Bioethics Blogs

Risky Giving

I highly recommend Leif Wenar’s essay “Poverty Is No Pond” – especially to those not yet familiar with, but interested in, the empirical complexities involved in giving to overseas poverty-fighting charities.  Wenar’s main aim in his essay is to criticize Peter Singer’s 2009 book The Life You Can Save for (i) being overly optimistic about the quality of information available on the effects of giving to various charities, and (ii) failing to emphasize that every charitable donation also comes with some risk of harming people living in extreme poverty.  I’ll only briefly address (i), and then turn to and focus primarily on (ii).

(i)  Wenar raises a number of very good points about the difficulties of assessing the effectiveness of government and NGO (non-governmental organization) aid directed toward people living in extreme poverty.  He does not confine himself to a single type of aid, e.g. development or humanitarian aid, but calls our attention to important challenges facing a wide range of aid categories.  I do think, however, that it is reasonable to be optimistic about the quality of information available on many health interventions, particularly the ones studied in detail by the Disease Control Priorities Project and the World Health Organization.  Wenar would probably also be pleased by how far GiveWell has developed in the five years since he wrote his essay, and by the convergence between them and Giving What We Can on the tremendous cost-effectiveness of deworming and providing malaria nets (both charity evaluators very highly rank Against Malaria Foundation, Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, and Deworm the World).  Wenar is right that it is difficult to know how much it costs to save a life by donating to, e.g.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.