Student Spotlight: Giving What We Can

Amelia Oakley 8 May 2015

It seems slightly bizarre to read “we don’t want your money” on a charity’s homepage, but this in some way uncovers Giving What We Can’s (GWWC) distinctiveness. As well as promoting effective altruism, GWWC is a movement with a vision: a global community leading the way in a cultural shift in how we perceive our role in the world and our capacity to make meaningful strides towards the eradication of extreme poverty. Last week, this global community celebrated a significant milestone as it welcomed its thousandth member. Since its launch in 2009 by Oxford philosopher Toby Ord, people from across the world, including at least 86 from Cambridge University, have signed the pledge to donate at least 10% of their future earnings to GWWC’s recommended charities; a total of £272m pledged, with over £6m already donated. 

The gravity of its task is evident. We live in a world where nine million children under the age of five die every year from preventable poverty-related diseases. Meanwhile, wealth has never been more concentrated, and the globe, as well as our own society, more profoundly polarized. The world’s economic pie may be getting bigger, but the super-rich stuff their faces with it, while almost half of the world’s population, living on under $2.50 a day, survives on its crumbs.

From conversation to conversation helplessness and hopelessness merge concerning our ability, and responsibility, to do something about this. GWWC unequivocally debunks the myth that feeds this inaction. A Cambridge graduate on a typical starting salary of £26,000 would already be part of that relative super-rich, in the third percentile of the world’s population, earning 24.5 times the global average. Someone on this salary who has taken the Pledge could pay for the distribution of 722 mosquito nets, or the treatment of 5,019 people for neglected tropical diseases – the equivalent of saving one life, every year. 

That’s all well and good, you might say, but your average Kenyan farmer does not have to afford obscene house prices in London, extortionate rail fares, or 30p Freddos. However, the global comparison is adjusted to the cost of living, as well as the size of your household. Cambridge graduates are in an immensely privileged position in that some are likely to live on the highest salaries in the country, for whom 10% is unlikely to break the bank. The lives we could save by consistently donating a modest portion of our income could be hundreds. 

Rather than an obligation to sacrifice ourselves to utilitarianism, effective altruism is a refreshing contrast to the message so often purported that the world’s problems are huge, structural, and, by extension, insurmountable. It is a retort to the condescending assumption that once the naïve and idealistic youth escape the shelter of university and become exposed to the reality of this economic system, which appears so obviously unjust, they will inevitably become complicit in its perpetuation. 

Every individual is capable of having a significant impact, without having to uproot their own lives and hop on the first plane to Africa to be an aid worker, as admirable as that is. You can pursue any career you want, live happily and comfortably, whilst knowing that the world is a better place for it. 

Now, 10% is a lot, granted. But it’s part of a lifestyle choice to live ethically that suggests if we have enough, we should share some with those who have so little. Like you would with any investment, however, you want every pound to go as far as it possibly can. This is effective altruism’s raison d’etre. One of the leading figures in the movement, philosopher Peter Singer, calls it “combining both the heart and the head”, as it demands targeted, evidence-based giving that does the most good to alleviate poverty. Recommended charities have been chosen following rigorous research to ascertain where our money can have the furthest reach and contribute the most to changing people’s lives. 

This does not mean that caring about issues closer to home makes you a moral monster. To say so would fundamentally misrepresent effective altruism as cold-hearted and calculated, and it unnecessarily portrays the two – effective altruism and more local causes – as mutually exclusive. The example Singer uses is of helping people suffering from blindness in developed and developing countries. In the former, it usually involves paying to train a guide dog, costing in the region of $40,000; in the latter, millions of people suffering from trachoma-induced blindness can be completely cured by a safe eye operation that only costs $20. For the same amount of money as training one guide dog, 2,000 people could be cured of blindness. This does not require that we relinquish our passions to rationality, but rather represents an unbelievable opportunity to increase the value of our money, and the impact it can have. 

As it celebrates its millennial member, GWWC has plenty of cause for optimism. Not only is the bid for money, donated and pledged, well under way, the shift that recognizes our privileged position in the world to be able to do something to help eradicate extreme poverty by committing to a lifetime of sharing our wealth, and doing so as effectively as possible, is becoming equally resonant. Due to the research GWWC carries out, the money in our pockets can have a thousand times the value, a thousand times the impact. The only catch: we cannot spend it on ourselves. Would that be such a disaster? Who knows, it might even make us happier.