What’s going on in Nicaragua?

Sophia Cheng / 5 min read / Big Ideas
15 July 2018
And do we tourists have a moral obligation to support (financial or otherwise) the countries that we've visited?
I’ve just finished ‘Doing Good Better’ after reading a Guardian Books review some months back. An introduction to the world of effective altruism; “compassion guided by data and reason”. Or in my own words, a Freakonomics for the do-gooder.

Mackaskill spells out examples where our intention to do good or have an impact can be thwarted by ineffective projects, unclear messaging or lack of need for additional funding. The NGO-world can be a minefield to navigate. For example, did you know that a de-worming initiative can have more impact at improving educational levels than increasing the number of books in the classroom in Kenya?

Taking an economic look at where a £100 donation could be best spent, we are encouraged to dig below the usual stat of how much an organisation spends on overheads and instead take into account their effectiveness by number of programs it runs, the cost-effectiveness of its programs and if the organisation provides robust data on its impact. 

I’ve been used to considering a charity’s financial information when deciding on who to donate to, an angle that was very much highlighted in my fundraising days. But Mackaskill points out, almost rather brazenly, that we do not adopt this view as consumers. We do not take into account a company’s overheads when picking product x. A penny dropped there for me. I will be trying to use the effective altruism framework for my next donation decisions. Although I probably won’t eliminate my emotions completely, nor would I want to. Who I choose to donate to also says something about me, brain and heart will have to meet half way.

For me, a non-economist, some sections were tough-going, the very dry approach initially took the emotion out of the donation process. I lost my way in the economics jargon. However the second-half, looking at the practical implementations of effective altruism, pulled me back in. It has inspired me to think more critically. The sections on how best to spend your time to have impact and learning about 80,000 hours project was particularly enlightening.

“Your choice of career is a choice about how to spend over 80, 000 hours over the course of your life, which means it makes sense to invest time in make that decision. If you were to spend just 1% of your working time thinking about how to spend the other 99%, that would mean you’d spend 800 hours or 20 working weeks on your career decision.”

This paragraph induced a big unconscious sigh. The pressure to find that career quick, external factors as well as the stress we put on our own shoulders, can be enormous. Putting the decision into a long-term perspective allows for breathing room and time to stop. Stop and breathe. Stop and reflect. Stop and recoup.

Positioning a career as a “work in progress”, helps to settle my inner demons that my generalist career to date might not amount to much value.

The moral reason for sweatshops and the critical thinking about Fairtrade stopped me in my tracks. It is not always easy to take off our life-long lens of looking at the world. I am dizzied by the evidence and concerned that as a consumer trying to make more ethical choices, the decisions and consequences are so unclear. From misleading RSPO labels, reports of The Frog certification falling very short and now the next-to-zero impact of buying Fairtrade.

One aspect I do feel more empowered about are my choices in meat consumption, taking into account animal cruelty. I eat less beef but with my new found knowledge I will not compensate by eating more chicken and aim to reduce my overall meat and dairy consumption. It’s an added incentive to my current trajectory. Eggs though, I am going to struggle there. Mackaskill didn’t touch on whether organic choices significantly reduce animal cruelty.

More profoundly it has shed new light on my professional project, that the cause has large scaling potential, relatively neglected and tractability. My role aligns to the 5 factors of job satisfaction and it is a good personal fit. We are relatively new but I know we can improve the evidence around our impact and implementation. Something I intend to focus on this year.

So, in conclusion, this makes for a really interesting book (especially pushing through to part 2) that acts as a spring board away from words and into action. Being lucky enough to be born into a wealthy society means I can have a large impact but I need to think with my head not just feel from the heart to be most effective.

(I would be interested to see how much impact this book has had on the organisations it does recommend as effective?)

Avatar photo Sophia Cheng With a decade of communications experience across the for profit and nonprofit sectors, agency and in-house, Sophia has made a habit of making ‘the hard stuff’ more accessible. Since 2018, she has reorientated her life around the climate crisis. She has forged her decade of communications experience into offering workshops, mentoring, blogging, and more, on the biggest issues of our time. View all posts
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