Giving What We Can: Oxford brought the founder and director of the Against Malaria Foundation to St. John’s College last night. For those that are unaware, AMF is rated by both the American charity evaluator GiveWell and by Giving What We Can‘s own research team as the most effective charity in the world at reducing suffering. They distribute long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets, which go a long way to combating the toxic physiological, social and economic effects that malaria cripples Third World communities with on a daily basis. By now they can guarantee a bed-net will reach a family for around every $5 donated.
I say they, but the biggest insight gained last night was the extent to which AMF is a mere two-person show running an international aid operation from Mather’s home-office in Fulham. He could teach state departments a thing or two about keeping costs down and running programs like clockwork. Granted, AMF’s success and ability to work in such conditions is currently largely down to the goodwill of Citigroup, Microsoft and many other private firms that offer the free infrastructure their distribution chains depend on, but for the central organisation itself to be so minimalist is still an impressive feat.
A lot of the discussion centred around AMF’s key claim that 100% of donations are guaranteed to be spent on their direct development work, rather than at least partially contributing to their small operational costs. This isn’t a lie, but it is at least mildly deceptive insofar as it conceals the fact that AMF obviously does need some operational financing to function, and this money is still sought in donations. But Mather decided that for now it is best to seek the latter sort of funding from special private benefactors, in order to preserve the truth of the key claim for the general public that their donations will only do real work. He’s convinced, after much experience, that this is the best pitch to get people on board with AMF’s work, given the level of cynicism that dominates public perception of charities.
And cynicism about charities is something Mather has explicit sympathy for, though I suspect the phrase ‘healthy scepticism’ better reflects his attitude. It’s not that most charities are fraudulent, so much as that the job of checking one’s good intentions succeed requires a level of obsessive scrutiny and self-criticism that few have the humility to manage. He told many stories of early AMF failures, and how difficult it is to recognise and overcome the hurdles of ensuring political corruption and black market forces don’t pollute the distribution network for the bed nets. When dependence on the good will and skill of others multiple connections away from you is inevitable, the potential for systemic malfunction is also worryingly high. The rigour of AMF’s mechanisms for checking that what they say they do is done is undoubtedly the most impressive thing about them, and it goes a long way to explaining their unconditional endorsements from the world’s leading charity evaluators.
My allowance for the term arrived in my account this morning. I’ll be donating a tenth of it immediately, which amounts to around £300. I’ve decided to split it such that AMF receive half, and then the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative and GiveDirectly get a quarter each.