On Long-View Giving

GiveWell is the lesser-known cousin of Charity Navigator - an organization created for rating charities. GiveWell distinguishes itself with in-depth research. But this comes at a price - they can evaluate fewer charities than Charity Navigator. And in fact, they recommend only three, and focus their research efforts on those.

GiveWell is founded on utilitarian principles similar to those espoused by Peter Singer, and as such, one of the four evaluated criteria is cost-effectiveness. As a utilitarian myself, I agree with the points GiveWell makes about preferring not only organizations that are more efficient, but those who make a greater impact per dollar.

There is one very important disagreement I have with them, however, and that is the matter of education.

GiveWell strongly encourages donors to only give to charities doing life-saving work - not only does saving lives fit nicely with utilitarian principles, but it’s fairly easy to measure.

Education, on the other hand, is a long-term ploy - while we can see test scores change, the true benefits of an education won’t play out for years to come.

And it’s not just a matter of basic education on the spread of disease. Teaching at-risk women entrepeneurship helps keep them out of prostitution, giving them enough financial and emotional stability to send their children to school. Teaching those children leads to a growing population of native doctors, engineers, and teachers who can build up a nation’s bodies, infrastructure, and minds.

Even helping education initiatives in the First World can be seen as an effort to help the Third. How many of us blessed to live in more fortunate circumstances can say we would be concerned with the affairs of others so far away without our education, or able to provide the money and skills we do without that same schooling?

I am particularly fond of promoting computer programming in education. There is a huge mismatch between the education in computer science and that of other subjects. And who do you think created GiveWell, Charity Navigator, the external and internal websites of all these charities? Programmers, programmers multiplying their influence to affect millions of donors, and billions of aid recipients.

We must continue to invest in high-return causes with immediate benefits. But we cannot forget that education is the key to the future.