It's not just chuggers on the street we need to be giving wide berth to
You're on a Dublin street (or any city street in Ireland). On your left you pass two homeless people, cold, tired, desperately begging.
In front of you is a group of charity collectors cheerfully hassling you to give a monthly donation to a homeless charity. What should you do? Trust your cash to the charity? Or cut out the middleman and give the money straight to source?
I've had this exact dilemma many a time in the centre of the city. And generally, I know I would be told that giving to the charity is the absolute "right" thing to do. But let me put it this way. You're on a Dublin street where you are accosted by an "attractive and frighteningly enthusiastic young woman" who tries to persuade you to invest a monthly amount in a company she represents.
She has no data but tells you about how big the market is, how low the overheads and how wonderful the products are. Would you sign up on the spot?
No, I didn't think so. If you wanted to invest in a company wouldn't you at least do a little basic research instead of agreeing to hand over cash to a company pitched to you by a stranger on the street?
But that's exactly how many of us decide to give to charity. It's nuts isn't it?
Surely if we are serious about helping those in need, we would want to make sure the hard-earned money we hand over is being put to best use?
It's a question that Irish people should be asking. Yes, the Charities Regulatory Authority was set up to monitor the increasingly diverse charity sector, but it is so understaffed it may prove to be as ineffective as some of the charities it was set up to oversee.
So, how do we know if we are doing good? Recent research shows that this isn't as easy as it sounds. In fact, our good intentions may actually be paving a way to greater hardship for the people we are attempting to aid. Meanwhile, we bask in a mistaken glow of ignorant do-goodery.
William MacAskill is one of a number of philosophers who have recently published books telling us that many of the virtuous, philanthropic acts we do - which give us that nice, warm fuzzy feeling of smug satisfaction - are not only a waste of time, but actually do more harm than good.
In Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and a Radical New Way to Make a Difference, MacAskill explains, simply and devastatingly, why buying Fairtrade products; boycotting brands which use sweatshop labour; buying locally produced fruit; volunteering for a charity or donating to the latest disaster relief project can actually do far more harm than good. [It's his example of giving to chuggers I use above].
Philosopher Peter Singer, in his book, The Most Good You Can Do, tells us why his altruistic philosophy student Matt, took a job on Wall Street, rather than join an NGO or work for a charity. [He calculated that he could achieve more by taking a high-paying job and donating a large chunk of his salary to an effective charity, than do a volunteer job that another person could do just as well.]
It all sounds so counter- intuitive, doesn't it? And yet it's true. One of the most damning examples of how our desire for feelgood giving can cause huge damage is contained in the story of the "PlayPump"; a water pump for impoverished villages which would be powered by a kids roundabout so women didn't have to do it themselves or wait for the wind.
It seemed a win-win invention. It won a World Bank Development Marketplace Award. Steve Case, CEO of AmericaOnLine invested. PlayPumps International was set up.
The One Foundation got involved, launching a brand of water called One Water, which was the official bottled water of Live 8 and the Make Poverty History campaign. It was a feelgood media and charity extravaganza. And then somebody thought to ask the people it was supposed to help what they thought. They hated it.
In all the self-congratulatory hoop-la no one had thought to consider the practicalities of the pump. It was too difficult for the kids to keep pumping, ditto the women. It was impossible to fix or to get parts for. It was a complete and utter waste of time and money and did little good.
This sort of thing happens a lot when do-gooders fail to consult the people they are supposed to be "helping". But don't despair, MacAskill demonstrates clearly that foreign aid - despite what the detractors attest - has done much good, but warns us to invest in programmes that are the very best. Oddly, he does not include organisations like Oxfam, Unicef or World Vision; they're too big, he says, and don't demonstrate that they are doing the most good or that they are efficiently run.
One of the chapters is titled "Why You Shouldn't Donate to Disaster Relief", which will certainly come as a surprise to those of us who think we are morally bound to contribute to charities working in post-quake Haiti or Japan or supporting refugees. But at all times there are emergencies that need our money.
MacAskill makes the valid point that every day over 18,000 children die from preventable causes. If you seriously want to donate to disaster relief than give to the best charities that fight poverty all the time.
Meanwhile, at home, you try to boycott brands who use sweatshops? Big mistake. As MacAskill says; "In developing countries, sweatshop jobs are the good jobs". The alternatives are far worse. We can't imagine that because we live in the West.
What we should be doing is trying to end the poverty that makes these jobs so attractive. If you're worried about global warming (and you should be) "buying local" can actually do more harm as the use of local hothouses can dwarf emissions generated by transportation, and just one hot bath can add more to your carbon footprint than leaving your mobile phone plugged in all year.
Even the impact of completely cutting out the use of plastic bags is minuscule when compared with getting rid of the big culprits - red meat and dairy.
Regularly pat yourself on the back for buying Fairtrade? Think again. Many of the poorest countries can't afford to meet the high standards Fairtrade products demand. You could buy the cheaper stuff and give the balance to a charity. But which charity? Do the research and find out what gives the best bang for your hard-earned buck. MacAskill suggests the De-Worm the World Initiative, Cool Earth, GiveDirectly and Against Malaria Foundation - amongst others.
If we want to improve lives for those most in need, it's important to support kids' education. But what's the most cost- effective way to increase school participation in developing countries?
It's by improving the health of children riven by parasites, rather than buying them books or sending in educators. Problem is, giving money to de-worm children isn't half as glamorous as relieving disaster zones.
Doing clear-headed research on how best to give our money to those in need isn't as easy as donating to that nice, grateful girl on the street. But if we're sincere about helping people that's what we should be doing.
Question is, are we?