Some actual good news from 2016

If you’ve read my past charity evaluations, you’ve seen that Innovations for Poverty Action has rated at or near the top of my rec lists for effective charities.  They perform scientific research on how to effectively help large numbers of people out of poverty, and into healthier, happier, lives.  They focus on identifying high impact, scalable solutions.  Their results impact policies and actions worldwide.

IPA just shared in the Washington Post some of the brighter spots from their last year of research, as well as some takeaways for future giving, in an article entitled, Why 2016 was actually one of the best years on record.  I’m quoting it very extensively here so I can add my own bolding, but it’s worth clicking through and reading the whole thing, particularly if you’re interested in more relevant studies and details:

Between 1990 and 2013 (the last year for which there is good data), the number of people living in extreme poverty dropped by more than half, from 1.85 billion to 770 million. As the University of Oxford’s Max Roser recently put it, the top headline every day for the past two decades should have been: “Number of people in extreme poverty fell by 130,000 since yesterday.” At the same time, child mortality has dropped by nearly half, while literacy, vaccinations and the number of people living in democracy have all increased.

….Here are four things we’ve learned in 2016:

First, give the poor cash. Studies in Kenya and elsewhere show that the simplest way to help is also quite effective…. More and more research shows that when the poor come into a windfall, they spend it on productive things — sending their children to school, fixing the roof that’s letting in the harsh weather or investing in a business….

Second, innovative health-care delivery can dramatically improve outcomes…. [In Uganda, NGOs have tried training women who do Avon-style door-to-door sales to also] perform basic health checks for children to look for symptoms that warrant getting the child to a clinic. One randomized evaluation released this year concluded that taking this health care to people’s homes reduced child mortality (for those younger than 5) by an astounding 27 percent and infant mortality (less than a year old) by 33 percent.

Third, access to mobile money may lift people out of poverty in large numbers.…. Research from this year shows that as [Kenya mobile money system] M-Pesa became more available in a local area, households became less poor — particularly households run by women. The study estimates that 185,000 women changed professions from subsistence agriculture to business and retail and that 194,000 households were lifted out of extreme poverty.

Finally, mobile phone technologies are leapfrogging the reach of traditional telecom infrastructure, and text message reminders are proving to be effective at helping people follow through on things they want to do. One study found that they helped the poor save money. [Others found they can help patients finish taking antimalarial drugs, help educate girls about reproductive health, and reduce student dropout rate.]

The size of the impacts in the cited studies are very impressive, as are the overall numbers for the past ~2 decades.  (It’s a bit silly for the headline to imply that 2016 is one of the best years on record in terms of poverty reduction, though, given that we won’t be able to get good data for a bit — but these are definitely some great research results that will presumably steepen the decline of poverty going forward.)  I’m also encouraged, as someone who hears a lot of well-intentioned suggestions from the tech sector about how tech can take on problems like poverty, to hear that some mobile solutions are actually substantially effective in this problem space.

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where should I donate money?

As the year draws to a close, I am trying to decide where to donate money, and feeling grateful that my company is generous enough to match my donations.

There are lots of guides for how to give wisely out there: (e.g., GiveWell’s basic, advanced, and now vs. later analysis; GivingWhatWeCan’s tipsCharityNavigator — caveat: why effectiveness, not efficiency, should be the focus of donations).  Many experts and evaluative organizations have also made  endorsements for where to give (e.g., GiveWell’s top three charities, Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy’s list of social programs that workPhilanthropedia’s top charities in many categories).  Effectivism has also covered methods for evaluating charities multiple times. Despite these tips, I’ve spent probably around 30 hours in the past few months trying to decide where and how to donate money this year.

I decided to show my work in case it’s useful for anyone else who’s trying to prioritize.  I’m not saying anyone else should have the same principles or choose the same charities.  But perhaps my thinking will help you with your own.

First, my criteria for choosing causes: » Continue reading “where should I donate money?”

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preschool has a whoppingly huge impact on disadvantaged children

[UPDATE: I think I was not skeptical enough in this post, and relied on too few sources (see comments for some useful caveats).  I hope to do some follow up posts eventually and delve into both Tough’s work and other work on early childhood interventions and educational interventions some more.]

Planet Money recently had a story on the radical effectiveness of preschool at changing the lives of poor and at-risk kids, lasting long past preschool.  A few examples of how kids’ lives improved if they’d attended preschool vs. if they hadn’t:

  • teen pregnancy rates were far lower
  • arrest rates were far lower in kids
  • employment rates and income were substantially higher
  • the story also implied that homelessness rates were lower.
The show transcript isn’t up yet, so I don’t have the exact numbers, but the changes were really impressive — I think that there was as much as a 50% decrease in the rates of bad things happening later in life for kids who attended preschool.
This American Life expanded on this theme in another recent show.  They talked to Paul Tough, author of the book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.  Tough explained that preschool teaches children “soft skills” — “qualities like tenacity, resilience, impulse control”, which then allow them to do better in all sorts of aspects of life.  You can also teach people these skills later in life, but starting early means they’re less likely to fall behind in school or get in trouble.

An economic analysis cited by Planet Money indicated that making sure kids go to preschool (or presumably otherwise learn “soft skills” early on) is one of the most effective ways you can improve a child’s life, on many surprising dimensions.  It also seems to be one of the best ways to have broader impacts on society as well, given the large effects on the above issues.  As a billionaire investor said, investing in preschools is a good way to treat some of the causes of issues rather than just the symptoms.

Has anyone read Paul Tough’s book?  I’m interested, but not sure whether or not there’s substantially more to it beyond the coverage I’ve already heard.

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