Giving What We Can in Cambridge

So, I was in Cambridge (UK) recently on a work jolly, and I find my old hometown abuzz with rationalist activity. A Cambridge Less Wrong group has suddenly sprung up, and I find out there’s a Cambridge chapter of Giving What We Can. While I was there, GWWC hosted a talk by Toby Ord – their founder, FHI dude and generally all round nice bloke.

Giving What We Can is like another GiveWell. Both aim to find the charities which produce the most units of goodness per unit of money. GWWC adds a signaling/commitment element: its members pledge to give 10% of their income to an awesomely effective charity. My feeling right now is that I trust GiveWell’s recommendations slightly more (though they’re starting to show some Aumann agreement here – both think SCI is a good buy). On the other hand, GiveWell appears to be more of a community. The process of self-modifying into an effective altruist is actually really hard, and a community is what I need (and I guess a lot of other people do too).

Anyway, Ord’s talk…

The theme of the talk was “the value of time and money”. Ord points out that money has no intristic value – it’s only useful for getting other things (instrumental value). Specifically its value is the best thing we could buy with that money. He says the same is true of time, although he makes the distinction that sometime it’s the time itself that we want, if we’re spending it doing something nice. (I’m not sure there’s really so much of a distinction here – both time and money can be “spent” and “invested”. But this isn’t important anyway).

He then goes through a few things that we might consider to have value, and settles on health – because this is both something which people have tried to quantify, and which is relevant to GWWC’s activities. Health in the UK is measured in Quality-Adjusted Life Years (QALYs). This is based on the assumption that how much a treatment is worth is proportional to how much it extends your life, or how much it will improve your quality of life, with some fudge factor to allow one to be compared with the other. An organisation called NICE determines which treatments should be available on the NHS, based on how many QALYs each treatment is expected to deliver, how expensive it is, and the NHS’s current budget. Basically all the medicines are lined up in order of cost-effectiveness, and they start at the cheap end giving the nod to everything until they run out of money. Right now the cutoff is at £20,000 per QALY.

Ord then goes on to say how this is £2.30 per hour, and how it’s really a pretty good deal (e.g. compared to the cost of a cinema ticket, which is merely improving the quality of a couple of hours from “normal” to “cinema quality”). That is, the NHS can make a difference to some UK person’s life a lot more cheaply than you can make a difference to your own. So that’s how much the NHS will spend, at the margin, for one QALY (which, if you’re keeping up, we’re treating as our utilitarian unit of goodness). But the NHS is limited to the UK, so can we get our QALYs cheaper elsewhere?

The answer is obviously going to be yes, because everything is more expensive in the UK than other parts of the world. But this seems to be particularly true when it comes to life.

QALYs per £1000:

  • Cutoff for NICE: 0.05 (that’s the £20000 figure from above turned on its head. Anything scoring better than this in the UK is supposed to get funded)
  • HIV/AIDS (we’re talking outside the UK now)
    • Antiretroviral therapy: 1.75
    • Prevention of transmission  during pregnancy: 8.2
    • Condoms: 20
    • Education: 42 (uncertain estimate)
  • Treatment for parasitic infections: 460 (note this figure may be flawed – I don’t know whether they’ve updated based on GiveWell’s analysis)

So these figures look pretty wacky – the fact they differ by several orders of magnitude suggests either that they’re wrong (and I’m still waiting for someone to tell me that’s the case), or humanity isn’t very good at allocating its resources.

Ord says that 1.4 billion people have “neglected tropical diseases” (which I think basically means worms although I’m not sure of the exact terminology). “Only” 33 million have HIV/AIDS, which might be why the worms are a better buy. If basically everyone in a region has worms then you’re not “wasting” treatments by giving them to people who weren’t going to get infected anyway. Also the treatment itself is very cheap.

The lesson of all this is that where you give your charity donation is more important than whether you give at all. There’s a distribution of charity effectiveness, with most charities in the middle, a few on the lower tail who are basically scamming you and a few on the upper tail who are basically awesome. Most donations go somewhere in the middle. This is a grossly inefficient allocation of donors’ hard-earned money, especially as the most effective interventions are orders of magnitude more effective than the middling ones.

Other key messages (these are Ord’s figures – I haven’t checked them):

  • Spending money can achieve something like 10,000 times the benefit for others as for ourselves
  • Donating 10% of future income can save 50,000 QALYs
  • Donating money typically worth much more than donating time

So the awesome power of money comes from the fact that the audience in the room are right near the top of the global income distribution curve. As your income grows you start to hit major diminishing marginal utility, so us rich kids are used to spending lots of money and it not achieving very much. Ord pointed out that a lot of people in the “Occupy” movement will be in the richest 1% (when you consider the whole world).

So what was Toby Ord’s response?

  • Gives away more than half of his future income to the most effective charity he could find
  • Sets up a society for people who want to join him
  • Sets up a website to collect & share information – Giving What We Can.

There are two aims here: to persuade people to give more, and to give more effectively. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts – it’s the product of its parts.

Ord finishes by saying that money hasn’t quite won out over time. He thought volunteering could never be worth as much as donating time – but then looked back on what he had achieved by taking the time to set up GWWC. (Though this argument appears to only be valid if you are Toby Ord, i.e. there’s a massive selection bias at work here).

There were a few interesting questions at the end.

  • Is it just about health – what about e.g. microfinance? TO says it’s hard to get good data on a lot of types of intervention. He mentions that lobbying organisations such as RESULTS might be a promising alternative.
  • I asked how much money could be thrown at worms before you hit diminishing returns? TO says lots – hit diminishing returns starts to be a problem around the half-way point, which is either £10b or £5bn (my notes are ambiguous here, sorry). He said the Gates foundation etc. gave £1bn (possibly corresponding to this announcement; thanks to 80000 hours for the heads-up).
  • TO agrees “charity” may have some bad connotations. He sees GWWC as more like an NHS for the entire world (an analogy which I like).
  • He got a question along the lines of “what’s the hardest question you’ve been asked, and what’s the answer?” which was awesome. TO says it’s “where’s the most effective place to give?” We just don’t know.

So my impressions?

Most of this was stuff I already knew. I think he gave a very clear account of this particular worldview though, which is why I’ve written it down more or less how it is in my notes.

The question of where’s best to give the money is one which is very important to me personally. I’m not sure how likely it is that there are hugely effective conventional charities out there which GiveWell and GWWC somehow haven’t noticed. They’d likely need to have a wide enough scope that they can absorb a decent amount of money, and also have the self-evaluation infrastructure necessary to make sure they’re doing everything right. Would such orgs have got in touch with GW/GWWC already? I’m not sure.

So the question then becomes, what happens if we think beyond conventional charities? Some plausible suggestions are:

  • Conventional charities
  • Medical research
  • Meta (reinvesting in the effective altruism movement itself)
    • Lobbying government/foundations/individuals to give more effectively or just to give more
    • Effective charity discovery and evaluation (GW/GWWC)
    • Community (GWWC)
    • Applied rationality (I’m thinking Less Wrong, but there isn’t a big altruism focus there)
  • Existential risk

So the first good rumour that I’ve heard is that at some point soon you’ll be able to donate directly to GWWC. There’s the obvious interesting question of how much of that money they will just hand over to their favourite charity, and how much they’ll use for expanding their own activities. If GWWC are right about the world then it’s at least conceivable that their own activities (spreading the message and the information) are more important than those of any particular charity they recommend. But their top-recommended charity can’t be themselves – they’d look like a self-perpetuating machine. So there’s an interesting signalling problem here.

The second good rumour is that people in GWWC know about existential risk. They just keep very quiet about it on their website. Their message is already slightly more complicated than people are used to hearing. Adding stuff about grey goo, the Singularity and the end of the world would put them way outside the Overton window. So this presents a bit of a strategic headache for them. (And that’s before you even get to the topic of how to evaluate the impact of organisations working in this area).

My final impression is that in Oxbridge there seems to be a thriving community of people who share my goals and a rationalist worldview. I’ve not really managed to find the same thing in Toronto yet.

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1 Response to “Giving What We Can in Cambridge”


  1. 1 charlotte September 19, 2014 at 10:36

    The ‘What’s On’ page still has the launch as May 1st – is this still the case? I’ve posted a link to the Open Market website on the Hanover Community Notice Board, but it would be great to keep our residents updated. Thanks!


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