J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

Pick the Low-Hanging Fruit, Part I (Charity)

Some people prefer to do things the hard way.

I’ve always been interested in how to get the best results with the least possible effort.  Some might call this quality laziness, but I prefer to think of it as efficiency.  Why not get the most bang for your buck, in every area of life?

I’d like to explore the analogy of “low-hanging fruit” in various life areas — what behaviors can lead us to radical life improvements — either for ourselves or others — with reasonably low expenditures of willpower, money, time, and other resources we hold dear?

CHARITY
This might seem like a strange category to start with, but the act of giving without expecting anything material or concrete in return pays enormous emotional dividends.  Whenever I’m feeling down about myself for any reason (what I have or haven’t achieved in life, who does or doesn’t love or respect me, etc. etc.) I can always fall back on the reassuring thought that at least I’m not a totally selfish bastard — I give away some of my hard-earned cash to good causes.  What I consider to be a good cause is no doubt different that what you consider to be a good cause — I’m not going to try to convince you to donate to The SETI Institute, like I do (most people just don’t get that one — I’ll save my interest in SETI for a later post).

Alien hunters need to know what time it is.

But there are some charities that are just no-brainers.  Everyone should give to them, because the work they do is incredibly effective, they’re transparent, and their efforts ripple out to form massive waves of goodness throughout the world.  These organizations are picking the low-hanging fruit in terms of raising quality of life on this planet, and we should all help them out.

WHY SOME PEOPLE AREN’T YET DONATING A PORTION OF THEIR WEALTH TO THE WORLD’S POOR
There are several factors that prevent people from experiencing the simple pleasure of sharing their wealth with the less fortunate, including:

  • Fear of waste and corruption — is my money actually reaching people in need or is it in fact contributing to the oversized salary of some nonprofit executive?  Or being spent on expensive mailing campaigns to ask me for even more money?
  • General nihilism:  There are too many problems in the world, and my $20 isn’t going to make a difference, so why not just keep it in my pocket?
  • Deferred giving — I’ll give when I’m wealthier but right now I really need the money.
  • Confused Malthusian (or Social Darwinian) thinking.

The burden of the first question (waste and corruption) lies squarely on the shoulders of the charitable organization in question — it’s up to them to somehow convince you they won’t waste your money.

The second issue — the question of whether or not any of us can make a difference — it’s partially up to the charitable organization and the inspired individuals behind it to rally our cynical, lazy asses into action.  The rest of the burden falls on our own shoulders.  We can look at positive historical events not from the perspective of predestined inevitability, but rather through the lens of active manifestation; individuals and groups brought these positive events into existence through vision and work.  If we can do this, then we can imagine a brighter future manifesting through our present actions.  It’s worth considering the following: if we can’t imagine creating a better life for the poorest and least fortunate people in the world, how can we imagine and create a better life for ourselves?  How is the process any different?

The third question — should we give now or later, when we’re richer — this question falls entirely on the shoulders of the individual.  In terms of a response, let me put it this way — if it’s so hard to part with your crappy twenty now, will it be easier to donate $20,000 to a good cause once you’re “in the money?”  It won’t be.  Giving when you’re the most poor actually makes the most sense.  It will immediately change your mindset from one of scarcity and powerlessness to one of abundance and empowerment.

The fourth question is trickiest.  Deeply wrong beliefs about human nature may lurk in our subconscious minds — and they need to be confronted directly.  Do, we, on some level, believe that we have access to clean water, abundant food, and material wealth because we are more deserving?  Or inherently better, more intelligent, or somehow “fitter”?

Why some societies are richer than others — this is a deep question, and I think Jared Diamond answers it best in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel.  I’ll offer a spoiler — the fact that you live in a wealthy society (if you do) has nothing to do with deserving it, or earning it.  But there are answers to the question, and they have a lot to do with the words in the title of the book.

What about Malthus?  Do you have a hidden Malthusian side to your thinking … that if you help provide water and health care for the masses of impoverished brown people around the world that they’ll go and make more poor brown people and soon the entire planet will be overrun with poor brown people and that will ruin it for everyone?  That would put you in the same camp as Ebenezer Scrooge; “If they would rather die they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

The good Reverend Malthus was right to be concerned about overpopulation.  He was dead wrong, however, in his superficially logical idea that famine, disease, and other calamities do anything to check human population growth.  Have you looked around?  There’s no shortage of people, anywhere, despite our rich global history of plagues, devastating wars, and horrific famines.  The only thing that has put a real dent in global population is the eruption of Mt. Toba 74,000 years ago.  People, like raccoons, respond to terrible hardship by making more of ourselves, even if our overall quality of life suffers.  For example, after our ancestors killed and ate most of the planet’s megafauna, we switched to eating a less nutritious, but more reliable, grain-based diet.  Result = more people than ever (though we’re now generally shorter and more prone to degenerative disease than our paleolithic ancestors).

The real solution to global overpopulation is doing everything we can to raise the quality of life for the world’s poorest people, especially women.  In general, when literacy, access to contraception (aka “family planning”), and access to basic health care go up, birth rates go down.

charity:water

Yummy water vs. yucky water.

This organization builds wells to provide clean water to poor communities throughout the world.  That’s all they do.  Every dollar you donate goes to building a well.  When I first heard about charity:water, it sounded like a good idea.  Once I learned about the ripple effects of having clean water, it sounded like a great idea.

  • Women and children in many communities spend hours every day hauling water from distant sources.  The time spent gather water precludes paying work for the women and education for the children.  By providing a well, you provide precious time to that community, which translates into increased wealth, knowledge, and self-determination.
  • Clean water prevents disease.  Disease wreaks havoc in every area of life.
  • Clean water provides dignity.  Water is needed not just for drinking, but for bathing.

The “Why Water” section of their website explains their philosophy and work better than I can — have a look:

http://www.charitywater.org/whywater/

Don’t be put off by the “slickness” of charity:water‘s website and presentation.  They consciously uses good design, high definition video, and modern communication modes (like Twitter) to reach people more effectively, but these factors don’t represent wasted money.  The organization’s admin costs are 100% covered by private supporters, clothing sales, and other non-donation related revenue, and things like good design and high quality video and photography aren’t even necessarily expensive these days.

Founder Scott Harrison has an interesting story.  At 28 he was making a killing in the clubbing world as a promoter, and more or less got sick of himself.  At that point he decided to dedicate his life to helping the poor.  In his own words (skip to 4:00):

http://www.charitywater.org/about/scotts_story.php

Your Jackson = clean drinking water for this kid for 20 years. Questions?

I’m impressed by the transparency of charity:water.  Their website includes a feature where you can use Google Maps to look at the water projects.  If you click on one of the marked locations, a picture of the well and some of the local residents pops up, along with a short blurb about their previous water source, how long they had to walk to get water before the well was built, etc.  The Water Projects page displays each project in the context of a large infographic (which I’m glad is backed up by pictures and video and map locations — infographics are pretty but they don’t prove anything).

charity:water claims that a $20 donation translates into providing clean drinking water for one person for 20 years.  I don’t see any reason to doubt them on this, and it’s a remarkable statistic.  If it came down to it, you would probably pay well over $20 a day to provide clean water for yourself, wouldn’t you?  If you’ve been to Burning Man, you’ve probably done that already!

For $20, you’re not only giving someone access to clean water every day for twenty years, you’re also providing them with an extra 1-4 hours every day of free time (time not hauling water).  How much would *you* pay for an extra hour or four a day for the next twenty years?  More than $20?

There are lots of complicated problems in the world that need solving.  In general, providing clean drinking water isn’t one of them.  Go to a poor community and build a high quality, easy-to-maintain well.  Problem solved for that community, at least for a good chunk of time.  Low-hanging fruit all the way.

If any of this makes sense to you, you might enjoy donating to charity:water directly:

http://www.charitywater.org/donate/

Some other organizations that, IMO, fit in the low-hanging fruit category:

CARE (especially the “Mothers Matter” campaign)
http://www.care.org/campaigns/2009/mothersmatters.asp

SAVE THE CHILDREN
http://www.savethechildren.org/

HEIFER INTERNATIONAL
http://www.heifer.org/

WORLD VISION
http://www.worldvision.org/
World Vision has its roots in Christian evangelism, but their primary work is fighting extreme poverty.  Like Nicholas Kristof, I would rather see the Christian evangelists engaged in fighting poverty rather than fighting abortion rights.

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The All-Or-Nothing Reflex

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Pick the Low Hanging Fruit, Part II (Health)

4 Comments

  1. I too am interested in water or lack thereof around the world. Thanks for sharing about charity: water

  2. Thank you for this interesting article on the ‘low-hanging-fruit’ approach to tackling poverty and water shortage. Charity: Water are doing an excellent job.

    Greater Horn of Africa Rainwater Partnership (GHARP) are also working on water projects across the Horn of Africa. They focus on rainwater harvesting and management (RHM) systems and complementary technologies. Their aim is to improve water supply, food security and environmental sustainability through developing, improving and promoting these systems. They are always seeking potential partners and more funding to continue and develop their work. See their website for further details: http://www.gharainwater.org

  3. Will Spencer

    Heifer International has an incredible Christmas catalog as well. I’ve often considered requesting that everyone’s gifts to me for a whole year (birthday, Christmasukkah, etc.) go to a charity like them. It’s incredible what a difference that can make in people’s lives. I may just do it. Thanks.

  4. We’ve done that with Heifer for the past few years. Much easier than getting gifts for your in-laws, and for some reason it’s incredibly fun to give a random family a llama or some ducklings or a hive of bees.

    Almost makes me want to go buy a hive of bees for myself …

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