Photo: singh_lens/Shutterstock

Want to Save Someone's Life? It's Easier Than You Think.

by Matt Hershberger Jan 21, 2016

YOU HAVE YOUR MORNING ROUTINE. Maybe it involves watching a little television. Maybe it involves a trip to the gym. You hop in your car, drive to work, possibly you stop off at your favorite coffee shop. Maybe you walk by a convenience store and pick up a bottled water and some reading material.

Now stop for a second and think: could you cut any of those elements out of your day? Could you maybe get rid of the cable service and just watch your TV streaming for a good deal less a month? Could you cut your gym membership and buy some free weights or run outside instead? Could you forgo that coffee or bottled water in favor of coffee or water from a thermos from home? Could you just get your reading material on the internet?

I’m not asking because I’m just trying to save you money. I’m asking because I’m trying to help you save lives.

Should you save lives?

Australian philosopher Peter Singer has put a lot of thought into this question: how easy is it to save a life? How much money would you have to spend to save a life? And, if we have that amount of money, aren’t we morally obligated to spend it to save a life?

He puts it this way: You’re walking to work. You’re wearing nice shoes, nice pants, and you’re right on schedule. As you walk to work, you see a child in a nearby pond, struggling to keep her head above water. You can jump into save her, but if you do, you’ll ruin your shoes, your nice clothes, and you’ll probably be late to work. Should you save her?

Of course you should save her. You’d be a complete asshole to think that your shoes were more valuable than the life of a child. But Singer’s point is a little more subtle than that: isn’t this the same, he reasons, as knowing that there’s a child somewhere in Africa who you could easily save for the cost of a nice pair of shoes by, for example, buying them a mosquito net that will prevent their death from malaria? Or whom you could save from dying of diarrhea by donating money to help get them access to clean water?

Distance, he argues, shouldn’t make a difference, and that if there’s someone in mortal danger, and you have the capability to help them without causing serious harm — or even serious inconvenience — to yourself, then you should help them. And if you consider all human lives to be equal, shouldn’t you try and save as many people as possible?

If, for the cost of your monthly gym membership or the bottled water you could easily get from the tap, you could save a few people a year, why wouldn’t you do it?

How do you save lives?

This philosophy, that we have the capability to save a lot of lives, and that we should save as many of them as possible, is known as “effective altruism.” It has become popular in the last few years after thinkers like Peter Singer and philanthropists like Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and have begun to think about how best we in the wealthy developed world can spend our money to help those in the poor developing world.

If you’re an American, you’re likely already a very charitable person: as a country, we gave $358 billion dollars to charity as a nation in 2014, which was an all-time high. 83% of Americans give money to charities every year, and 65% of Americans volunteer their time every year. Compared to other countries, we rank as the 2nd most charitable, according to the Charities Aid Foundation of America, coming in just behind, surprisingly, Myanmar.

But only 5% of this money goes overseas. Much of it goes to local charities like churches, arts centers, and schools. And while these may be noble charities, our money could go a much, much longer way if it went abroad.

It’s difficult (and a little bit crass) to put a price on a human life, but it underlies the entire philosophy of effective altruism (some of its proponents call it “generosity for nerds” because of its reliance on hard data). The numbers are simple: saving a life in the developing world does not cost much money. Measles vaccines cost $1 per person. Malaria nets cost $10. And while not every vaccine and not every malaria net will actually save a life (some users will simply never become infected, others may have been infected otherwise but wouldn’t have died), it’s still a pretty cheap investment with a pretty huge impact at the end of the day.

In comparison, the US Office of Management and Budget puts the cost of the typical American life at between $7 million and $9 million. And while that might not reflect the cost of saving a life, necessarily, the expense of American healthcare, along with the fact that we’ve eliminated most of the easy-and-cheap-to-eliminate, means that life-saving money will be much more effectively spent in foreign countries.

If we simply redirected our charitable giving — away from, say, universities like Harvard that already have billions in their endowments and toward effective charities — we could save literally millions of lives.

Meet the people counting lives.

With the birth of this movement came the realization that we actually don’t have a ton of data on the effectiveness of charities, because we’ve never demanded that charities be particularly transparent. And our standard for how effective a charity is has usually been to look at how much of their money goes directly towards the cause and how much is spent on organizational costs.

But this isn’t necessarily a fair criteria, because it’s in no way based on the results: a charity that spends a lot on its organization might be spending a lot because it is extremely wasteful, but it might also be because it needs to spend a lot to be a really effective organization.

Enter GiveWell. GiveWell was founded by Holden Karnofsky and Elie Hassenfeld, who had been working for a hedge fund and realized that they had a lot of extra money to spend, and not much information on the most effective way to spend it. Rather than focusing on administrative overhead, they focused on how effective organizations were at actually saving lives. What they found was pretty surprising: very few organizations actually had hard data on how effective they were. As a result, GiveWell only recommends a few charities each year (and the charities they recommend get a sizable grant, which they hope will encourage other charities to become better at documenting their success).

Of the four standout charities they recommended in 2015, three were health-oriented: the Against Malaria Foundation, which provides mosquito nets to malaria-prone countries, the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, a deworming charity, and the Deworm the World Initiative. The fourth is an innovative poverty reduction charity called GiveDirectly, which operates on an extremely simple premise: it unconditionally gives cash directly to extremely poor families in Kenya and Uganda (which, it turns out, is actually a really effective way to help get people out of poverty).

The standards by which GiveWell judges charities are almost absurdly rigorous: they conduct experiments and tests and are constantly reviewing and updating their recommendations based on new findings. Nerds have finally arrived in the charity world, and they’re turning humanitarianism into a science.

Extreme poverty only still exists because we allow it to.

GiveWell isn’t the only effective altruism monitor: The Life You Can Save, Peter Singer’s organization, also monitors charities and provides recommendations to donors who are interested in getting a bang for their buck. Singer (and others) believe that it would be embarrassingly easy for the world’s rich to save the world’s poor.

“It was not until I calculated how much America’s richest 10 percent actually earn,” Singer wrote in his book The Life You Can Save, “and compared that with what [Columbia economist Jeffrey] Sachs estimated would be required to meet the Millennium Development Goals that I fully understood how easy it would be for the world’s rich to meet the basic needs of those living in extreme poverty all over the world.”

The Millennium Development Goals — which are focused on eradicating extreme poverty, fighting HIV/AIDS, promoting universal education, and promoting gender equality, among other things — are actually too modest, in Singer’s opinion.

Which brings us back to the little girl drowning in the pond: if we can save her, shouldn’t we? If we have the capabilities of eradicating hunger, poverty, and disease, isn’t that something we should be doing without hesitation?

So if you have some extra money to spend, why not save a life? Go to The Life You Can Save or GiveWell and make the world a better place. It won’t cost much.

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