing pre-hospital care out in the community.
This flexibility isn’t subterfuge on the charity’s part. Rather, it’s about ensuring that they’re serving a need that actually exists.
Oxfam and Help Refugees sensibly reserve the right to deploy your donation where it’s needed. Even Send A Cow – which you might think only sends cows – says “if a community is best suited to cows, they will get cows. If they can better manage chickens, they will get chickens. This means that your donation will be used wherever the need is greatest, and on the appropriate livestock and training.” Quite right.
On the domestic front, we’ve discussed before, a couple of charities which are based on solid evidence and/or which produce their own: Power of Two which improves cognitive development of young children in New York City; and the Belgian Red Cross, which both serves people in Belgium and humanitarian situations elsewhere, and produces rigorous evidence to support the whole field.
And globally, we see the harm from “alternative facts” in the public discourse – not just
from politicians, but from anybody. They pollute attitudes and decisions on everything – across education, health, housing, foreign policy, international development policy, commercial decisions, the air quality.
Calling them out are independent fact-checkers: Full Fact in the UK, FactCheck.org in the US, AfricaCheck in South Africa, Chequado in Argentina, and others. They also get retractions and corrections – even from Prime Ministers.
Over time, their work gains pace. “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect.” That was probably true when Jonathan Swift wrote it in 1710. But the fact-checkers’ work on live-fact-checking (for example) political debates, and on automated fact-checking enables them to stem the jest and mitigate its effect.
Clearly the fact-checkers can’t be funded by governments, so rely on donations. They benefit us all.
Given the state of the world right now, the fact-checkers are a top recommendation this Christmas.