[This is the third post in a brief series explaining the current GiveWell top charities. You can get all the information in this post on GiveWell’s website, but my blog post is both shorter and less boring. In order to reward you for reading a whole blog post about a charity you already know about, I have included at the end the Most Interesting GiveDirectly Fact.]

Whoever said that you should buy warm fuzzies and utilons separately had never heard of GiveDirectly.

GiveDirectly gives money to people in the developing world, usually about $1000. This typically about doubles its recipients’ yearly income. You may see a more-or-less random sample of recipients’ responses to this program on GD Live. Recipients’ responses are unedited and only posted if they opt in to sharing. They may seem slightly overenthusiastic but imagine how you would feel if someone doubled your income for no reason. (I recommend only reading GD Live if you’re pretty sure you plan to donate to GiveDirectly; it has a known effect of causing people to be unable to resist the temptation to donate.)

Research on the effects of GiveDirectly’s cash transfers shows the following:

  • Households spent $51 more per month; about half of the money was spent on food.
  • Household assets increase by $463; most commonly, the money was spent on livestock, durable goods (particularly furniture), and savings.
  • 23% of recipients had an iron roof, compared to 16% of controls.
  • Households spend $13 more per month on business expenses, typically non-durable expenses on non-agricultural businesses.
  • Recipients spend $3 more per month on health expenses.
  • Spending on alcohol and tobacco did not increase.
  • Food security and sense of psychological well-being increased.
  • Business revenues increased by $15; profits did not increase, but that might be a short-term effect due to e.g. investments that have not yet paid off.

Also, one guy bought a guitar and used it to write this catchy song:

My life is GiveDirectly
My house is GiveDirectly
My phone is GiveDirectly
My job is GiveDirectly
My love is GiveDirectly

My life, Give Direct
My house, Give Direct
My farm, Give Direct
I love Give Direct

My life, Give Direct
My house, Give Direct
My job, Give Direct
I love Give Direct

While there is high uncertainty, GiveWell’s best guess is that GiveDirectly does not have significant negative effects on households that don’t receive money.

GiveDirectly is a very well-run charity. 99.7% of recipients receive all funds promised. While staff fraud has occurred in the past, GiveDirectly has responded promptly and taken more steps to prevent future fraud.

GiveDirectly is also known for its commitment to randomized controlled trials. A very high proportion of its recipients (although not 100%) are enrolled in a randomized controlled trial, such as the RCT on the macroeconomic effects of cash transfers or GiveDirectly’s basic income trial. (Oh yeah! GiveDirectly is totally doing a trial on whether basic income cost-effectively improves people’s lives!)

GiveDirectly’s room for more funding is huge, because of how easy the program is to scale. GiveDirectly alone could productively use hundreds of millions of dollars in funding– more than every other GiveWell top charity combined.

Many people support GiveDirectly not just because of its program but because of its challenge to the international aid sector. GiveDirectly asks, “if the thing you’re doing doesn’t work better than giving people cash, why the fuck aren’t you just giving them cash?” Of course, this is a very hard impact to measure, and it’s unclear if giving GiveDirectly more money would cause them to have more effect on the rest of the aid sector, compared to GiveDirectly existing at all. But anecdotally more funders are asking themselves “does this outperform cash?” and give-cash control groups have expanded in popularity.

Many other people support GiveDirectly because they care about autonomy. A lot of donors to the developing world are incredibly condescending: they buy a cow from Heifer International or a merry-go-round pump from PlayPumps or help build a school on their mission trip. Surely, however, if people in the developing world need cows or schools or merry-go-round water pumps, they can buy that themselves? Is there some reason to believe that we know better than people in the developing world just because we’re rich? By far the most popular purchase with a GiveDirectly cash transfer is an iron roof; have you ever seen a charity fundraising to buy iron roofs for people in Kenya? We don’t know what it’s like to be members of the global poor, because we’ve never been poor. The poor know better than we do what their needs are. It is respectful of their dignity as people to let them make this sort of choice.

So, GiveDirectly is great. Why don’t we all just donate there?

Well, GiveWell has this handy little chart where they calculate what you get for your dollar. It’s super-fake and you shouldn’t take it literally, but the effect is large enough that that doesn’t necessarily matter. And what it found was that the cost to achieve an outcome that is just as good as saving a five-year-old’s life, according to the median values of GiveWell staffers, is twenty-three thousand dollars.

Now, of course, that depends on your values, and I encourage you to put your own moral weights into the sheet instead of relying on the median of GiveWell staffers’ values, which is a terrible way to do ethics. But if you care about saving the lives of small children and/or don’t mind high levels of uncertainty, you will get more value for your money by donating to a different GiveWell top charity.

The problem with “do we know better than people in the developing world just because we’re rich?” is that the answer is “yeah, sometimes.” Very, very few Kenyans have access to Sci-Hub so that they can develop an informed opinion on whether deworming medicines will increase their children’s income twenty years from now. Few Ugandans can explain the connection between those vitamin A pills the health worker is handing out and their children dying of diarrhea. Of course, the same things are true for most people in the developed world, but there exist any people in the developed world who understand those things, and the rest of us can follow their donation recommendations.

People in general tend to undervalue preventative health care. People in Africa don’t buy malaria nets for the same reason you never use your gym membership. If it works, nothing happens: you don’t see the malaria or heart attack you didn’t get. Nothing disastrous will happen if you put off going to the gym or buying the malaria net till next week, and exercising is boring and if you buy the malaria net you won’t get to eat for two days, so you never get around to buying it. As an outsider, you can say “this is a known cognitive bias, I’m going to give you a free malaria net and then your children won’t die of malaria.” So charities other than GiveDirectly can be more cost-effective.

In conclusion, as promised, here is the Best GiveDirectly Fact:

GiveDirectly started enrolling recipients from Homa Bay county, Kenya in mid-2015. There, it encountered unexpectedly high rates of refusals from potential recipients; while refusal rates in Uganda and Siaya, Kenya have historically been low (around 5%), refusal rates in Homa Bay have been about 45%. GiveDirectly believes the refusals are due to widespread skepticism towards GiveDirectly’s program and rumors that GiveDirectly is associated with the devil…

November 2017 update: We requested data from GiveDirectly on refusal rates (and other metrics) for January to March 2017 for Kenya and Uganda and March to June 2017 for Rwanda. Refusal rates remained fairly high in Kenya, with 22% refusing to participate in the census and 68% of complaints submitted to GiveDirectly categorized as “program is evil/from the devil.”

Why might you donate to GiveDirectly?

  • You need a lot of warmfuzzies in order to motivate yourself to donate.
  • You think encouraging cash benchmarking is really important, and giving GiveDirectly more money will help that.
  • You want to encourage charities to do more RCTs on their programs by rewarding the charity that does that most enthusiastically.
  • You care about increasing people’s happiness and don’t care about saving the lives of small children, and prefer a certainty of a somewhat good outcome to a small chance of a very good outcome.
  • You believe, in principle, that we should let people make their own decisions about their lives.
  • You want an intervention that definitely has at least a small positive effect.
  • You have just looked at GDLive and are no longer responsible for your actions.