Peter Singer starts his well-known TED Talk with an alarming video of a two year old Chinese girl, Wang Yue, being run over by a van and then again by another van.

Several people walked by the child lying in the street and did nothing to help. Eventually a street cleaner called for help. She was taken by ambulance, but it was too late for her, she died in the hospital.

Singer asked the audience to raise their hands if, in a similar situation, they would have done everything they could to assist this injured child. As expected, almost everyone raised their hands.

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Next, Singer went on to explain that many children die in the world from preventable disease. In 2011, UNICEF reported that 6.9 million children under 5 died from preventable, poverty related diseases. This was encouraging, he said, because this number was down from 12 million in 1990. Still, 6.9 million a year is 19,000 children dying every day.

If the audience wanted to help Wang Yue lying in the street, wouldn’t they also want to help save children from preventable disease?

Singer wants us to think about this.

“Does it really matter that we are not passing them in the street? Does it really matter that they are far way? .. or of another nationality?”

Singer says that what’s really important is that we can do something to help. For example, we could give up drinking bottled water and make a small donation to the Against Malaria Foundation or to Sleeping Children Around the World. These organizations provide bed nets, which are very effective in preventing deaths caused by malaria. Small donations can save lives and they are effective and reliable.

This is an example of Singer’s main messages: altruism can help way more than we might realize and that Effective Altruism can help even more.

As Singer states, Effective Altruism advocates using our hearts and our minds. It is a growing social movement, which promotes the use of reason and evidence as guide for giving (and volunteering). This approach wants to ensure that every dollar we donate helps as much as possible.

According to the Effective Altruism website, working on a cause is likely to be highly impactful to the extent that the cause is:

  • Great in scale (it affects many lives, by a great amount)
  • Highly neglected (few other people are working on addressing the problem), and
  • Highly solvable or tractable (additional resources will do a great deal to address it).

Some advocates are hardcore and focus on saving lives. And they measure the worth of their donations in terms of cost per life saved. I don’t doubt that this is an important measure of effectiveness.

There are other vitally important goals as well, such as improving the lives of the living, reducing suffering, and helping create a more equitable world through education and gender equality.

I like this basic approach of Effective Altruism. In fact, Singer has argued that some charities are more than a thousand times as effective as others. And who could argue that evidence isn’t a useful cornerstone.

Bill and Melinda Gates (self-described “impatient optimists” along with Warren Buffett) have used this approach to become the most successful philanthropists in history.

I think an important take away from Singer’s talk is that our heads and our hearts are both vitally important. We will be more likely to give if we feel reassured that our hard-earned money is really going to make a difference. And we can keep giving if we know that the money is used to help effectively.

There are many simple and practical ways to make our giving more effective. Stay tuned to keep learning with more heart warming posts to come.

Until next time


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