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Why saving lives is more complicated than you'd think

We’ve all seen the adverts: ‘an incredibly small sum donation could save a child’s life!’ But is it really that simple? And if we believe it is, does it affect our ability to really make a difference?

Cost of saving a life

"I was disappointed to learn that even by donating 10% of my income to charity, I would annually be saving not 1000’s, not 100’s, nor even 10’s of lives."

My personal journey of effectiveness-minded giving began with the UK based nonprofit Giving What We Can, whose members pledge to give 10% of their lifetime earnings to charity.

On a perusal of their website, you'll find a tool into which you can enter your salary, which then neatly pops out an estimation on how many human lives you have the potential to save were you to take give 10%.

Now, admittedly, at the time I was working as a full-time jobbing musician – not exactly “raking it in.” Nonetheless, I was disappointed to learn that even by donating 10% of my income to charity - something I considered a substantial commitment - I would annually be saving not 1000’s, not 100’s, nor even 10’s of lives. I could expect to save one.

It is a necessary caveat at this juncture to acknowledge that the concept of saving lives is narrow (and arguably western-centric) interpretation of doing good, and that altruism is of course not limited to this metric. However for the sake of argument and consistency, I’ll stick with it here.

So why my surprise?

The honest truth is naivety.

Having grown up in privileged surroundings in a rich country, without really digging into the vastly complex area that is international development, it can be tempting to imagine that helping people on the other side of the world is easy. To imagine that their needs are uncomplicated and inexpensive, and all that's needed is to throw money at the problems. Right? Not so. (There’s a great video of Moonpig founder Nick Jenkins talking about this realisation at our 2018 forum.)

The biases I held were likely influenced by the marketing of some of the more well-known charities, whose campaigns might feature messages along the lines of “for the price of one coffee, you could save a life in Africa.” Whilst such organisations may be doing incredibly important work, and could perhaps be forgiven for using hyperbole to attract donors, it led to a wildly inflated sense of confidence and influence in me. And I imagine I wasn’t alone in that.

Our understanding of social change is naive

So why is the cost so much higher than the price of a flat white?

First, there is the simple truth that helping people, especially at scale, is difficult. The myriad of challenges faced in low-income countries, or any country for that matter, are a result of a complex mix of historical, political, structural, environmental and economic factors.

We also have a tendency to conflate outputs and outcomes

The reality is that giving a child a school uniform does not guarantee them a good education, and immunisation against a fatal disease does not automatically equate to a long and healthy life. These are crucial endeavors, but we have to be realistic about what they mean. Finding out how to achieve the ultimate outcomes we care about is a learning process that is far from complete. More on this further down.

Third, we have a tendency not to consider the alternative. In order to achieve an accurate estimation of our contribution, we have to consider impact counterfactually. What is the marginal impact of our donation compared against the scenario in which we make no donation?

Let’s take the example of anti-malarial bed nets: the cost of one net is $5. Does this mean that by donating this amount you save a life?

Of course not. Since this is a preventative measure, we can’t know for sure whether the recipient of the net would have contracted malaria without the net, let alone lost their life to it.

The situation is further complicated when we consider the idea that a donation to a particular organisation may in reality just be a “reshuffling of the pack.” That is to say, by funding the implementation of one intervention, are we by default directing resources away from another? Or - international development being the crowded space that is is - what’s to say that the work you're supporting wouldn’t have been carried out by a different organisation anyway - perhaps even with more efficiency?

Finally, there is so much more to effectiveness than simply the cost of the materials involved in an intervention. Quoting Peter Singer from his book The Life You Can Save “oral rehydration treatment for diarrhea may cost only a few cents, but it costs money to get it to each home and village so that it will be available when a child needs it, and to educate families in how to use it.”

What is the actual cost of saving a life?

Charity evaluator GiveWell’s current estimation for the cost per life saved by Against Malaria Foundation - one of it’s top recommended charities - is $7,500. It is essential to state that this is simply a best (albeit well educated) guess. GiveWell are transparent about this fact, and go into much depth on why cost-effectiveness is so difficult to measure, and why we should be wary of attributing too much weight to these figures when considering our giving options.

$7,500 might seem like a high figure, but, it's important to put it into perspective: consider that in the UK, the National Health Services consider it cost-effective to spend £20,000-£30,000 in order to gain one year of healthy life. Even thinking conservatively and interpreting “saving a life” as adding another 30 years of good health to a person's life, with some quick number crunching we can see how these figures suggest that it is potentially over 100 times less costly to save lives in low-income countries than in the western world.

The good news

The good news is that as smart donors, we can help make it easier to save a life. As mentioned above, even a well-thought out social program may not lead to the ultimate desired outcomes (some can even cause harm), because in so many areas, we simply don’t know what works and what doesn’t, or do not have enough evidence to back our assumptions. But with research, evidence collection and thoughtful analysis, we can find out.

For example, organisations such as J-PAL and IPA work with charities to conduct Randomised Controlled Trials (RCT's) that aim to work out the true causal link between social programs and outcomes. For example, an RCT might compare malaria inflicted fatality rates over a given time, comparing regions where bed nets have been distributed by a particular organisation to areas where they haven’t. The result would be a better estimate of the counterfactual impact of that particular programme.

It is important to state that RCTs are by no means a silver bullet, and there's been lots of interesting and valuable discussion in how to measure the impact of interventions that are hard (if possible at all) to measure this way, such as policy change or campaigning, or funding innovation. In any case seeking more evidence and making use of the existing evidence is highly valuable.

By supporting evidence-driven and transparent organisations that prioritise trials and evaluation, we can help increase and fine-tune knowledge within international development.

We have the opportunity to have impact reaching far beyond the immediate good achieved by funding effective interventions; you will be helping figure out what works, and so ultimately be bringing down the cost of saving lives, making it easier and easier for others who want to give back to do so strategically and impactfully.

About the author


Adam Millest

Former Programmes Administrator

Adam formerly worked at Founders Pledge, coming from a background in music and education. Previously, he was a freelance drummer on tours, cruise ships and in theatre orchestra pits, then turned his energies to teaching, with a particular focus on working with children with special learning difficulties. He has a BA Hons degree in Popular Music, and enjoys sport, walks in the countryside, and writing his own blog.