Three-quarters of charitable initiatives 'have no impact', says author William MacAskill

The proponent of effective altruism tells a discussion event that most programmes do nothing, and some are even harmful

William MacAskill
William MacAskill

Seventy-five per cent of charitable initiatives have no impact, with some of them having a negative effect, according to William MacAskill, author of the book Doing Good Better.

Speaking at a discussion called Idealistic, Ostentatious or Indispensable? Examining the Utopian Aims of Philanthropy, held as part of the LSE Marshall Institute Literary Festival in London last night, MacAskill, who is an associate professor of philosophy at Oxford University, said there was a huge discrepancy between the majority of charitable programmes, which he said had no effect on their beneficiaries, and the most effective ones.

MacAskill’s book, published last year, strongly advocates the concept of "effective altruism" – a movement urging people who want to do good to use the resources at their disposal in the most effective ways possible.

"Most programmes don’t really achieve anything," MacAskill said. "The best estimate we have is that about 75 per cent of social programmes, when tested, were found to have no impact at all; some are harmful, but that’s definitely the small minority, like Scared Straight."

Scared Straight was a US initiative that was the subject of a number of documentary TV series, the first in 1978, the most recent in 2015. It was set up to stop young offenders from ending up in prison by getting them to spend time with inmates.

MacAskill said that although re-offending rates fell among those that took part, some studies indicated that reoffending rates would have fallen further if the programme had never been run.

MacAskill, who donates everything he earns above £24,000 a year to charity, said it would be a mistake for people to donate to arts causes such as the opera if they wanted their donations to have the greatest possible effect on improving people’s lives.

He said that donors should aim their giving at beneficiaries in developing countries rather than in the UK because the typical British citizen was 100 times richer than the poorest 600 million people in the world. "You can therefore do about 100 times much more to improve their lives as you can to improve our lives," he said.

But the event chair Sir Thomas Hughes-Hallett, chair of the Marshall Institute, established as a centre for philanthropy and social entrepreneurship at the London School of Economics last year, challenged MacAskill’s viewpoint.

"I sometimes think that this economic formula for where to give is slightly too simplistic because there are conditions and problems we face as human beings that have got f-all to do with money," he said. "Do you really want to discriminate against those who are in great pain who happen to be elderly or lonely in a country you think is rich? We have to be slightly careful about just saying it’s only the poor who have challenges."

Hughes-Hallett said he considered philanthropy to be effective if it only benefited the donor, even if it had no impact on the beneficiary.

MacAskill told Third Sector after the event that his estimate that 75 per cent of programmes were ineffective was derived from research by the US-based Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy.

He said research by the Cochrane Collaboration, a non-profit institute that assesses the evidence behind health and social programmes, had reached a similar conclusion.

For more on effective altruism, see the March edition of Third Sector, out on Thursday.

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