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Local Action and Remote Donation

October 15th, 2011
giving, occupy_boston, local

In response to my post on occupy [place] and inequality, I had the following discussion with a friend. They have a perspective that I think is pretty common in my cohort: local activism and community action does more good than trying to earn a lot to give via international aid:

Them

Jeff, we vote for our own government and have little to no say (nor really should we) in the laws of other lands. People's propensities for looking at every problem in its largest sense is exactly why people are so bad at solving problems. This protest is about what is happening here, not in countries where slaves in factories produce the shoddy things we mindlessly buy, and thereby ruin our own economy. What should we do? Go to war with China? Or should we educate ourselves and change our buying habits and try to influence our government to advocate for its own people rather than those of another land?

Me

Why do you value the welfare of people lucky enough to be born in the united states more than that of other people?

Them

It's not that they were born in the United States. It's that they were born (or live) close to me.

Me

Ok, then: why do you value the welfare of people lucky enough to be born close to rich people more than that of other people?

Them

You're framing it in the wrong way. I greater value the welfare of the people who live close to me and who I have the capacity to help in a direct, personal way. Those who know their own communities must look after those communities. That is what community means.

Me

Globally and locally, most rich people live near other rich people. So if everyone works to benefit their local community, this helps richer people a lot more than poorer people.

The relatively poor people in rich areas are better off even than the relatively rich in many poor areas.

Them

If you really want to help people who live far away, I would suggest moving there and making that your community rather than sending money. Otherwise, how do you know it is being put to good use? Become a citizen of the country; get to know their way of life. Then you are qualified to know how to help. Then you're not as much at risk of becoming a missionary and destroying a way of life.

But for me, I'd rather focus on those in my own culture, and the ones I know and care about rather than rush halfway across the world to cure some perceived ailment in a society I have no connection with. This country has a chance to compete with and win against horrible places like China, and lead by example. But it never will if we let corporations run amok and steal our democracy.

Me

If I were to move to another country, my earning ability would decrease dramatically, limiting the good I could do.

It's difficult to determine if money is being spent effectively, both locally and elsewhere. If you read good charity research, like givewell's analysis of village reach, you can tell that your money is being well spent by people who understand the area, even if you are not there to do so yourself.

Them

You are incorrectly linking money earned with ability to help. Time and desire are much better indicators, and much richer investments than the types of monetary gifts either one of us could ever hope to give.

Still, I can't imagine why you would look so far for people to help when there are plenty you could make a difference for in your own community.

Me

Through donations to village reach, one can avert infant deaths for about $500 each. I don't know any way to have anywhere near this level of positive impact spending time in my local community.

Them

What do they do with the 500 dollars? That doesn't seem to make sense. Do they give the infant a $500 anti-death pill? How do you know it really takes a constant stream of $500 for each infant? And what effect does the result of that $500 have on those communities?

And not to trash on human life, but why is averting infant death in a faraway country a better use of resources than getting involved in your own community and enriching the lives of those around you?

Me

What do they do with the 500 dollars?

Village reach spends the money on "health care access in remote, underserved places by improving the medical supply delivery systems". Givewell calculates that village reach is spending about $41 for each additional child fully immunized. They use a disease control priorities report's calculation that around 1 in 13 children not fully immunized would otherwise die. Multiplying these, you get ~$500 per death averted. You can read more details here.

why is averting infant death in a faraway country a better use of resources than getting involved in your own community?

Death is really bad. When children die their families go through a lot of pain. And the children don't get to experience the joys of being human.

The lives of the people around me are already pretty rich. Spending my time working in software I can earn enough to donate to avert about one death per week. I don't see a way to have that level of positive impact in my local community.

It's also the case that a lot of things that I do entirely for fun enrich my local community. I play, call, and organize contra dances. I play music with people and call dances at parties. I host game nights and jamming parties. But I don't do anything for somerville or boston. I don't buy local or go to farmers markets. If my motivation is trying to do good instead of trying to have fun, I can do far more good with international aid.

Me

Is it ok with you if I copy this conversation over to my blog? I think you do a good job of presenting a different perspective than I normally have there.

Them

I'd like for my name not to be attached to it if that's possible, which I know is lame and annoying, but I unfortunately have to be careful about espousing my beliefs in a public place because [redacted].

This is an issue I care a lot about, so if anyone else has information or reasons that mightd convince me I've misevaluated either local action or remote donation, I would be very much interested in hearing it.

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