Giving a million while remaining middle class

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How can we sit back and ignore all the poverty around us? Shouldn’t everyone be doing a lot more to help – really help, rather than giving £10 here or there? And how much can I give? No doubt these were a few of the questions Toby Ord was confronted with.

Ord, a philosophy researcher at Oxford, set up the website Giving What We Can – recently featured by the BBC – with two aims in mind. Firstly, to get people to sign up to a pledge to give at least 10% of their income to charity, a target he himself beat by four times last year. Secondly, and even more importantly, to record and analyse efficiency in charities, to ensure that what money people do give is used as effectively as possible.

Where does it go? It is on this topic he is less philosopher, and more calculating businessman. He talks of the “crazy discrepancy” between the cost effectiveness of different charities, with some as much as “10 000 times more effective” than others. This is – or at least should be – absolutely fundamental in the minds of charity givers.

But Ord believes most people don’t really consider this, perhaps blithely assuming that all money given to charities does about as much good. Yet this needs addressing: “If you’re going to donate a certain amount of money you can choose to help more and help less, people do that when they make investments themselves. But when people give themselves they focus more on the act of sacrifice rather than from the recipients’ point of view.” One can see what he means: so much of philanthropy as discussed in the media centres on how much someone gave, rather than what concrete effects the money had. It is something Ord is determined to do all he can to change.

Similarly, he is desperate to silence the refrain that “aid doesn’t help”, so often used in reference to aid given to African countries. He cites the example of the eradication of smallpox, which “killed more in the 20th century than war, genocide and murder all put together, and we eradicated it!” Furthermore, “health-based aid, even the critics admit, had done a lot of good. Aid sceptics just have to talk about things that aren’t health if want to belittle it.”

With these words in mind, it’s hardly surprising that the charity listed as the ‘most effective’ on his website is health-related – Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, which deals with neglected tropical diseases. Ord came to this conclusion, which he says he is constantly reviewing, through hours spent absorbing the contents of research papers on aid. Interestingly, it seems Bill Gates came to a similar conclusion, as his foundation, which shares Ord’s emphasis on cost effectiveness, have given vast sums to charities combating neglected tropical diseases.

There are many reasons why Ord believes money to fight neglected tropical diseases is so efficient. “The drugs used are very cheap, donated through companies, so funds are not distributed through the government”, thereby counterisng the perennial claim of aid-sceptics that all money gets gobbled up by corrupt leaders. Furthermore, aid is “delivered through schools mainly, so there is no issue of the west coming in to save people”. He asserts that there are “no local people producing the drugs” so no one loses out.

But shouldn’t we focus on issues closer to home, especially in these ‘tough economic times’? “Ultimately it’s short sighted. If you have something where everyone gets poorer including the poor, we’re still 30 times richer than the average after the economic crisis”. As for the issue of whether problems like homelessness should be tackled before thinking of giving aid abroad, Ord rests his response on his belief that “if we can help 1000 times more effectively” – by giving aid to Third World countries – “that’s a very strong argument , if we really think people are equal.”

As a senior researcher in philosophy – hardly the best paid job in the world  – Ord nevertheless managed to give away £10,000 to charity last year, 40% of his total income. Living off £10,000 for rent and day-to-day expenses, he was even able to save £5,000 too – proof that it’s very possible to life off a lot less. As Ord repeatedly emphasises, he enjoys an extremely pleasant existence, with or without the ‘missing’ £10,000. Yes, his wife – who adheres to the pledge too – has a stable job; yes they haven’t got any children; yes they don’t know hardship in their lives. But that doesn’t make what Ord’s doing any less impressive; it merely makes the question of why more people don’t do anything remotely similar all the more vexing.

I put it to Ord that there is a deep institution of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, and it is one he thinks “exactly right”. The average person in this country has “20 times as much money as the average person in the world, but they want to have 25 times as much!” “They compare themselves to their cohort, not to everyone.” If they did, they “would start to feel a lot richer” and less worried about making ends meet so they could buy that new car.

The Beatles famously sang, “we all wanna change the world.” Ord, in his quiet way – one can’t quite picture him as a rabble-rouser capable of leaving thousands hanging on his every word – is doing just that. Meeting him I am impressed and, in truth, a little surprised at his utter lack of moralising: if he thinks of himself as a modern-day saint, he keeps it well hidden. Above all, he is pragmatic in a way those trying to do good could learn from. His advice to Maths whizzes looking to live ethical careers? The obvious one – go and sell your soul to Goldman Sachs. Depending on where your talents lie, “working in the city, earning loads of money then donating it could have the best impact.” It’s clear that all Ord is concerned about is the bottom line – helping the billions of the world in poverty as best we can – rather than how we get there.

So far 73 people have pledged to give 10% of their income, which will equate to £20 million or more over their lifetimes. And they say philosophy doesn’t help anyone.

Listen as Wigmore and Ord talk pounds and pence:

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