Rethinking Charity

What can we do at St Andrews to reflect on effective altruism?


Illustration: Rachel Cripps

Walking from one end of town to another, one can’t help but notice the charity shops and signs that call out for attention with pride. Stopping by the Union, one will almost always bump into students holding little charity boxes in their hands, asking for spare change. Their smiles are bright, their compassion infectious – it is undeniable that at St Andrews our philanthropic spirit serves as a momentum to drive us forward.

Indeed, the long list of societies that are listed under the charity section at the freshers’ fayre demonstrates our commitment to social good. Guest speakers, concerts, fashion shows; these are only a few of the many ideas that students have come up with to raise awareness and funds for charitable causes. As admirable as it is that our minds are occupied with the lives of others, how often do we pause to reflect on the extent of the impact that we have made, or wonder if our efforts have made an impact at all? This article is by no means suggesting that charity is not paying off, but it attempts to reconceptualise the way we think about charity and thus enables us to do so much more.

I first caught myself being a charity sceptic not too long ago when my friend and I decided to start a fundraising campaign as part of a global organisation’s initiative. Amongst the few projects that we could choose to fundraise for, two possibilities were to fund a classroom’s tuition for one year and to build a classroom library in a country of our choice. At first sight, both sounded perfect. Sending about 30 children to school for a whole year and providing books for students to read; what could be more exciting? Both projects aimed towards increasing access to education and improving literacy. Isn’t this, after all, what we advocate for everyday?

Upon further analysis, however, my confidence and enthusiasm started to shrink. Coming from a developing country, I know first-hand how underprivileged people live. Most children in rural areas attend primary school for a few years, some will advance to secondary school, but the majority drop out to work in manual labour or help their families on the farm.

Say that I succeeded with my charity campaign and was able to raise enough funds for a class’s tuition for a year, would it still be meaningful or worthwhile if the education these children receive in this short year does not alternate their presupposed life path? And what if I could help build a library for a classroom? Will students really start to read significantly more? Why would they since reading is not prioritised in their community, and all their free time is taken by assisting their families? Although I don’t have any concrete answer to these questions, they planted my first toehold in discovering the concept of effective altruism.

Effective altruism strives towards providing the most promising solutions to the world’s most pressing concerns. As stated by Charlie Rogers- Smith, president of the Effective Altruism St Andrews Community, the concept is based on the answer to the question, “How we can use our resources (including time and money) to do the most good in the world?” At Effective Altruism St Andrews, the community has two main focuses – promoting effective giving and effective careers. The former uses evidence and reason to figure out which charities are the most effective, while the latter aims to nudge participants towards searching for the highest-impact careers.

When discussing how the idea of bringing effective careers to St Andrews came about, Mr Rogers-Smith happily shared, “Many people [at St Andrews] aren’t sure of their career plans, but know that they want one that is fulfilling and does good. 80,000 Hours is an organisation founded by Oxford students that helps individuals find a career to help solve the world’s most pressing problems. The idea is that there are 80,000 hours in the average career, and Mr Rogers-Smith believes that it is important to spend a good fraction of that time thinking about careers that serve a purpose. He said, “as soon as I decided to pursue a high-impact career, I became super motivated and happy because I now have a direction in life, that is to do the most good that I possibly can.”

There have been times when Mr Rogers-Smith thinks people’s altruism is misplaced. A typical example is that many students go to work in non-profit organisations straight after graduating from university. His reasoning lies in the fact that such an option might not be a great way to invest in one’s career capital and build credentials, which means that one won’t be able to maximise his or her impact. Instead, it might be more strategic to start off at a for-profit place to develop one’s personal skills, then move to the nonprofit sector and jump straight into a high- level position and generate more influence.

Some other misconceptions regarding charity involve food aid. Many supermarkets encourage customers to give a small donation to their favorite charities. Food aid is by far the more popular one. The question is not whether food aid merits attention, but whether it is being handled appropriately. We normally think that the poor definitely need food and thus the more food distributed, the better. However, aren’t there hidden alternatives that may ease the problem of poverty?

As identified by Banerjee and Duflo in their book Poor Economics, key investments need not be expensive. In Kenya, children who were given deworming pills went to school longer and earned more as young adults. By getting rid of the worms that compete with the child for nutrients, we tackle anaemia and malnutrition. These pills cost $1 each. In the same manner, efforts could be directed towards educating households on prioritising their budget towards food that offers more calories and nutrients, which in turn translates into higher work productivity and earnings. While these approaches sound simple, they are not simplistic.

The aforementioned examples are strategies well oriented towards social concerns. Where does this leave us and how do we go about making charitable decisions? When we attend events where proceeds go towards charity, should we be questioning how exactly our money will be spent, and what are the impacts it will make? Should we accept something generic like “saving African children” as a satisfying answer, or should we dig deeper into what that slogan means? When we make donations, should we do some research into organisations to see which ones are more cost-effective, or simply give to those with better marketing images that make us feeling charitable?

There are many organisations that can give you a headstart in thinking through these questions. GiveWell is a nonprofit that conducts in-depth analysis to evaluate the impact of charities. If you are wondering if you should be volunteering or focusing on your grades; making sacrifices or investing in yourself, Effective Altruism St Andrews also runs discussion groups, career workshops, socials and skillbuilding sessions to further explore effective giving and effective careers.

Charity is a rather intricate problem accompanied by unanswered puzzles and unasked questions. The road to more effective giving is still arduous but the earlier we reflect on the way we are doing charity, the earlier we’ll get to the destination.


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