Just giving isn’t enough for the new philanthropists

An African infant saved from a malaria-induced death will not ask if the anti-mosquito nets come from 1 per cent of a banker’s salary

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The Independent Online

One of my favourite events of the year happens this week. As usual, I shall go along to the annual concert that the Norwegian embassy hosts at St Martin-in-the-Fields, with the newly installed Christmas tree that Oslo gives to London sparkling in Trafalgar Square outside. 

After enjoying a starry bill of Norwegian jazz and classical musicians, I’ll no doubt have a couple of glasses of mulled wine in the crypt and, as ever, notice that St Martin’s has just launched (this year, for the 89th time) its Christmas appeal to support homeless and vulnerable people. Either on the day or later, I shall probably give it some cash.

Like other charities whose work comes into seasonal focus around now, St Martin’s moves far beyond the turkey dinner and the silly hat to find its clients a long-term future off the streets. It aims to provide not a day’s warmth and cheer but a safer, healthier and richer life. And, like millions of others, my modest offering will put me in the camp of “warm glow” givers: people whose contributions to charity stem from local, personal and spontaneous incentives, seldom guided by reason or research. 

In its report on “UK Giving” for 2014, the Charities Aid Foundation works out that we gave £10.6bn to good causes last year. The warm glow, not the cool head, will account for most of that. Maybe it also stoked the largest single gift from an individual recorded in the latest Coutts Bank survey of “million-pound donors” in the UK: the £60m given to Great Ormond Street Hospital by Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak of the UAE.

Could things – should things – be otherwise? We can be sure that Mark Zuckerberg and Dr Priscilla Chan will not rely too much on fuzzy feelings when they set about disbursing the $45bn – 99 per cent of their shares – that the Facebook founder and his wife plan to donate to health, development and education projects. Prompted by the birth of their daughter, Chan and Zuckerberg proclaim that “We have a moral responsibility to all children in the next generation.” 

Their commitment raises the bar in the modern Olympics of spectacular philanthropy. Via the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the joint creator of Microsoft has already given $32bn, with super-investor Warren Buffett (co-trustee of the foundation) catching up fast on $23bn. Since 2010, the Buffett-Gates “Giving Pledge” has invited billionaires to shed at least half of their loot. Other signatories include Richard Branson and Michael Ashcroft. 

At which point, a shot of cynical bile begins to douse that warm glow. In the UK, following an operating loss on paper, Facebook last year paid a princely £4,327 in corporation tax towards our own health and welfare. That might just cover a medium-size village hall Christmas lunch for the lonely and frail – one mince pie each, and strictly no seconds of prosecco. Gawd bless you, Master Zuckerberg!

Facebook’s UK employees, meanwhile, harvested £35m in share-based bonuses as the firm’s global profits hit $2.9bn. Zuckerberg and Gates emerge, like Andrew Carnegie or John D Rockefeller before them, from a culture in which lavish generosity can go hand in glove with a militant belief in low taxes and a small state. The “Chan Zuckerberg Initiative” will be an LLC: a tax-efficient legal envelope that grants the partners more freedom than a trust.#

Competitive philanthropy was once the reserve of plutocratic greybeards who turned to virtue after decades spent grinding the faces of the poor. Now it has become something you take up as your 30th birthday looms. The Zuckerberg cohort grew up after the decline of post-war social democracy. To them, the high-tax state has never looked like a roadworthy vehicle for benevolence. 

Inevitably, this aristocracy of the algorithm approaches charity in a fiercely technocratic spirit. For the past five years, the “effective altruism” movement has harnessed the data-crunching capacities of the very kit and software that made these mammoth donors rich. Evidence-based research and randomised trials have replaced that vague warm glow. The Australian ethical philosopher Peter Singer, arguably the world’s most influential voice in the redefinition of philanthropy, makes the point that “most effective altruists are millennials”. They came to maturity after 2000, and breathe the cool air of their age. 

Although Singer has helped to spread the gospel of effective altruism through books such as The Most Good You Can Do and a million-hit TED talk in 2013, in some ways he makes an unlikely missionary. After all, his ultra-utilitarian calls for affluent people to give away not some but most of their wealth to those in greater need has often struck critics as utopian, perverse, or even unnatural.

The New Yorker writer Larissa MacFarquhar explores the dilemmas of extreme giving, or ultra-philanthropy, in a mind-expanding new book entitled Strangers Drowning. It is, in effect, a study of moral abnormality: not of the extremely bad, but the extremely good. 

As she dissects the motivations of the sort of hardcore do-gooder who adopts 20 troubled kids, risks their and loved ones’ lives in a leper colony, or donates more than 50 per cent of income, MacFarquhar accepts that “very few people believe they owe as much to strangers as to family”. That, however, is exactly where Peter Singer began, in a famous 1972 essay inspired by famine and want during the Bangladesh war of independence. 

He argued: “It makes no difference whether the person I can help is a neighbour’s child 10 yards away from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, 10,000 miles away.” In Singer’s early work, the warm glow of proximity and familiarity that opens your purse to a badged carol singer is not a virtue but a vice. Yet, as MacFarquhar writes, human nature revolts: “We are creatures of kinship and loyalty, not blind servants of the world.” 

Singer has since retreated from the front line of extreme giving towards 10 per cent of income, the traditional “tithe”, as a target for donations. His advocacy of effective altruism revives another utilitarian theme. The more you have, the more you can give. An African infant saved from a malaria-induced death will not ask whether the anti-mosquito nets come from 10 per cent of a teacher’s salary or 1 per cent of a banker’s. And no utilitarian really cares if you silently take your sacrificial generosity to the grave, or parade up and down wearing a self-made halo and a T-shirt inscribed “Saint”. The welfare of the recipient matters, not the soul – and still less the career path – of the donor. 

Singer now invokes a Princeton student of his called Matt Wage (really). He passed up the chance of a postgraduate degree at Oxford and instead went to work in arbitrage on Wall Street. There, “One year after graduating, Wage was donating a six-figure sum – roughly half his annual earnings – to highly effective charities.”

Just now, the Zuckerberg family advisers will be wielding all their rational and mathematical tools to decide on the optimum destinations for that $45bn. Research into “high-impact philanthropy” enlists Wall Street-style analytics to identify the bodies that deliver most bangs for each charitable buck. Large-scale NGOs, the much-distrusted “lords of poverty”, come nowhere. But if you buy anti-malarial bed nets, or fund discrete operations to cure cataracts and obstetric fistulas, then you save or improve distant lives in measurable ways. 

GiveWell, the leading charity analyst, currently recommends the Against Malaria Foundation, Deworm the World Initiative, the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, the Iodine Global Network and Living Goods. That last outfit sells cheap healthcare products in sub-Saharan Africa. Trials connect its work to a 27 per cent drop in childhood mortality. Notice, though, the anti-political tilt of many “effective” millennial givers. They seek to help people (or animals) as practically as possible, not to overhaul policy or transform systems. 

Every well-aimed pound or dollar helps. Still, the stance of some effective altruists reminds you why “as cold as charity” became proverbial. Toby Ord, the Oxford philosopher who created the Giving What We Can campaign, found that emotion trumped reason among old-school givers. According to MacFarquhar, “It was easier for him to convert logical types who had never thought much about charity than it was to change the minds of long-time do-gooders.” Mostly, we crave the instant hit of neighbourly virtue – a slug of wellbeing not that different from, and often occasioned by, that first gulp of mulled wine. 

Examine the case studies supplied by Giving What We Can, and you quickly grasp Dr Ord’s problem. It dispassionately calculates that the $40,000 it costs to train a guide dog in the West will pay for 2,000 operations (at $20 apiece) to reverse trachoma-induced blindness in the developing world. So the dog gets it? If anything, that sort of glacial arithmetic inadvertently makes the case for robust government aid, where private affections never need apply.

Most human beings remain suckers for kinship, engines of sentiment and, let’s not forget, sumps of vanity. Facebook’s founder and his wife have already made some whopping charitable gifts. For example, $75m of their money has just rebuilt a major hospital near the company’s HQ. But you will not locate the Effective-Altruism Quality-Controlled, Outcome-Assessed Medical Care Facility on any map. It’s called the Zuckerberg San Francisco General.

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