The man who gives away a third of his income

Would you give up a luxury to save a life?

Toby Ord has been giving away a third of his income for quite some time. A 33 year old academic at Oxford, he allows himself £18,000 a year, and donates the rest to charity.

"I’d always been idealistic about helping others", he says. "People would say “if you think that why don’t you give all your money to people in poor countries?" I think this was meant to make me shut up."

Instead he started giving away a large sum each year, and in the process set up a campaign - Giving What We Can - to encourage others to give away at least 10 per cent of their earnings.

Ord's subject is philosophy, and he came to the decision in a philosophical way. "I was writing on the subject of luxuries, and I came across the question of whether we should forgo a luxury if it would save a life. I realised this decision happens in our lives all the time."

"I was reading [the philosophers] Peter Singer and Thomas Pogge. The two of them think furiously about the problems of the world today. They both took their ideas very seriously and gave away a large proportion of their incomes. I decided I was going to make a commitment to give money to poor people."

To his surprise, people soon contacted him to see if they could do the same thing - and Giving What We Can was born.

"I'm not a natural leader for such an organisation", Ord says, describing himself as "more of a theoretician". But he has a very clear vision for the project.

"For me it [giving away a large percentage of income] doesn’t seem too odd. We literally have a choice to save hundreds of lives."

Yes, but giving money to charity never seems quite as straightforward as that. Can we ever be sure that what we give is really saving a life?

He agrees that would be more motivational if there was a "clear line of operation", and that the path from your wallet to saving someone's life can sometimes look "messy". "But if your money goes on, say, 200 mosquito nets in a malarial area there is no question. You will save a life."

What about the horror stories, the charity money that never makes it, the corrupt organisations that divert aid to their own ends?

"There are lots of rather garbled stories about problems with aid. These are bit stupid. The whole of the world is paying billions of dollars in aid, and people point to one or two things that go wrong. It is quite easy to find these problems which then act as excuses for not giving", he says.

"There is a perfect storm of excuses for forgetting about charities."

He admits that some charities are more effective than others, though.

"Charities can often benefit from thinking of effectiveness more. One of the targets for criticising them is the amount of money that goes into  administrative costs – but this is a bad measure of ineffectiveness - an organisation might need that level of spending on admin. I do think organisations should think about how they can help people more. There is a big academic literature on this. They should focus on outputs, and  not get hung up on brand – for example they should be prepared to  change the disease they are working on, if they could help more people that way."

French beggars. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

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Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt