Nerd Altruism is Becoming Cool!

GiveDirectly, the non-profit started by economists that gives money directly to the poor in the developing world, has grown tremendously in recent years and Bill Gross, the billionaire bond investor and now major philanthropist, just announced that he is interested in the model:

More recently, Gross said he’s taken an interest in GiveDirectly, an organization that makes targeted donations via mobile payments to the extremely poor in Africa.

“Most Africans have cell phones, which is hard to believe,” Gross said in the interview. “So if you can do that and contribute $25 or $50 to someone in Uganda that of course you haven’t met, that’s almost as good as outperforming the market.”

It’s exciting to see randomized trials, measurement and data science applied to philanthropy. Groups like GiveDirectly, GiveWell and The Center for Effective Altruism are creating a new culture of giving, they are making Nerd Altruism cool. We have a long way to go but it says something when billionaires are mocked for giving millions to Yale. In contrast, entrepreneurs like Dustin Moskovitz, Elon Musk and Bill Gates are making it cool to evaluate charities with the same rigor that business people use to evaluate business investments.

Here’s an interview with Paul Niehaus, one of the founders of GiveDirectly.


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'“Most Africans have cell phones, which is hard to believe,” Gross said in the interview.'

There is a reason that he switched jobs, and part of that just might have been his unawareness of what is going on in the wider world.

Plus he hasn't changed much since leaving a less than well performing PIMCO - 'that’s almost as good as outperforming the market.' That's right, charity rates behind making a profit.

Which probably sums up all those other billionaire benefactors, it should be noted.

You have to make the money before you can give it away. I know people like you think we would all be better off if 99% of the population was living in mud huts because we would be so equal.

Well meaning canucks who feel guilty about being white giving to non-whites. Hey if you feel that way, just send me the money and I'll make sure, after I take my cut, that the money is spent on 'poor people in the Philippines' (which is pretty much everybody). Ridiculous half-measure. A better way to give to the poor is to open borders and let them with their Third World ways move next door to you.

Well, some in the EA community think that working or donating politically to change policy towards open borders beats giving directly. Others do not. But what makes it interesting is that they go one step further and tries to do serious evalutions of the alternatives, instead of prejudging one or the other as ridiculous.

Some people in the movement, including GiveWell, have seriously investigated opportunities in increasing labour mobility as a compelling way to help others. Perhaps you should get on board?

So as an individual, I should somehow manage to convince my country to radically liberalize their immigration system to an unprecedented degree, or do nothing at all? You think those are the only two reasonable options for an individual looking alleviate poverty?

What causes people with wealth to be philanthropic? Probably as many causes as there are philanthropists. Religious belief is one (tithing). Adulation another. In past gilded ages men of great wealth created public monuments to themselves, something that is being repeated in this gilded age. Whatever the motivation, it's an illusion that private charity can replace public social programs. The appeal of a charity like GiveDirectly is understandable: it is supposed to avoid the middle man (i.e., a/k/a administration, or overhead), "bureaucracy" being the usual suspect for those opposed to public social programs. I encourage clients to be philanthropic, and suggest ways to do so while keeping the estate in the family (via charitable lead and remainder trusts). Indeed, most people don't have the wealth to create a "public" charity (the kind that qualifies for the most favorable tax treatment). For them, I encourage giving to the community foundation - most communities have one and they will work with the donor to target a particular charitable purpose favored by the donor. Another targeted method is the "private operating foundation", which qualifies for essentially the same tax benefits as a public charity. What distinguishes a POF is that it funds a particular function of a much larger, public charity. Of course, charitably minded individuals can always make donations to via GiveDirectly, but if they wish to throw away their wealth, I'd prefer that they throw it my way.

Libertarians who want to replace the welfare state with a basic income, so as to cut out the middleman (bureaucrat), don't seem to have any plans for what to do with all these newly jobless people. Same goes for dismantling the "American empire." What then?

in all curiousity, if direct cash transfer clearly works so well, why aren't we seeing more advocacy for it domestically? is it as simple as 'republicans hate the idea of handing out freebies' and 'democrats have a love for overgrown and inefficient bureaucracies'?

Just look at the decades old national outrage over the welfare program that gives a small amount of cash to poor mothers. It's a pittance compared to all of the other welfare programs, many of which go to people wealthier than poor single moms, yet somehow the term "welfare" itself refers to that one program. Or look at food stamps and how much people complain whenever they see the immorality and unfairness of a poor person buying food with an EBT card.

i mean, i understand that the 'moochers and looters' crowd will never sign off on it, but they won't ever support any form of welfare that isn't "if grandma's hungry we'll help her sell a kidney". but why wouldn't pols on any other part of the spectrum support something with a significantly lower overhead and a demonstrably higher efficacy?

Brenton May 12, 2015 at 1:43 pm

Just look at the decades old national outrage over the welfare program that gives a small amount of cash to poor mothers.

The outrage is not about giving money to poor mothers. When the program was restricted to war widows, no one objected at all. The problem has been the expansion to reward and encourage behaviors that are destructive of self and society. Look at the collapse of the Black family. All caused by handing out money to any 16 year old who can get herself knocked up.

Virtually every pathology in the Black community is a result of single mothers. Children of married Black families do not have particularly bad outcomes compared to Whites. If you gave a damn about evidence and outcomes, you would oppose this money too.

Or look at food stamps and how much people complain whenever they see the immorality and unfairness of a poor person buying food with an EBT card.

Everyone knows the system is massive corrupt and, again, not helping the people it is supposed to help. Some enormous percentage of recipients are actually obese so it is not as if they are being saved from starvation. When modest reforms made EBT recipients do a small modicum of community work, the numbers claiming dropped by about 80%.

your 'moochers and looters' tshirt is in the mail

Before I'd become an advocate for cash transfers domestically (in the U.S.) I'd want to know if there is a cutoff point where the money is not put to 'good use' anymore, and if so, where is it? It's easy enough to come up with a plausible narrative that very poor people will spend the money fixing their roof or buying their kid medicine, but what about after that? Consider an extreme: if an aid organization gave me $10 million dollars, no strings attached, I assure you a trip to Vegas would be in my near future.

Also, if there was a guaranteed income that kept me poor but warm and well fed, I (personally) would stop working at any typical job and focus on doing something artistic or incredibly ambitious that will either make me a 'superstar' in some sense or fail, where I'd just stay poor but well fed. I'm not sure if that would actually be good for my country's economy. Other people may opt to just play video games all day. I'm not 100% convinced that would be the end of the world in our age of abundance, but it would definitely be a tough sell.

how many millions of jobs are there now domestically that are either a) minimum wage jobs about to be automated out of existence or b) gussied-up bureaucratic make-work faux jobs? i'd be totally thrilled to divert those billions in federal, state, and local spending (aid to minimum wage earners & salaries for public sector bureaucrats) towards just letting people stay warm and fed. none of what they do is 'good for the country's economy' and all of it is bad for their existential souls.

Actually in the coming age of automation, that may indeed be the model....the robots will do the work, and most folks will not be necessary for their labor. So perhaps a system will emerge where most indeed get a guaranteed subsistence income, and they can play video games all day, or be artists, or strive to do things others want to pay them to do. But they won't have to work to survive. You'd only have to work to reach a higher level and many will choose not to (probably many choose that today, certainly in more socialist places like Europe)

Because robots.

It will be interesting.

If the National Audubon Society stops sending me letters detailing the plight of the Norwegian Blue Parrot, I might stop donating money to their cause.

We complain when charities waste our money on fundraising and administrative overhead but without those expenses, the charity wouldn't be getting our money in the first place.

In an ideal world, we would just donate and not expect to get personal contact and free tote bags in exchange.

My impression is that the evidence in favor of (or against) cash transfer schemes, even in the limited context in which GiveDirectly implements them, is still being gathered. This is part of the idea behind GiveDirectly, actually: it's an experiment.

Once (if?) there is solid evidence that cash transfers are a relatively effective form of social help, I expect plenty of advocacy in their favor.

Let's do a search on "three cups of tea" and then talk about how great these evaluators work.

GiveWell takes a very hands-on approach that would definitely now allow the Three Cups of Tea folks to get through.

GiveWell was exempt from that scandal. The group did, however, recently recommend the Red Cross as the best choice for helping with the Nepal earthquake, so I personally have doubts about its methodology.

They recommended that people not give to that cause altogether though - that was just a suggestion *having hardly looked into it*, which they were very open about.

Can you link to where GiveWell recommended Red Cross? I can't find it.

And to the original comment, the whole point of organizations like GiveWell is so that the kind of problems with "Three Cups of Tea" are less likely to occur and waste aid money. Not all "evaluators" are equally credible or effective.

"Not all “evaluators” are equally credible or effective"

And yet the post praises them all, even though ones listed were taken in by Greg Mortenson.

Thank you - GiveWell suggested in a blog post (for those who want to give in the aftermath of a disaster) giving to the local Red Cross as they say they generally take the leading role in recovery efforts. Yet they urge people at the end of the post to step back and give on a regular basis rather than in reaction to events - so I don't think this kind of giving is what they think people should ideally be doing.

The post doesn't praise every evaluator (like CharityNavigator) - they praised three that were trying to do evaluating in a rigorous way. Which of them were taken in by Greg Mortensen? GiveWell has never recommended his charity to my knowledge.

If I was a utilitarian consequentialist helping low IQ Africans breed more would literally be the most welfare reducing thing I could possibly do in the long run. The mass misery this will unleash over time is quite staggering.

Are people who give to Africa the most evil people of our generation?

I don't think I have seen any EA studies or arguments on the utility of directly helping low IQ Africans to breed more, so I guess you are refering to unintended consequences. Do you have any arguments supporting that giving to Africa leads to low IQ Africans breeding more instead of for example the opposite?

The population of Africa is the evidence:

GiveWell investigated the effects on population:

"I think the best interpretation of the available evidence is that the impact of life-saving interventions on fertility and population growth varies by context, above all with total fertility, and is rarely greater than 1:1. In places where lifetime births/woman has been converging to 2 or lower, family size is largely a conscious choice, made with an ideal family size in mind, and achieved in part by access to modern contraception. In those contexts, saving one child’s life should lead parents to avert a birth they would otherwise have. The impact of mortality drops on fertility will be nearly 1:1, so population growth will hardly change."

Family size is a conscious choice for those with the time preference to make conscious choices. Sub-Saharan Africans have very low genetic time preference. Worse even then basically every other member of the global south.

We shouldn't assume GDP increases will cause them to have the same fertility collapses that other groups did. And quite frankly, current population levels are completely artificial (withdraw western aid and they are done). That will be the case until aid is withdrawn at some future date since they're incapable of making successful societies on their own.

Why shouldn't we assume it when Sub-Saharan African fertility is dropping significantly, and descendants of Sub-Saharan Africa in the West have much lower fertility? Black Americans are below replacement rate.

Black Americans still have higher fertility relative to Americans generally and its of a dysgenic pattern.

It's worth noting too that Black Americans have a good deal of white admixture in their genes which pulls them up. Africa is full of some of the darkest Africans and has a lower average IQ then American Blacks (who are inherently mixed race). The correlation between intelligence and lighter complexion are well know, and much talked about in the black community.

Furthermore, blacks in America enjoy standards of living that can never be achieve in Africa. Here they are a minority, there are lots of white people producing the economic surplus and stable societies they live in. In Africa they are the majority. There is no white majority society to subsist off of.

I think you're getting too excited about see black African fertility go from 6 something to 4 something in some areas.

Fertility seems to be on the same track in Africa as other places given per capita income levels:

How exactly is Africa going to become a high income country? All the high IQ countries are high income. The mid IQ countries are stuck in the middle income trap. And the low IQ countries are basket cases. This has held constant throughout time and a wildly different set of circumstances. Its even true of the races within different countries, and the wealth of the country is basically determined by its racial mix.

I'm not sure what your point is. There are plenty of countries with mediocre IQs whose fertility rates are either below replacement or on the path to becoming below replacement.

I'll take David Roodman's extensive research into the question over your blog comment.

There's extensive research on the theory side I imagine you won't explore. You want to believe something and you seek out someone who gives you a plausible enough sounding answer to confirm your desires. Bonus points if pretty infographics are involved.

Hence why that nerdy looking dude in the video that shouts at you like your a child is appealing. Reminds me of an apple commercial.

"You want to believe something and you seek out someone who gives you a plausible enough sounding answer to confirm your desires"

You do the exact same thing, homes.


How so? I was raised on the same beliefs as Rob here, and it would be personally advantageous to me to belief what he believes. When I discovered the truth I was deeply depressed and still am. But the evidence just seemed overwhelming, and I couldn't go back to ignorance even though I desperately wanted too.

It's easy to become aware that fertility rates tend to plummet as an economy grows, rather than the opposite. It's also easy to assume that Africa is becoming catastrophically overpopulated when you don't try to read a detailed analysis as to whether or not it is true.

Back to Gapminder school:

Thanks Hans Rosling!

Impeccable logic.

Vox has an amazing track record of writing articles in such a way to ensure that, no matter what they say, I disagree with it, even when (as here) I agreed with them going in. But that article was so caustic and unpleasant that by the end I actually started sympathizing with Yale.

I also feel this way about Noel Gallagher

This guy thinks charity motivates people. Stupid liberal.

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