Eight years and eight percent: Always giving more

(This is a joint blog post with Madeleine.)

Our tradition continues: to celebrate our eighth year of marriage Madeleine and I are giving 8% of our joint pretax income. (Each year we give 1% more.) This giving is made to organizations which we believe have the most concrete short term “estimated value” for helping others.

As people look forward to making resolutions for the coming year, we hope our own example helps inspire others to give – just as others have inspired us by giving more, despite financial pressures. Those who go ahead of us have blazed a trail we happily follow.

“Path Squiggles” by Dominic Alves“Path Squiggles” by Dominic Alves

As in previous years, we are guided by the research performed by GiveWell. Efficiency in good should matter, and for this reason our money will be going to help the developing world. Money can do more immediate good for the global poor – each dollar can accomplish more – than it can do to ameliorate the lives of those in first-world poverty.

Almost all of our giving this year will go to GiveDirectly. GiveDirectly aims to distribute 90% of the money it receives directly to poor individuals in the developing world. Their methods have been developed in Kenya, where the M-Pesa mobile-phone-based money transfer system facilitates the transfer of cash. GiveDirectly had a great year, with high profile and supportive articles in the New York Times, NPR’s This American Life podcast, and even The Economist. Even better, these articles often introduce one of the central ideas behind GiveWell (which has recommended GiveDirectly as one of three top charities) – that we can try to target donations to do the most good for the most people, and that acknowledging this involves a dramatic rethinking of which charities we choose to support.

Mobile Phone with Money in Kenya by Erik (HASH) Hersman“Mobile Phone with Money in Kenya” by Erik (HASH) Hersman

There are many ways to make our lives meaningful. We have been fortunate to grow our family with our first child: a concrete meaning and joy, though a local one. We’ve also been especially fortunate to have had employment (past and present) where our skills are used to improve the world. A third path to meaning – one we hope others will join us in celebrating – is to give, to give more, and to give wisely.

May you find the happiness of giving in the new year!

Children in Peru write their own history on Wikipedia

Video link:

Over a million children in Peru have access to an offline Spanish Wikipedia snapshot on their OLPC laptop. The Wikimedia Foundation is e-mailing its supporters a link to a trailer of a documentary called Web that shows the effects of these laptops with Wikipedia on children in the remote Amazonas town of Palestina, Peru. I was involved in creating the Wikipedia snapshot, so it’s very rewarding to see the video.

I especially love that the film shows the children editing Wikipedia as well as browsing it, so that we’re involving new parts of the world in the Internet’s global conversation instead of merely giving our own knowledge to them.

Four of us (three OLPC volunteers and I) worked on this offline Wikipedia snapshot for less than a month in 2008, through ten releases and 190 Git commits, and then shipped it to Peru. It wasn’t something anyone asked us to work on — it just seemed like a good idea, and it remains one of the most important things I’ve worked on in my life. It’s a reminder to always be looking and ready for unexpected opportunities to make a large difference.

Celebrating seven years with seven percent

(This is a joint blog post with Madeleine.)

Loiturerei village, Kenya. Taken by UK DFID, CC-BY-SA.

Today is Giving Tuesday.  It’s a great idea. Here in the US, something feels odd about following our national day of giving thanks (Thanksgiving) with the consumerism of Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday. As we shop to find gifts for those we love, we feel it’s also important to celebrate giving to those we don’t know, who need it most. We hope this post inspires others to give more and to celebrate giving.

For several years now we’ve celebrated our wedding anniversary by giving a percentage of our yearly pre-tax income to charity — a percentage determined by the number of years we’ve been married. This year that percentage is 7%. Our 7th anniversary was October 29th, but we’ve waited to hear from our favorite source for charity advice, GiveWell, to make their yearly recommendations. Luckily they did this yesterday, giving us the opportunity to post this today.

This year we are closely following GiveWell’s advice and giving 90% of the 7% to three charities: GiveDirectly, Against Malaria Foundation (AMF), and the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI). (The remaining 10% will be decided later, and will probably be advocacy and other nonprofits that may not be highly effective, but are close to our hearts.)

50% to GiveDirectly (3.5% of our annual income)

GiveDirectly is GiveWell’s only new recommendation this year, and we think it’s one of the most interesting charities out there. Its method is simply this: find the poorest people in Kenya (here’s how they do that) and give them money through the M-PESA money network.

There are all kinds of reasons why simply giving money to poor people directly might not be the best we can do (they might spend it on something we’d rather they didn’t, for example) but it does avoid the money’s impact being diluted by corruption or overhead.  More importantly, GiveDirectly will be quantifying how much it helps. They will follow up with the recipients over the next year — using a randomized control trial for which they’ve pre-published the survey and analysis plan.

We’re hopeful that better interventions exist than GiveDirectly.  But we want their project to succeed because it shares the commitment to measuring outcomes that we think is vital, and it can serve as a baseline to compare other charities to in the future (i.e. “Can you do something that creates more improvement to lives than GiveDirectly? Prove it.”).

30% to Against Malaria Foundation (2.1% of our annual income)

AMF distributes insecticide-treated nets for protecting against malaria infection. GiveWell estimates the cost per life saved is just under $2,500. Malaria is not usually fatal, so there is also a fair amount of disability due to illness is also being prevented.

10% to Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (0.7% of our annual income)

GiveWell thinks that this charity — which concentrates on the “Neglected Tropical Diseases” (usually worms/parasites) — offers an extremely effective intervention at improving DALYs (see below). This is because the infections they focus on are readily treatable using very inexpensive drugs, yet often come with debilitating symptoms that don’t quite kill the “host”.

For You! Taken by Nomadic Lass, CC-BY-SA.

Donating effectively

It’s hard to list all the reasons people choose to give, or do not. One issue we’ve seen raised is the belief that “charity doesn’t work”. We believe that simply isn’t true. It may be true for some — many — perhaps most! Government-managed foreign aid especially so: it’s only around 1% of the US budget and mainly goes to political allies. But there are non-governmental charities that demonstrate real improvements, and GiveWell supports these. Giving can work, but it’s important to find effective giving opportunities.

And for that reason, we waited for GiveWell’s latest recommendations. GiveWell looks for organizations that maximize the improvement to lives caused by each dollar you’re giving.  This seems like it should be uncontroversial, but it’s not yet common to think about giving this way.  Perhaps one reason for this is that it requires a way to measure outcomes and compare them against each other, and that’s very difficult.  GiveWell is doing a fantastic job trying to do this all the same, though, using tools like the Disability-Adjusted Life Year (which is a measure of health that’s better than just measuring how long people live), randomized control trials, and the kind of statistics knowledge you have when you’re a charity review organization that was founded by a bunch of ex-quants.  (A Businessweek article referred to GiveWell as Hedge Fund Analytics for Nonprofits.)

A second reason people are sometimes reluctant to think about donating effectively in this way is that for most of us, it’s going to involve donating to people far away instead of in our local communities.  The price of living here in Boston, MA is very high, both for rent and food — in contrast, more than a third of the people in the world live on less than USD $2/day (most people don’t realize that this number is adjusted for the purchasing power of goods and services in the US!).  When trying to decide whether to donate locally or globally, it’s clear that our money can do much more good in other countries than here in the US.

A third reason that people are reluctant to give to maximize outcomes is that we don’t have the same emotional connection to people across the world as we do to an individual call from help from someone that we can see — counter-intuitively, studies such as this one show that people have a strong bias towards giving more money to help a single identifiable victim than to help many “statistical” victims.  The Internet has helped to reduce the effects of this emotional bias, with sites like Kiva giving a name and face to the global poor. Perhaps GiveDirectly could benefit from adopting a Kiva-style interface itself.

Closing thoughts

Each year we ratchet up the amount we give, and this year has brought us a new financial development: our first child. When people learn about our annual tradition they wonder how it will scale — will we be doing this on our 20th? Our 50th? Our 101st? (We hope to have that last problem!) As Yogi Berra said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” We know the responsibilities of parenthood will demand more of our finances, and balancing that with wanting to help others will be a lifetime project. Tithing (10%) is a very common tradition, and we want to at least reach that. Maybe we can go beyond it. For now we’ll take it one step at a time, and try to give a little more each year.

Lawrence Lessig interviews Jack Abramoff

Last week I went to the first in a new series of events called “In the Dock” — Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig interviewed Jack Abramoff on the topic of Abramoff’s illegal lobbying in specific, and the state of corruption in US politics in general. I took some photos (CC-BY-SA 3.0), you can watch a video of the talk here, and my friend Ben Schwartz also has a write-up including some great quotes.

I went in willing to detest what Abramoff had done, and him by extension — and it’s not that I ended up liking or trusting him, or that I was unexpecting his “Look, you put a few guys in jail, it doesn’t mean the problem’s been solved and everything’s okay now” argument for why assigning a disproportionate amount of blame to him is unproductive, but he did manage to convince me that he’s uniquely placed to be an ally to help fix the system; that he’s someone who knows all of its intricacies and is sincere about achieving a sense of redemption by working on stopping other people from doing exactly what he did.

His argument for how his book tour isn’t a cynical attempt to make money is convincing, too: to the small extent that he’s able to make money from books and speaking, he’s forced to use it to repay a $40m restitution order to the government and his victims.

The most surprising thing I learned was that the crimes he went to jail for were not the particularly objectionable democracy-perverting forms of corruption that we ascribe to him — those are totally legal (even more so than before, thanks to Citizens United) and still happening today across Washington’s 30,000 lobbyists — but instead mostly unrelated charges, like mail fraud. He thinks that the only way to stop bribery in Congress is to ban political contributions from anyone who stands to benefit from public funds (which Lessig criticized as being far too ambiguous and broad: who doesn’t stand to benefit from public funds?), and to ban lawmakers and their staff from later working for lobbyists for the rest of their lives. He described how, before his downfall, he would agree to hire a lawmaker’s staffers later while they were still working for the lawmaker, and would then have control over them from that point onwards, even though no money had changed hands — not only is this movement from being congressional staff to becoming a lobbyist still legal, it’s daily routine.

I hope this talk series continues. I can’t think of many other examples of powerful figures being brave enough to open themselves up and engage in an extended ethical (rather than legal or technical) critique and cross-examination by their peers and the public, and it was powerful to watch and learn from.

(This is reposted from my Google+ stream.)

Charity, 2011 edition

Oops, only three blog posts in the last year. I’ve mostly been posting over at Google+, wherein I met a bunch of photographers and picked up a fledgling photography obsession of my own. I’ll try to write a “what I did in the last year” blog post at some point.

This post isn’t about that, though — like last year, this year Madeleine and I are again donating N% of our joint pre-tax income to effective charities for each year that we’ve been married, and this year N is equal to 6. Mad has a post outlining why we’re doing this and which groups she’s chosen, and here’s a writeup of who I decided to donate my half of the 6% to:

40% to Schistosomiasis Control Initiative

It’s very common to think about international aid in terms of “lives saved”, but it makes more sense to talk about something like “number of disability-adjusted life years increased” (DALYs). GiveWell thinks that this charity — which concentrates on the “Neglected Tropical Diseases” which are usually worms/parasites — offers an extremely effective intervention at improving DALYs; because these infections are readily treatable using very inexpensive drugs, yet often come with debilitating symptoms that don’t quite kill the “host”.

25% to Give Directly

Give Directly is a fascinating project. The charity simply finds the poorest people in an area (currently they’re working in Kenya) and transfers money to them via mobile phone. This leaves the charity itself with very little overhead — all the charity has to do is identify who the poorest people are, which they often do by looking at what kind of place they live in. The claim is that this outperforms many other attempts at aid; there’s nowhere for the effect of the money to get diluted or misappropriated along the way.

I should be clear that I don’t think this is the best possible aid intervention. But, as GiveWell points out, it should be the intervention that we treat as the baseline that other interventions are measured against — if you think you have a better idea, then you should be able to prove it by comparing outcomes against this method. Give Directly has a commitment to measuring the quantitative effects of its work; I want to support finding out how well this intervention works, even though the optimist in me hopes we can do much better!

15% to GiveWell

GiveWell has dramatically changed how I think about and evaluate charitable giving. This year I’ve been pleased to see them doing things like exposing errors in commonly referenced DALY calculations, and generally acting as the quantitative sanity-checker for development charities.

15% to the Tor Project

Tor is a technology that helps its users achieve anonymous access to the Internet over a connection that may be being monitored; as a side-effect of this, it allows its users to get around filtering of their connections. I think this pairs up nicely with Madeleine’s choice of donating to the Wikimedia Foundation — it’s important to have the world’s knowledge available to everyone, not just the people who are lucky enough to have an unfiltered and unmonitored connection. I increased my donation to Tor this year after seeing how effective the Internet has been as a pro-democracy tool this year, and how many regimes tried to filter communication using it when it was being used by citizens to coordinate with each other.

5% to the EFF

While Tor works on “exporting” the Internet that we use to regimes that wish to block or filter it, the EFF is helping to keep the network itself safe from becoming controlled by groups like governments or media companies; attempting to preserve the freedoms that the net provides today.

Giving Thanks

It’s easy to find a multitude of things to be thankful for, and I like that the US has a holiday for reflecting on how lucky we’ve been. Today we’ve been hanging out with friends and cooking up a vegetarian/vegan feast, including a tofurducken:

Mad and I had our five-year wedding anniversary last month; last year we decided to donate N% of our joint gross yearly income to effective charities each year for our anniversary, where N is the number of years we’ve been married, so we’re up to 5% this year. We decided to publish the list of charities we’ve chosen, both to show which charities we like donating to and to encourage others to consider doing something similar. My choices this year are:

Oxfam has an excellent reputation for fighting poverty in developing countries.

Givewell is a non-profit attempting to apply quantitative rigor to measuring how effective charities are, and VillageReach is in their #1 spot; they’ve proven themselves reliably able to save the lives of infants for under $1000 per child.

PSI works on global health, including HIV/AIDS, malaria and family planning.

The Fistula Foundation and ReSurge (formerly Interplast) treat health problems that we don’t see much of ourselves because they’re far more common in the developing world — a fistula operation, for example, is clearly life-transforming, and can be funded for $450.

The EFF and Tor Project fall under the banner of helping people to use technology to demand better government and uncensored access to information.


Boston was good to me last week — I got to see two talks from two particularly inspiring and heroic people, a day apart. (And a Rodrigo y Gabriela gig on Friday, which perhaps wasn’t as heroic, but was also awesome: check out Tamacun, Orion and Captain Casanova on Youtube.)

Now, on to the talks:

William Kamkwamba

When he was 14, William Kamkwamba built a working windmill at his house in Malawi, despite having dropped out of high school a few years earlier because his parents weren’t able to afford to send him anymore. He knew what to build by looking at pictures of a windmill in a science textbook in a library, using a dictionary to translate the words that referred to the pictures from English to his native language of Chichewa, and believing that the presence of the photo meant that someone must have built one before, therefore it must be possible for him to do it too. He also had some experience with repairing radios, taking them apart and working out what each component was doing by trial and error. His story is so inspiring because he lacked enough schooling in English and Science to be expected to gain the knowledge of electromagnetics he picked up, lacked any money to buy parts to work with, but somehow achieved his goal anyway. He gave a humorous and fascinating talk at MIT last week with Bryan Mealer, the co-author of the book that tells his story: The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind.

Reading the book after the talk totally changed my understanding of what he’d done and why, though; the background for his wanting to build a windmill is not always mentioned in articles and interviews with him. The season before he started, there had been a famine throughout Malawi — there was a drought, and corrupt government officials had sold off the country’s strategic grain reserves and kept the money, meaning that the government did nothing to help feed millions of subsistence farmers (including William’s family) who were left with a small fraction of the amount of food they needed for that season. William’s family lost a lot of weight, sold their possessions and dropped out of school to pay for food, and watched many of their friends and other villagers waste away and die from hunger over a period of months. The book contains detailed descriptions of what it’s like to live and go to bed hungry, after maybe a few mouthfuls of food all day, that make me deeply ashamed that we allow this to happen to anyone in the world.

Given all this context, it becomes totally obvious what William was doing the next year at the library: the textbook said that windmills could be used to power water pumps, which would mean freedom for his village from having to go through another drought and famine. The surprising conclusion you’re left with is: “Of course he built a windmill, teaching himself a massive amount of electronics that was described in a language he barely understood in order to do so — what else was he supposed to do?”.

Peter Singer

The second talk was from Peter Singer, who’s an applied ethicist at Princeton, and writes about modern ethical questions from a utilitarian perspective. He wrote Animal Liberation thirty years ago, which is thought of as having founded the animal rights movement; his work persuaded me to start approaching vegetarianism, then become vegetarian nearly three years ago, and mostly-vegan earlier this year (vegan at home, vegetarian when eating out with friends or if it’s difficult to find vegan food). Lately he’s been writing about poverty and the nature of our responsibility to people suffering due to poverty in countries other than our own, and has a powerful argument that we aren’t doing nearly enough. I first encountered his anti-poverty work with What Should a Billionaire Give — and What Should You? in the New York Times, and he’s since written a book on the subject, The Life You Can Save. The book is excellent — as well as describing the moral basis for aid, he handles common objections to charitable giving, including what responsibility we have when others aren’t accepting their share of it, where it’s okay for us to stop and feel like we’ve done enough, why we shouldn’t be giving money locally instead, and how we can find efficient and life-changing charities to donate to. Here’s the book’s opening and most provocative question, first proposed in his 1972 paper Famine, Affluence, and Morality:

“On your way to work, you pass a small pond. On hot days, children sometimes play in the pond, which is only about knee-deep. The weather’s cool today, though, and the hour is early, so you are surprised to see a child splashing about in the pond. As you get closer, you see that it is a very young child, just a toddler, who is flailing about, unable to stay upright or walk out of the pond. You look for the parents or babysitter, but there is no one else around. The child is unable to keep his head above the water for more than a few seconds at a time. If you don’t wade in and pull him out, he seems likely to drown. Wading in is easy and safe, but you will ruin the new shoes you bought only a few days ago, and get your suit wet and muddy. By the time you hand the child over to someone responsible for him, and change your clothes, you’ll be late for work. What should you do?”

Of course, we all answer that the minor inconvenience of having to buy a new pair of shoes and change our clothes are not valid excuses for refusing to save a life, and the follow-up hits you like a ton of bricks: there actually are people dying from poverty every day, around 30,000 of them, and we really can save a life for not much more than the cost of a good pair of shoes. Furthermore, more than two and a half billion people live on the equivalent of less than USD $2 per day. How, then, can we say that we’re different from the person who walks by the lake, sees the child drowning, realizes they could save them, and does nothing?

Singer’s book explores the differences between the two situations — primarily that in one a child is next to you while in another they are far away — and concludes that this cannot be a sufficiently different situation to present a different moral answer, if we claim to hold ethical beliefs like “the value of a human life is the same no matter where in the world it is” and “a human life is worth more than a pair of shoes”.

Now, I didn’t mean for this post to make you feel guilty — in fact, I’m feeling very optimistic about this issue. Singer observes at the beginning of the book that the struggle to reduce suffering due to poverty has historically been a sort of climb towards an unreachable, unknowably distant mountain peak; but now we have cleared the clouds and can see the summit, our ability to do this is clearly within our means. I want other people to enjoy life the way I did at the gig on Friday night. While I can’t give everyone tickets to go to concerts, I can certainly work towards them having enough food so that the William Kamkwambas of the world can, rather than trying to fall asleep in darkness and hunger, enjoy a full stomach and some good music with a radio they’ve managed to repair.

Microfinance in Ayacucho

My awesome sister-in-law Suzy is in Ayacucho, Peru, volunteering for Kiva for around nine months. One of the difficulties with poverty relief charities is that people feel a disconnect between their donation and the result, and Kiva works around this problem by personalizing the process of making a loan to a specific entrepreneur. Kiva also empowers recipients by organizing loans that the recipients are expected to pay back.

Suzy’s working with a local microfinance organization, interviewing potential borrowers and uploading their profiles to the main Kiva site for lenders to see. She’s posted three times to the main Kiva Fellows blog now, and I hereby humbly present her posts. You should read them.

(Updated on 2009-07-22 to add the third link.)


Allow me to enthuse about Gapminder a little, and this presentation.

Some interesting queries:

  • fertility rate in Iran — Iran is the only country in the world to require couples to take a class on modern contraception before receiving a marriage license, in order to reduce the fertility rate, but they didn’t start doing that until 1986.
  • GDP per capita and child survival in Malaysia and the US — they have the same child survival rate, even though the GDP per capita in Malaysia is $9k and in the US it’s $40k.
  • fertility rate in Mexico — a drop from 6 children per woman in 1975 to 2.2 children per woman in 2004.
  • life expectancy in Botswana — shows how massively HIV has hit.

There’s more on Gapminder’s website.