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.

6 thoughts on “The pledge

  1. Out of curiosity, why not microfinance? Lack of impressive RCTs? Access to other sources of capital?

    I do agree that investment-oriented donations (now there’s a phrase) would be better directed to SME or even traditional VC than microfinance, though.

    Happy Christmas,


  2. You describe Singer’s pledge as “to give a minimum of 10 percent a year to the poorest.” Actually, that’s only true if your annual income is over $531,000. Are you working on the assumption that this is how much your readers make? That Singer’s readers make? I’m guessing that must be how much you make, and that you’re assuming that everybody’s like you.

    Not true, actually.

    An accurate statement of the pledge would be “to give a minimum of 1 percent a year to the poorest.” Which implies that even the very poorest of the poor, wherever they are, are able to share 1% of the nothing that they have. An implication that, if true, should shame the rest of us who live on more than a dollar a year.

  3. I’m just tired of microfinance, microenterprises, smallholder farms, etc. Micro, small, micro, micro, small. The grants and loans are spent on consumables or invested in relatively unproductive activities. This looks more like a short term humanitarian intervention, and not a development strategy.

  4. Sorry Chris! I wouldn’t have ballparked an assistant professor’s annual income at $531k+ until I read your interpretation of Singer’s pledge as being 10%+, and then I was quite impressed. Singer proposes a system of progressive tithing. For most of the planet’s inhabitants, who make between $0 and $105k USD annually, the target is between 1% and 5%. Without doing any calculations at all it’s still possible to see that Singer’s target could not be 10% for anyone making less than $383k. Your 10% statement intrigued me, so I did the calculation and identified the 10% point as being $531k, so that’s where I deduced that you set your standard for your blog readers.

    Would it have been more charitable of me to guess that you are an economist who’s bad at math, or a professor who doesn’t read carefully?

    Sorry, I should learn to identify errors more politely. I suppose I was bridling at what I read as your assumption that I bring in half a million a year, which I don’t. (I have, however, been meeting Singer’s target ever since I started working for a company who made payroll deductions for me, which started happening when I was making $26k CAD.)

    Happy new year!

  5. I’ve been giving 10% to the School of St Jude in Tanzania for a few years now. It has scaled up from 3 students in 2001 to 1300 kids in 2009. I wonder how far it can go?

    A good project attracts support to put down roots and grow.

    I tend to lean towards education projects too… I hadn’t thought of the innovation benefit, but I think that education can bring about systemic change, whereas health interventions don’t seem to do that, instead they can help prop up the dysfunctional status quo. Catherine Hamlin has spent her life running the fistula hospital in Addis Abbaba – she gets just as many patients today as she did 50 years ago.

    In 50 years time, Gemma Sisia will see the 1,000s of children she has educated, and the 10,000s they have educated, and the 100,000s they have educated.

    And, finally, even if we give our 1% or 10%, this is just a crumb compared with the Catherines and Gemmas who give their whole lives.

    It seems a bit theoretical to worry about scalability when the inputs are so meagre that they barely support small initiatives that barely dent the problem.