How to make a difference this Tuesday

If Black Friday feels like an alien invader from the homeland of consumer excess then today may be the perfect antidote

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The Independent Online

So, did you brave the crush on Black Friday? Did you feverishly browse for deals on Cyber Monday? And have you heard of their poor cousin, Small Business Saturday?

I suspect that for most of us these still feel like alien invaders, unwanted imports from the homeland of consumer excess. But if that applies to you (as it does to me), then today may be the perfect antidote. Started in 2012, Giving Tuesday encourages us to take a step back from the commercialisation of the holiday season, to remember how lucky we are and to give generously to those in need.

Is it a bit gimmicky? Sure. But at a time of year when the emphasis is firmly on buy-buy-buying luxuries, perhaps we could all do with a reminder about the people living without life’s essentials: the fifth of the world’s population, some 1.22 billion people, who live on the equivalent of less than £1 per day (where that figure already takes into account the fact that money goes further overseas).

Unfortunately, too many people have become cynical about charity, and especially charity focused on the developing world. We hear stories about local corruption and poor administration, and we conclude that donating our money won’t do any good, so we might as well keep it (or spend it on yet another iDevice).

But this would be a huge mistake. Sure, there are less-than-impressive charities out there, but why focus on them? If instead we look for the best charities, the ones that will do the most good possible with our money, then the picture becomes entirely different.

Take GiveDirectly, which transfers donated money straight to some of the world’s poorest families, allowing them spend it as they see fit with no strings attached. You might think that this would make next to no difference to their lives in the long run, but you’d be wrong. Numerous studies show that recipients use the money wisely, investing in assets like tin roofs, livestock and in their children’s education. Family earnings go up and stay up, transforming their lives.

Or consider the Against Malaria Foundation, which distributes insecticidal bed-nets to protect communities from infected mosquitos. At a cost of only £3 per net, AMF has already prevented thousands of deaths. And at the same time, lower infection levels allow more children to stay in school and adults to stay in work, protecting their futures and helping to bolster fragile economies. It’s win-win.

The important thing about these charities is not that their projects sound interesting or innovative; it’s that they are backed by evidence. There are high-quality independent studies that show how effective these programs are. As a result, we can be sure that money donated to them won’t go to waste.

This focus on results is a core principle of effective altruism, a movement that seeks to do the most good possible through the use of evidence and reason. Organizations such as GiveWell and Giving What We Can (which I co-founded) are dedicated to finding and promoting the most effective charities in the world.

If Giving Tuesday encourages people to donate more money to charity, then I’m all for it. But if we want to make a real difference, we need to match the idea of giving more with a commitment to giving smarter. By doing so, we can make a serious difference to some of the poorest people in the world. 

Will MacAskill is the Cofounder of the effective altruism movement and author of Doing Good Better.