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Book review – Doing Good Better by William MacAskill

Oct 16th 2015
William MacAskill

People are always looking for the next big idea that will make a real change in the world. Take the PlayPump, an innovative design for water pumps that doubled as children roundabouts, which would pump clean water as children played. The award winning idea was heralded as ‘world-changing’ and championed by celebrities and politicians on its way to winning a $16.4m grant from First Lady Laura Bush.

The problem was that no one had considered the practicalities of the pump. The roundabout did not spin freely as it would in a normal playground. To work it required constant motion which exhausted the children. In many cases women ended up pushing the roundabout themselves to access water, which they found tiring and demeaning. What was worse is no one had asked the local communities if they wanted a PlayPump. Research found that communities said they preferred traditional hand pumps which were also five time more effective than the PlayPump even though the PlayPump cost four times as much to install.

This example shows that good intentions can lead to bad outcomes. Whilst no giver would want to do harm through their actions it is important to understand how to see through the marketing information put forward by the charities themselves.

Doing Good Better, a new book, by William MacAskill sets out this problem and then attempts to solve it using evidence, data and scientific rigour.

MacAskill, an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Oxford University, is one of the founders of the Effective Altruism movement - a movement that applies evidence and reason to determine the most effective ways to improve the world. Effective altruists aim to consider all causes and actions, and then act in the way that brings about the greatest positive impact.

MacAskill believes that by ‘applying data and reason to altruistic acts – we can turn our good intentions to astonishingly good outcomes’. It is undoubtedly a case of using your head over your heart.

The book is broken into two main parts. The first part outlines the Effective Altruism way of thinking through five key questions. The second half then applies this way of thinking to specific issues and causes to demonstrate the possibilities.

The book is littered with examples, case studies and stories to support MacAskill’s claims and highlight the role that data and evidence on choosing effective charities.

One case study includes a charity working in rural Kenya to improve school attendance and test results. A randomised controlled trial found that expected interventions such as providing textbooks, flipcharts and even increasing the number of teachers had little to no impact. However, when a friend suggested trying a deworming initiative it increased attendance by 25%. It also proved to be one of the most cost effective interventions with every $100 spent providing a total of ten years additional attendance among students.

It is this kind of thinking and problem solving that underpins the Effective Altruism movement.

“The point of this isn’t to lay blame, or to claim that some ways of doing good are unworthy. Rather, it’s simply to work out which ways of doing good are best, and to do those first,” says MacAskill.

In the book MacAskill makes some bold claims that may ruffle a few feathers. An argument that consumers shouldn’t boycott products made in sweat shops at first seems counterintuitive but is well argued and convincing. Likewise, he explains why buying Fairtrade products isn’t all it appears to be and suggests that buying cheaper products and donating the money saved would be more effective.

The book is a perfect introduction to Effective Altruism. It offers a detailed and comprehensive understanding of the movement whilst remaining engaging and accessible. There is little doubt that MacAskill’s attitude and methodology may not be suitable for everyone but it offers a fresh way of looking at giving and may encourage you to ask a few more questions before giving money to a fundraiser. It will be a valuable resource for those looking to truly maximise their impact.

Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and a Radical New Way to Make a Difference by William MacAskill is published by Guardian Faber Press. ISBN: 9781783350490

Find out more by visiting Doing Good Better.

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