The way we help the poor is fundamentally flawed

I don’t like people deciding what is best for me. I don’t like people telling me what to do. In most cases, I am most qualified to decide what I need. It turns out that most people don’t like it when others decide what they need either.

So why do we decide what the poorest in society need when we try to help them? Almost all charities have a specific item or service that they provide to the needy - a cow for their food, clothes for their backs, or toys for their children. Yet another example of the rich deciding what the poor need - the white in shining armour effect*. Sure, all of these things improve the lives of those who receive them (usually, although marginally). But the reality is that we have limited resources to help those in need, so if there is a more effective option, which the evidence suggests is, then we should support that instead.

Maybe Malawian children need deworming treatments and education over toys, maybe Kenyan farming communities need improved roofing or fistula treatment instead of cattle or a mural on the side of a school. Those in the most need are the most capable at deciding what they most need. One of my favourite quotes puts it better than I ever could:

Charity ain’t giving people what you wants to give, It’s giving people what they need to get.

Terry Pratchett, Hogfather.

Instead of deciding for them, let's empower the least fortunate by giving them the choice to do what they know will help them most. One very effective charity doing just that is GiveDirectly, who send direct cash transfers to people living in extreme poverty. Each family has different requirements to bring them out of extreme poverty so let’s give them the dignity to make this choice without risking the corruption and ineffectiveness of government initiatives.

GiveDirectly employs some ingenious methods to decide who to send the money to to minimise divisions within communities and make sure the money goes to the most in need. They put huge emphasis on evaluation to make sure the money donated it being used as effectively as possible. The receivers of their unconditional cash transfers use the donated money to improve homes, build local businesses for sustainable income, and buy food and clean water. GiveDirectly are recommended by GiveWell as one of the most effective charities for fighting global poverty, based on their in-depth research. That is, money donated to GiveDirectly, it is likely to go further to reduce the suffering of the extreme poor and alleviate poverty more than nearly any other charity.

Global wealth disparity is sickening. I bet you have wondered how it is that footballers can get paid millions while we have to get by on much less per year? Well, let's reverse this question, have you ever wondered why is it that billions of people don’t even earn enough to meet basic nutritional requirements while you live in relative luxury? Realise that from the perspective of 90+% of the world, you are the footballer. Use your money as you would like someone significantly more wealthy than you to do.

Don’t wait for governments to redistribute wealth and reduce extreme poverty - take action. By donating to GiveDirectly, you are redistributing wealth from the top 1-5% of global wealth to the extreme poor.


* At the very least, it is unwise to think that the lay donor knows what is best. To presume this, is at best ineffective, and at worst detrimental to the poorest societies. Which causes we support must be based on evidence and up-to-date knowledge of the most effective interventions, based on what the least fortunate actually need - so leave it to the experts.


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