The end of the year is coming! And with it come the excitement, the grapes and the projects for the new year. So in this episode I’m going to propose a very ambitious project: Save a life.
You may be thinking that AltruPhysics is all “blah blah blah”, lots of little stars and a whole lot of Universe, but… Where is the altruism in all this? Well, today, in the last episode of the year, we are going to focus precisely on that: The “Altru” of AltruPhysics.
I promise that by the time you get to the end of this episode, you’ll know an effective, data and evidence-based way to save a life. Can you think of a better New Year’s resolution than that? And if you were thinking of going to the gym more, quitting smoking, or changing jobs, don’t worry, all of that is compatible with what I’m going to propose.
But first, let’s ask ourselves if we should really bother saving lives in the first place.
Why do something instead of doing nothing?
Imagine that you are walking through the Retiro de Jerez park (or any other park that you like). You’re happily strolling and listening to music on your headphones when you notice a little girl running along the edge of a fountain. Her parents don’t seem to be around, so the girl is alone.
Suddenly, the girl trips and falls into the water. You realize that she barely has a footing and tries to stick her head out, but she slips and doesn’t make it. You are the only person around, and if you don’t jump into the water to rescue her, the girl is going to drown. Would you save her life?
You are about to run to the fountain with the intention of jumping in. But before doing so, for a fraction of a second, you remember that you are carrying a backpack with your laptop and camera inside, and in your pocket you have your new cell phone. You know that all these things would be ruined by the water. And your wireless headphones would also surely be lost. And your shoes, pants and sweater would get covered in gunk. You know you won’t have time to take off your backpack, take out your cell phone, take off your shoes… Those extra seconds could mean the death of the little girl. So jumping into the water would imply wasting hundreds or even thousands of euros. Still, would you save her life?
Then you realize that you are not the only one. There are a few people, closer to the girl, who have also seen what has happened. Any one of them could jump in and rescue her. But these people are standing, watching and not doing anything at all. Would you save her life?
Yes! You jump into the water without wasting another second and rescue the little girl from drowning. She coughs and hugs you as she catches her breath. Those few seconds that were all that remained of the rest of her life, suddenly, thanks to you, turn into many more years to come. She has just been reborn, and so have you, since, without having planned it, this may be the best day of your entire life. You don’t even stop to consider the fact that you have lost hundreds or even a few thousand euros along the way. It is a worthwhile investment to save a life.
It is at that moment, still with the little girl in your arms, that you remember another episode of AltruPhysics, in which we talked about how many children die in the world from easily preventable causes. You remember that the number is equivalent to a plane crashing with 600 children on board. Every single hour.
And you know that for the same amount of money you were willing to risk when you jumped in the water, you could save another girl. That other girl may not be drowning in a fountain, but she is also going to die if she does not receive your help, for example, from malaria. What difference does it make if that other girl is right in front of you or far away in another country? You also know that there are many other people, with much more money than you who are not going to lift a finger. So you are the only person who can do something for that other girl. Will you save her life?
A different way of looking at altruism
What I have just told you is an adaptation of a parable written by the Australian philosopher Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University. If it has caught your attention, I recommend reading one of his books, specifically, The Life You Can Save, which is perhaps one of the books that has had the greatest impact on me. And you can download it for free from the website.
As if that weren’t not enough, in 1975, Peter Singer also published the book Animal Liberation, which is one of the most influential books in the world of animal ethics. But that’s another can that we will open in another episode.
The ideas of Peter Singer and other thinkers laid the foundations for effective altruism, a philosophical and social movement whose goal is to find, and put into practice, the most effective ways to help others. So let’s talk about some of the fundamental ideas behind this philosophy.
Where is your money most useful?
By nature, we care more about the people around us than about people we don’t know in other countries. Or, in other words: out of sight, out of mind. However, the suffering caused by the death of a little girl will be very similar in Jerez, in New York, or in New Delhi. What is very different is the cost of saving that child.
One euro is enough to buy lunch in a country like India. On the other hand, for one euro in New York they might give you an old loaf of bread. So, if you wanted to use 10 euros so that other people without resources can eat, in New Delhi you could help 10 or more people, while in New York you could at best help only one. In other words, your money is better utilized in countries where the cost of living is lower.
But it doesn’t end there. Even within the same country, some ways of helping are much more effective than others.
Which ways to help cost less?
Some NGOs are more cost-effective than others. That is, they save and improve more lives for less money. This, I suppose, will not surprise you much. But how much more effective can one NGO be than another? Let’s look at this by using another example from Peter Singer’s book.
Suppose you want to help blind people in Australia. One way to do this is to donate to Guide Dogs Australia, who train guide dogs to give to visually impaired people. If you go to their website, you will see that they do a great job so that blind people can live a better life, with more autonomy, and with the faithful companionship of a four-legged friend, like Luna.
Now, there are certain eye diseases, such as cataracts or trachoma, which are easily preventable in rich countries, but which in poor countries cause many people to lose their sight for the rest of their lives.
The Fred Hollows Foundation is dedicated precisely to treating those cases in which blindness is preventable, both in Australian aboriginal communities and in other developing countries, where they also train local surgeons. Of course, restoring someone’s sight preventing someone from losing their sight not only greatly improves that person’s quality of life, but also allows them to be more independent, work and contribute to the economy of their country.
Maybe you think that the two ways to help, either by training guide dogs or by treating eye diseases, are equally good. And you may be right. But what is clear is that they are not equally cheap: The Fred Hollows Foundation explains on its website that they can cure a person from blindness for as little as 25 dollars. On the other hand, as Guide Dogs explains on its website, the total cost of raising and training a guide dog, and assigning it to a blind person, is $50,000.
In other words, for the same cost of giving one guide dog to one blind person, you can cure the blindness of another 2,000 people.
What are the most effective charities?
This is just one example of how much the impact of your money can vary, depending on where you donate it. And you may be wondering: So where should I donate so that my money has the greatest possible impact? Luckily, other people have already been asking this question for years.
The NGO GiveWell publishes a ranking of the most cost-effective projects each year. On their website, you can see which NGOs ranked highly this year and what they do.
According to GiveWell’s analysis, these NGOs save a life for every 5,000 euros donated approximately, in addition to avoiding cases of malaria and other diseases, improving the quality of life for many people, and contributing to the economy of developing countries.
How can you save a life yourself?
In summary, to save a life you don’t have to wait for a situation like the girl in the fountain to present itself. There are many people who need your help today, even if you can’t see them. And to help them, something as simple as donating money is enough. But since each of us can only donate a limited amount, it makes sense to donate to the charities that do the most good for every dollar spent.
To date, GiveWell has redirected €700 million to those effective charities, which, according to its estimates, have saved a total of almost 160,000 human lives. But there’s still a lot to do, so I’m leaving a link to GiveWell in the description, so that you too can help save and improve lives.
And, if you live in Spain, you can donate to the Ayuda Efectiva foundation, which redirects 100% of donations to those same NGOs recommended by GiveWell, with the added benefit that your donations are taken into account in your annual tax return. To date, Ayuda Efectiva has helped more than 400,000 people and saved more than 100 lives. So I’ve also left a link to Ayuda Efectiva in the description, so that your donation, together with mine, can save even more.
Sound like a good New Year’s resolution? Thank you very much for your time, and I hope to see you next year, in the next episode of AltruPhysics.