The world’s problems are so numerous and vast they can be overwhelming. We assume donating to charity can help, but how much good is your money really doing? Nicholas explores how your money can support the most people in the best way.
Issues like the climate emergency, economic inequality, disease, and starvation aren’t solved at the drop of a hat. Many have existed since the dawn of humanity, and show no signs of disappearing soon. In some cases, things are worsening. You might be left wondering: What on earth can I do to make a difference in peoples’ lives?
It’s a reasonable worry. But it’s a serious mistake to let the enormity of global problems stop you confronting them head-on. Despair isn’t productive. It won’t help anyone. Instead, it just further entrenches these injustices.
What can I do?
It’s true we cannot single-handedly rid the world of suffering. But we can make an impact, both as individuals and within a wider ecosystem of altruistic action. There are plenty of things we can do, like volunteering, being politically active, lobbying, and attending demonstrations. But there is one activity, above others, that immediately improves peoples’ lives and reduces harm: donating money to the most crucial causes.
When we start working casual jobs as teenagers and eventually land full-time employment, we amass a certain degree of power. Namely, to use our finances for good. While there’s nothing wrong with holidaying, for instance, it’s morally important to consider the comparative benefits of spending money. By this I mean, is it better to donate $300 to a charity that can save tens of lives, or to spend that on shoes?
A moral framework to guide your donations
The former choice is morally preferable. It literally saves people from death and misery. Don’t get me wrong, it’s cool rocking a new pair of shoes. Yet it hardly rivals preventing disease or starvation which leads to the cruel, tragic, and unnecessary deaths of millions.
This is the kind of approach Australian philosopher Peter Singer takes to ethical questions, a theory known as utilitarianism. For Singer, charitable giving is not optional. To fulfil our moral obligations, we are required to donate to alleviate suffering and maximise the good in the world.
In Singer’s own words:
If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.
Singer’s famous drowning child thought-experiment teases out the idea that these moral obligations extend to all, even strangers on other continents.
Picture this: You’re walking by a pond and see a child drowning. If you rescue them, your clothes will get wet and muddy, messing up your day’s schedule. Almost everyone would agree you should pull the child from the pond.
Now, is that any different from a situation where people in developing countries are dying from preventable ills like starvation when we have the capacity to save them at no serious cost? At the end of the day, Singer says it isn’t.
Being critical and objective is key
The first leap you have to make is to start donating. The second is determining what causes are most worthy. Here, the question we should be asking ourselves is: How can I donate to do the most good?
Even though he was a great cricketer, it would’ve been smart not to have donated to the Shane Warne Foundation when it existed. Warney’s Foundation didn’t put its revenue to good use; much of it was chewed up by administrative fees. For a different reason, donating to Australian hospitals isn’t the best way to help masses of people. On the whole, Australian hospitals are decently funded (either privately or publicly)and individual donations would rarely lead to the direct saving of lives.
On the other hand, donating to reliable organisations working in developing countries—ones that provide food, water, shelter, disaster relief, and protection from preventable diseases like tuberculosis—maximises the good you can do. The simple reason is that they are the most effective in saving lives and relieving hardship.
Think about it in these terms: $100 donated to the Against Malaria Foundation protects about 63 people from malaria for three-to-four years. A $100 donation to Movember would likely be channelled into research and community awareness projects about men’s health in developed nations, having nowhere near the same immediate impact.
Choosing where to donate your money should be informed by an objective assessment of how you can best help others. This requires us to set aside our personal feelings or inclinations, and make difficult yet rigorous decisions based on research, evidence, and fact.
Although it’s easy to feel powerless, we shouldn’t underestimate the difference we can make to peoples’ lives. You can help in many ways, but donating money is the most effective. Your own efforts can directly result in hundreds of lives saved. There’s no telling how many people are better off when you add up the donations made across the world.