In the United States there is a lot of wealth and a lot resources that are directed toward charity. One problem, however, is that the people who are the most in need of charity are generally in developing countries and economies on the other side of the globe. Those counties and individuals, where our donations from the United States could go the furthest, don’t manage to capture as much of the donation market as we might think they would given the scale of need and potential impact of our donations. Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in The Elephant in the Brain call this the Relatability Problem of charitable donations.
They write, “we’re much more likely to help someone we can identify-a specific individual with a name, a face, and a story. First investigated by Thomas Schelling in 1968, this phenomenon has come to be known as the identifiable victim effect. The corresponding downside, of course, is that we’re less likely to help victims who aren’t identifiable.”
We might hear a news story about millions of people in a distant country being displaced by a major natural disaster. We might see lines of people trying to flee a destroyed town or countryside, but the further from us they are in terms of both distance and culture, the less likely we are to feel a burning desire to help them. I think that part of this comes from the rational side of our brains. We want to be sure that if we expend effort, energy, or resources, that we can see the final product to know that something good happened. If we can see a single person in need who received a meal, a place to sleep, or had a home repaired as a result of our charity, then we will be more likely to make some type of donation to help, especially if we can see something in ourselves in their situation. When we just see statistics about how many people are in need and how many dollars helped however many people, we are less sure that our efforts really made a difference and actually applied to the problem at hand. This feels like it makes rational sense, but as I have detailed previously, our charity is usually not very rational to begin with, and our brains end up driving our charity to less rational purposes in this potential rational aim.
Peter Singer gives an example of this in his book The Most Good You Can Do. If we see a campaign for the Make-a-Wish Foundation to help one specific child with a terminal illness have an amazing day, we will likely feel incredible empathy for the child and we will see an opportunity for us to be part of making something spectacular happen for a child with an unfortunate and unavoidably short life. We see exactly who we are helping, we can read or watch a story about why we should help this child (and others like them), and how our donation will help them directly. At the same time, however, the CDC reports that in 2016 445,000 people died from Malaria, a preventable mosquito born parasitic infection.
We could make a $250 donation to the Make-a-Wish Foundation and our money would go toward some things that help provide a fantastic day for the one child whose story we can see on TV or read about. We could alternatively make a $250 donation to the against malaria and provide about 50 anti-malarial bed-nets to children. Somewhere inside us, the statistics about bed-nets doesn’t weigh as heavily as helping the one child whose story we saw on TV, even though we are helping 50 children and potentially saving the lives of the children by ensuring they have something to prevent Malarial infections. Its hard to say how much our donation does for the Make-A-Wish foundation, but we know pretty well what our donation toward bed-nets does.
Global charities helping those where our resources could go the furthest are hampered by our empathetic drives to help those with whom we relate to. We first want to help those who look like us, have similar backgrounds, and speak our same language. After that we are willing to try to help those unknown people creating the statistics that fail to move us to action. We don’t donate because we want to make the most good, we donate because we feel compelled to help people who look like part of our tribe.