Just Give! It’s Not about Changing the World

Just Give! It’s Not about Changing the World

This is the second of a two part series addressing some of the more common concerns about giving any significant portion of what is yours to help others. See the first part here. There is a healthy dose of opinionated bias along the way, so please feel free to comment, discuss, and challenge after reading.

Consider the scale of global suffering. Currently, 1.3 billion people live on less than $1.25 per day, 870 million people worldwide don’t have enough food to eat, and over 1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water. These sorts of numbers are hard to appreciate in real terms. For example, imagine that every person in the United States, the UK, and Australia went to bed hungry every night. In this scenario, you are still short by 466 million people. So how can your individual donation make a difference? When considered on this scale, it can’t–not unless regular giving becomes adopted en masse by a majority of those living in relative wealth. This is, of course, one of the goals of the effective altruism movement. So why bother to give? If you can’t eliminate suffering on a global scale, then what’s the point of giving? The point is that while you can’t change the world, you can save a life. And you can do it over and over again.

Child taking deworming tabletMany people conflate scale and impact when considering whether to give to an effective charityWe look at statistics like those I mentioned at the beginning of this post, and we don’t see the life we can save. We see the hundreds of thousands we can’t. But consider the fact that for $0.50, we can deworm a child or provide safe water to an individual for a year. Even a small investment brings us closer to saving a life. 

Let’s suppose that the worst is true and systemic poverty and suffering are a prerequisite of the human condition, and are conclusively proved unsolvable. (This is just a thought experiment, since studies show that extreme poverty can be solved, as evidenced by the millions who have been lifted out of extreme poverty in recent decades.) Even if this were the case, does it mean that we should pack up shop? Of course not. To use a tired story, we should strive to be like the man on a beach throwing washed up starfish back into ocean, who, when questioned why he bothers given that he can’t make a difference to an unending phenomenon, throws another back in and replies “Well, I made a difference to that one.”

Of course, keeping this perspective is difficult. It is easy to get distracted from real impact, especially when you’re a proponent of giving effectively, requiring reasoned thought about what exactly your contribution is doing, and how it could be doing better. Brad Hurley, another of our writers, recently wrote a fantastic piece on ways we can fight this inclination and keep our motivation to give. You can also take the pledge to give effectively on a regular basis. While we may worry that some of these techniques can serve as crutches, if they keep us giving to those in need on a regular basis, then it hardly matters how or why we do.

So, what are you waiting for? Browse through our recommended charities and save a life.

Share this story:

Related stories:


About the author:

Sean King

Sean King is a student of philosophy and anthropology at Monash University, currently studying in Malaysia. He writes about the issues and trends affecting the nonprofit community.

The views expressed in blog posts are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Peter Singer or The Life You Can Save.