What was the best gift I ever received? Well, I’m a music lover, so I’d have to say it was either a Spotify subscription or my top-of-the-range Sony MDR-7506 headphones. Together they’ve provided me with countless hours of high-quality audio accompaniment. Growing up in a loving, well-off family in one of the richest countries in the world, what more could I want?
Giving gifts to loved ones is great: it’s a rewarding way to spread joy and strengthen friendships and family ties. But (at the risk of sounding like Bob Geldof) at this time of year I’m always reminded of how many people not only get no presents but also lack the basics to allow them to live healthy lives. For me, luxury headphones were the perfect gift; for the world’s poorest, it would be nutritious food, clean water and health care.
The poorest 10% of the world’s population, some 700 million people, live on less than $1.90 per day. And that’s adjusting for local purchasing power: they live on what $1.90 would buy in the U.S. Faced with this kind of budget, and often geographically isolated, they are forced to eat whatever they can find and drink and wash in unsafe water. They can only pray that they don’t succumb to malnutrition, malaria or any number of other diseases that, while perfectly curable in rich countries, frequently ruin or end lives in the developing world.
I don’t seek to make anyone feel guilty for exchanging luxury goods with the people they love. But it seems to me that there’s another type of giving that is, if anything, even more profound: giving the basics of life to those most in need. Sure, you might not get a thank-you letter (who does these days?), but you’ll have done something extraordinary. However, I’m not just interested in people giving more to charity (although that is important). I’m also passionate about people giving smarter, because where you give can make a huge difference on the impact you’ll have.
What do I mean by that? Well, to start with, there’s a reason I’ve been talking about the developing world. Even average earners in the West are incredibly rich compared with the global poor, so a sum of money considered moderate for some could make a huge difference in the poorest countries.
That’s not to say that all developing-world poverty-relief charities are good at making a difference–that’s certainly not the case. Plenty of money donated in good faith is lost to local corruption, poor administration or programs of intervention that sound great in theory but don’t achieve much in practice. As a result, it’s crucial to look at the effectiveness of the work a charity does before committing your money. How much good does it achieve for each dollar donated? Is there robust evidence for the impact of its programs?
It’s not always easy for people to find the answers, but they are vital questions to ask. That’s why there are now organizations devoted to finding and promoting the best charities. As part of the effective-altruism movement, they are dedicated to helping people make the biggest possible difference with their donations.
I love my music, and I love my headphones. But this year, the best gift I could get is to see as many people as possible giving generously to the most effective charities in the world.
MacAskill is the author of Doing Good Better and a co-founder of the charity Giving What We Can
This appears in the December 14, 2015 issue of TIME.
- The Inside Story of Princeton's Cinderella Run at March Madness
- For Both Donald Trump and Alvin Bragg, the Central Park Jogger Case Was a Turning Point
- If Donald Trump Is Indicted, Here's What Would Happen Next in the Process
- Alison Roman Won't Sugarcoat It
- Why Not All Observant Muslims Fast During Ramadan
- All of the Other Major Investigations Into Donald Trump
- Who Should Be on the 2023 TIME100? Vote Now
- The Case for Betting on Succession's Tom Wambsgans
- Postmaster General Louis DeJoy's Surprising Second Act
- Column: Ozempic Exposed the Cracks in the Body Positivity Movement