Give a little, but give it well

Trust the numbers.

Remember Nate Silver? Amid all the arguments over opinion polls during last year’s US presidential election, Silver’s data-crunching was a voice of reason – and he successfully predicted the winner in all 50 states.

Silver’s methods don’t need to stop there. They can be extended to saving lives. Meet Toby Ord, a research fellow at Oxford University. Ord has developed a system whereby he ranks charities according to their effectiveness. His findings are startling: “The most effective charities are about 10,000 times more effective than the least effective.” This implies that £1 given to the most effective charity will do as much good as £10,000 given to the least.

Ord has spent seven years analysing the effectiveness of charities. His research shows there is a clear winner: charities that focus on single issues. Giving What We Can, the organisation created by Ord, highlights the Against Malaria Foundation, the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative and Deworm the World as the three charities that give donors most bang for their buck. This calculation is based on how they provide the greatest return in terms of quality-adjusted life years, a way of measuring not only the extra years of life that people gain but the quality of this time.

Because of the disruption to education caused by “pupils and teachers who are constantly ill”, these charities have also been shown to offer the best way to improve education in developing countries.

It sounds technical, but Ord’s method is simple – he analyses the data dispassionately to deduce what works best. Of the parallels with Silver’s work on the US election, he says: “I’m flattered by the comparison. Nate Silver has brought rigorous quantitative analysis into an area that was largely based on intuition, feeling and conventional wisdom. We’re definitely trying to do a similar thing in the charity sector.”

Ord also suggests ignoring television and newspaper appeals that are designed to maximise emotional impact and instead rationally considering how to make sure your donations do the greatest good.

Charities’ effectiveness is not just a matter of numbers. He describes it as “the most important moral question in our lives for almost everyone, because we have a realistic opportunity to save literally hundreds of lives or to produce literally thousands of years of extra life, if we want”.

The Department for International Development (DfID) has often been accused of spending too much time signing cheques and not enough scrutinising them. Reassuringly, Ord says that DfID has held meetings with him to discuss how to make the aid budget go as far as possible. He says that, in terms of efficiency, “We have a very good aid department on an international scale.”

Although the target of setting aside 0.7 per cent of GDP for the aid budget is often criticised, he describes it as “a very small amount of money to be giving as such a wealthy nation as Britain”. Lowering it, he says, would be “crazy”.

Along with 276 other members of Giving What We Can, Ord has pledged to give at least 10 per cent of his income over his lifetime towards eradicating poverty. He goes further, giving away all he earns over £18,000. Over his lifetime, he calculates that this will amount to £1m. We might not all be able to give so much but, as he says, even those who give much less can make “a huge positive impact upon humanity”.

It’s the Nate Silver way: eschew emotion and trust the numbers.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Dinosaurs vs modernisers

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation