“Jesus told him ‘If you want to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.” (Matthew 19: 21 – 22)
I have read Jesus’s instruction to the rich man countless times, but until I came across effective altruism, I had never really applied it to myself. I was a student – and certainly not rich! I was nothing like those bankers and footballers who fly around in private jets, while millions around the world go hungry.
Then in 2012 I came across an advertisement for an internship at Giving What We Can – a charity which encourages people to give 10% of their income to the most effective charities to fight global poverty. The Giving What We Can pledge is now broader than this, but at the time global poverty was their primary concern, and poverty alleviation remains a key goal for many effective altruists.
After that I couldn’t get the rich man out of my head. Praying about this verse, I realised just how rich I am. I have always had enough to eat and a warm place to sleep. I have many more clothes than I need. I have money for the occasional take-away coffee. In fact, my PhD stipend alone put me in the richest 10% of people in the world. It was time to admit that I am the rich man and I have much to give away.
The rich man walks sadly away from Jesus because he does not want to give up his great wealth. Very often, I do the same. I don’t want to give up my coffees and my shoes. We live in a culture where giving substantial amounts of money to charity is seen as a good but also incredibly odd – above and beyond the call of duty – and there is a strong social pressure to spend my money solely on myself and my friends.
However, serious financial giving is one of the ways in which Jesus calls us to live radical lives, and I know that this is a goal we can reach with God’s help. The Giving What We Can pledge was a great place to start, but I also had to admit that I could still give much more – and that my failure to do so is perhaps a sin.
Today’s world offers many more opportunities for giving than were available in Jesus’ time – today, we can help people on the other side of the world without even getting dressed. Deciding where to give – with thought, prayer and humility – is a vital part of generosity. But where should Christians give? It is not immediately clear how to evaluate and compare charities which all do good work, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try. For example, we have extensive tools to evaluate public health initiatives in the UK, and it is important to use these to develop more effective policy. Charities like Giving What We Can and GiveWell apply this same methodology globally to help establish which charities are the most effective at leaving an impact.
I believe that taking the Giving What We Can pledge is one of the best things I have ever done – both for myself and for the world. However, I still have some concerns about effective altruism’s increasing focus on very long-term issues. I also have unanswered questions about my own giving. I currently give to Cool Earth – a charity which aims to effectively combat climate change. I believe that climate change is one of the most urgent challenges facing humanity: it has already caused tremendous suffering and has the potential to cause much more. But should I also give to more immediate poverty alleviation, to help people suffering right now? I also give to my church and to local homeless people – but how should I balance these donations if they are ‘less effective’ than the charities on GiveWell’s list? There may also be important values which aren’t generally taken into account by effective altruist charity evaluators, but that I consider incredibly important – perhaps equality or dignity, for example.
That said, effective altruism offers me a good framework for considering these questions and trying to do as much good as I can. The fundamental idea of careful, evidence-based charity evaluation has undoubtedly helped the way I think about giving. By giving generously and thinking humbly about where we give, we rich men and women can walk back towards Jesus.
– by Fran Day
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