How Much Good Can You Do? There's A Calculator For That
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
At year's end, as many of us think about charitable giving, a man named Toby Ord would encourage us to give quite a bit more, at least 10 percent of our income to help people living in poverty in the developing world. Toby Ord teaches ethics at Oxford and a few years ago, he started the organization Giving What We Can.
Now, it counts 269 members who have taken a pledge to give away at least 10 percent of their earnings for the rest of their lives. The total would be more than $101 million. Toby Ord joins me now from Oxford to talk about it. Welcome to the program.
TOBY ORD: Oh, thanks for having me.
BLOCK: How'd the idea come about in the first place?
ORD: Well, I sat down about seven years ago, and tried to work out how much I personally could help people through my career. I worked out that I could earn about one and a half million pounds over my career and could donate about a million pounds of this and still maintain the quality of life I had while I was a grad student, when I was thinking of this.
So I tried to work out what the most effective charities were to see how much I could do with that money. And I found that over my life, I could save about 60,000 years of life if donated to the most effective charities in developing countries.
BLOCK: That 60,000 years of life calculation, just explain what that means.
ORD: There's a truism in public health that you can't really save a life. The more precise way to think about it is how many years of life you save or, ideally, how many quality adjusted life years when you take into account the effects of disease and disability as well. So what I found that I'd be able to do over my life is to provide about 60,000 quality adjusted life years or 60,000 years of healthy life.
BLOCK: You mentioned when you were thinking about charities that you wanted to focus on efficiency or effectiveness. And your website chooses charities that it feels - it evaluates charities that it feels will do the most good. How do you calculate that? How do you figure that out?
ORD: It turns out there's quite a lot of good academic evidence on this by the World Health Organization and a group in America called The Disease Control Priorities Project. And they look at many different health interventions in developing countries and rate them from the most effective to the least effective. And quite amazingly, they find that the most effective are about 100 times more effective than the middle.
So it turns out to be incredibly important as to where you give.
BLOCK: You recommend especially giving to three health charities that fight malaria and diseases in the tropical world caused by worms. Why health charities in particular?
ORD: We're focused on health because health has the best evidence for a very high impact. One of the charities, Against Malaria Foundation, distributes mosquito nets and for about $5, they can distribute a net and that's all inclusive of administration and everything. And it turns out, overall, they save a life for every $2,300 that they receive. We also look at fighting intestinal worms in school children.
It turns out that if you provide some very cheap drugs, which cost about 50 cents per child per year, you can massively increase school attendance and this overall leads to about a 20 percent increase in adult wages for the people who are treated.
BLOCK: What about the argument, Mr. Ord, that charity begins at home? I mean, why should I not be just as concerned with taking care of the homeless person I might see on my way to the metro or buying a meal for a starving family in West Virginia or Mississippi?
ORD: It turns out that even though the people in these places might have very difficult lives, it's just much harder to help them. It turns out that you can often turn someone's life around in a poor country for maybe $100 or less, whereas it's just impossible to achieve those kinds of results in richer countries. So if we think that people are created equally, then we can just do more to help them if we fund things in developing countries.
BLOCK: Toby Ord is founder of the organization Giving What We Can, which encourages people to donate at least 10 percent of their income to fight global poverty. Toby Ord, thanks so much.
ORD: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.