In most areas of life, we understand that it’s important to base our decisions on evidence and reason rather than guesswork or gut instinct.
When we seek medical treatment, we want treatments that have been shown to work through scientific trials.
When we invest money, we try to get as much information as we can about all our options to find out what will give us the greatest return.
When we look to buy a product, we read customer reviews to find out if what we’re buying really works.
Yet when it comes to doing good, too often we lose these standards. We donate to charities just because someone approached us on the street, and never find out what our money was used to do. We volunteer for an organization because it’s local, not because it’s effective. We buy ‘ethical’ goods because they have a certain label on them, without looking into what that label really means.
As a result, good intentions are often squandered because people use their time and money in ways that do comparatively little good.
Many attempts to do good fail, but the best are exceptional
Taking advantage of the opportunity we have is challenging. If we don’t think carefully about how to do good, we risk wasting our time and money doing things that don’t actually work.
Let’s consider a fairly typical story of trying to do good — the Playpump.
A Playpump is a device that looks very similar to the roundabouts you probably played on in parks as a child, and is installed in countries across southern Africa. As children play on the roundabout, the axle turns a pump which draws water from an underground aquifer — a source of clean, fresh water. The water is stored in a header tank covered in advertising billboards — which provides funding intended to make the whole system cost-neutral.
On the face of it, the idea of providing play equipment to children and water for a village sounds like an amazing idea. In the early 2000s, companies like Colgate and Ford, and celebrities like Jay-Z and Beyoncé invested heavily to roll out new Playpumps in poor, rural communities; Bill Clinton called it ‘a wonderful innovation’.
But in reality, the Playpump was a disastrous idea.
Roundabouts are fun because they keep spinning when you jump on them — the resistance from the water pump meant that Playpumps required constant effort to turn. The fun element was mostly gone, and what seemed at first like providing play equipment became closer to enlisting child labour. It was left to older women in the village to turn the pump — a task they found highly demeaning. Sometimes children were paid to miss school to turn the roundabout. Businesses decided against advertising on the tank stands, meaning that instead of being cost neutral, the system became very expensive to install (around $14,000, versus around $3,000 for a regular hand-pump). And they weren’t even very functional: to provide enough water for a village’s daily water needs, you’d need to turn the Playpump for 27 hours each day.
The Playpump isn’t a rare example of do-gooding gone wrong. In a study of Scots doing sponsored parachute jumps to raise money for charity, the authors found that, because there were so many injuries from first-time jumpers, for every £1 the skydivers raised for (mostly medical) charities, they cost the National Health Service £13 in medical expenses.
Studies of Scared Straight — a still-popular program that attempts to discourage juvenile delinquents from a life of crime by taking them on prison tours — have found that the program increases rates of criminality. One think tank estimated that, because of this, every $1 spent on the program cost society over $200.
And one study found that most interventions, when rigorously evaluated, produce weak or no effects.
Stretching your impact
To ensure we do the most good we can, we need to be willing to compare the costs and benefits of different actions.
Consider the $40 million school TV presenter Oprah Winfrey financed in South Africa in 2007. This might be a wonderful benefit for the 150 young women who are able to attend. But it’s possible to build a school in nearby Angola for $30,000 — meaning a well-organised group of schoolkids could probably fundraise enough to have a similar impact to Oprah. Oprah could have funded more than a thousand schools for the same money and given tens of thousands of additional young people access to basic education.
Just considered by itself, the $40 million seems like a generous contribution. But considering all the other things the money could have gone towards, it seems more like a missed opportunity.
Of course, it’s easy to point to examples of celebrity excess. But we all face similar choices when we choose how to help. We should ensure that we’re not missing opportunities, by giving our time or money to projects that are less cost-effective than the best options available to us.
Development economists at MIT’s Poverty Action Lab have shown that many programs (for example, those designed to improve school attendance) do nothing, and amongst those that have any measurable impact the best have more than ten times the impact of the average.
Comparing different ways of doing good is difficult, both emotionally and practically. But these comparisons are vital to ensure we help others as much as we can.
And when it comes to comparing ways of doing good, the most important choice is your choice of cause.