The pledge

There is a superb Bloggingheads debate between Peter Singer (author of The Life You Can Save) and Bill Easterly (author of I Hate Puppies and Christmas The White Man’s Burden).

This debate deserves much greater discussion than I am able to give on Christmas Day. My seemingly paradoxical view: I wholly support Singer’s Pledge–to give a minimum of 10 percent a year to the poorest–yet I wholly share Bill’s reservations.

Giving effectively ain’t easy, and giving in the way Singer suggests (international NGO donations) is fine so long as no one tries to scale it up to the millions. Even if international NGOs could effectively spend such resources, would we want them to? A non-governmental, foreign-run social sector screams hazardous unintended consequences. If none occur, read Nic van de Walle’s excellent volume. This is required reading in my development class.

One charity I’d like to see: a United Way-style organization that focuses on scaling and building the capacity of indigenous civil society organizations and charities. It would be led, run and staffed by non-Westerners. United Way operates abroad, but in relatively few countries, and not (to my knowledge) with a serious commitment to building the capacity of small local organizations to manage, account and fundraise on their own. International NGOs and the UN are supposed to play this role through subgrants of aid, but they are shamefully poor at the capacity-building.

Other more scalable causes I’d rather see Singer recommend:

  • Agriculture and tropical disease research–in developed and developing countries both;
  • High school and university scholarship funds;
  • University development;
  • Libraries;
  • Developing country-specific venture capital.

Please don’t say microfinance.

Am I educationally biased? Yes, but that’s not the reason for my list. Beyond scalability, the advantage of these investments is that they all lead to one essential ingredient for growth: innovation.

Singer’s points are quite good, and worth a more subtle discussion that I’ve given. In fact, I don’t think he goes far enough (and I bet he secretly agrees). More on this subject after the holidays.

In the meantime, read his book.