Book Review: "Doing Good Better" Makes A Good Case For Improved Foreign Aid

It’s a dauntingly tricky project, and a risky one: to distinguish well-meaning charity from effective charity, and effective charity from OPTIMALLY effective charity. Difficult because (as John Stuart Mill and others would attest) millennia of extremely accomplished brow-furrowing hasn’t produced a reliable criterion of ethical judgement when it comes to furthering the general good. The risk grows from the same knotty soil, since engaging with the question in any meaningful way means that the grappler is going to have to say some rather unpleasant things.

Undaunted, William MacAskill has attempted exactly this in ‘Doing Good Better’. Subtitled ‘A Radical New Way to Make a Difference’, it draws upon his work as co-founder of the Effective Altruism movement, a movement that, very broadly, wants to promote an unsentimental and evidence-based approach to charity. Its central message is that to be effective - and more, to be optimally effective - we must act without reference to emotion and very often do so quite counterintuitively.

the extra change you spend on your instant coffee is overwhelmingly unlikely to reach the person who grew the original beanSome examples. Fairtrade products? Steer well clear, ye who aspire to do well by others - the extra change you spend on your instant coffee is overwhelmingly unlikely to reach the person who grew the original bean. The vaunted ‘community projects’ Fairtrade products fund are mostly poorly thought-out and frequently inaccessible to the poorest people; not only that, but these clumsy efforts often aren’t undertaken in the countries that most need them. The book’s advice is to buy the cheapest coffee you can and send the money you save to a more effective charity.

Sweatshops? A nasty business, but on balance better than the available alternatives. So put away your Nike-castigating banners and stay home from the rally, as even the redoubtable Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman thinks that the rise of the sweatshop has been a net-positive for the world’s poor. To get people out of the horrifying conditions of today’s sweatshops, find a charity with the demonstrable ability to improve their countries’ overall economic situation. That way they’ll have more choice, which in turn will force sweatshop conditions to improve.

This is a well thought-out book, and one that may do considerable goodDisaster relief? Unlikely to be the most effective use of your charitable funds. The well-publicised disaster that 02 gives you the opportunity to support by text is already (relatively) oversubscribed. Either devote your energies to keeping your finger on the pulse of the little-known but massive crises that are almost always in progress, or better yet find a charity engaged in long-term projects and fund it strategically and consistently. As the author correctly says, the modern media is very good at short-term awareness of something dramatic, but notably bad at promoting the awareness that the world is in fact in a constant state of crisis.

This is a well thought-out book, and one that may do considerable good. I won’t go into the intricacies of the systems it endorses for assessing the worth of one charitable project over another - which involve frequent reference to ‘quality-adjusted life years’, or QALYs, whose acronym sounds regrettably like an affectionate term for Quaaludes - but suffice it to say they provide ample food for thought. From considerations of the altruistic potential of a carefully chosen career to the possibility of ‘earning to give’, the book is a genuinely useful, lucid and comprehensive look at how to be charitably effective.

The problem with any attempt to be completely clear-eyed, of course, is that it’s simply impossible to focus clearly on everything: focus is predicated on that limitation. The section on sweatshops, for instance, is a salutary one, and it’s no bad thing to question our liberal shibboleths. On the other hand, I’d have liked to have seen some consideration of one of the corollary effects of the anti-sweatshop movement, which has been to promote the maintenance of strong manufacturing bases in developed countries. General populations of these developed countries are more apt - and able - to give charitably when economically secure, and moreover more likely to vote for politicians concerned with the good of the planet rather than for those who simply pander to the short-term economic fears of their own underprivileged voting bases.

the act of turning away from a disadvantaged fellow near at hand is insupportableThis excellent book’s main limitations, though, are those imposed by the near-impossibility of leading a truly moral existence in a globalised world of such gross wealth disparity. MacAskill makes a watertight case for charity abroad being the most effective use of First World funds, as cost-of-living disparities make each unit of currency go incomparably further. Yet the implication is that we should carefully explain to the beggar we see on our commute home that the money we’d planned to give to him will instead go elsewhere, where it will more good. That explanation might well be entirely rational, and indeed may result in greater overall good - yet the act of turning away from a disadvantaged fellow near at hand is insupportable. We live in the worlds and moments that we live in, and must engage with them. It isn’t misguided sentimentalism to consider morality in the light of both ethics and aesthetics, after all, and the moral aesthetics of such everyday abnegations are plain. The impossible cognitive difficulties of living in a globalised world mustn’t make us forget that.

The author is not to be blamed for failing to answer unanswerable questions in this laudable book, which sets out some practical and very welcome methods of maximising the effectiveness of our charity. Yet it is incumbent upon him and us, his readers, not to neglect those questions simply because they aren’t susceptible to the kinds of relatively simple pragmatic solutions in which the book deals.

More about the author

About the author

Abe Davies is a writer and journalist. He has a couple of literature degrees from UEA and St Andrews, and has written on everything from cognac to Shakespeare's ghosts to contemporary American photography. He's also worked in marketing and publicity in the publishing industry for five years, and when he was younger in a lot of restaurants.

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