In an intimate wedding ceremony with his laptop, LUKE ILOTT vowed to give 10% of his future earnings to charity. He thinks we should all do the same

Fuck the laptop, let’s start serious.

There are two things that apply to all of us at Cambridge. First, we’re on the cusp of adult life, about to enter the real world and face all the responsibility it can throw at us. Second, we’re in the biggest ivory tower we’ll ever inhabit, delightfully pooh-poohing the idea that any spectre more sobering than getting spoons in bumps, or bumped in Spoons, is waiting in the wings for us.

If you’re anything like me then you’ll have spent your time at university trying not to think about your own potential. It’s far easier to eat, drink and be miserable than to stand up, step back and realise just how much you can achieve.

If you try your hardest, give up sleep, and turn friends into competitors and amphetamines into friends you might wind up with some pretty impressive achievements on your CV. You might even get your name on a front page or two. On the other hand, you could throw all your efforts into a goal, only to see others swan ahead of you and reach it with ease.

But at least then you could spout that old line: “What can you do, I tried my hardest.”

We need to challenge this idea that success is about how much you put in. It’s just another way of hiding from ourselves, and having a handy excuse when things don’t quite go to plan.

lukei

Beat your quarter-life crisis: become a philanthropist. Luke did.

You might have got further if you didn’t waste your youth throwing everything you had into Sisyphean pursuits, and instead put a fraction of that energy into looking for the easy targets. There are chances to succeed lying right there in front of you.

What if I told you that poverty was one of those easy targets? That disease was no biggie? That every child in the world could have the education they deserved, just like that?

You’d laugh.You’d scoff. You’d say I was making light of a tough situation.

The fact is we make such mountains out of the suffering of our fellow humans that there’s nothing for it but to simply laugh it off. We give up, turn around and carry on making dinner.

Facing up to suffering, just like facing up to our potential, shouldn’t be daunting. In fact, the two go hand-in-hand. One of the easiest, and certainly the greatest, things you can achieve in your twenties is to alleviate the suffering of thousands of other people with the click of a mouse.

Thanks to the people at Giving What We Can, we now know how simple it can be to do immense good. They evaluate charities based on their effectiveness: if I give one pound to that charity instead of this one, will it make more of a difference to another person’s quality of life? The answers do a lot to counter my worries about what on earth I’m going to achieve when I leave university.

If I earn the average Cambridge grad salary next year, and pay my income tax including student loan deductions, the internet tells me I’ll be left with £19,767.57. That’s still plenty. I can spend a quarter of my income on rent, and keep your average one-bed flat in Manchester all to myself. I can spend an eighth of my income on food, and eat as well as a whole average household. I can spend a thirteenth of my income trying pitifully to recreate the Cambridge life, and have myself a Gardies falafel every night.

And with just a tenth of what I earn, I can save five thousand and nineteen people from intolerable suffering by providing the medication that will stave off potentially deadly bilharzia and intestinal worms.

Poverty, disease, hunger… there’s no denying that these are enormous problems. But think about how enormous the potential must be that lies within every student in your building. And then think about the enormous number of people like them around the world.

If each one of us gave just a fraction of our energy to helping the people who would benefit from it the most, we would make this the happiest era in human history. If only a few of us gave a little time and money, we would at the very least ensure that for tens of thousands of other people, discomfort, disfigurement and death no longer lingered menacingly on the horizon.

All it takes is to think about success a little differently. Lately, I’ve been trying my best to do just that.

It’s why I made a pretty special pledge with my laptop earlier this week. And it’s why you should too.

 

 

  • Yes

    #AcolytesForSocialJustice

  • This is great, but…

    there’s a problem with the SCI figures – the GiveWell analysis assumes that as you give money to SCI, the amount given to them by governments (about 90% of their current funds) will increase in proportion. This is unlikely to be the case, so you’re probably only saving 501 people, not 5,019.

    THIS IS STILL AWESOME AND YOU SHOULD STILL DO IT, I’m just a pedantic knobhead.

    • I’m no expert but…

      isn’t it a rather massive leap to go from saying government contribution will not increase in proportion… to…. only saving 501 (not 5019). As the latter assumes that somehow government contribution will drop to 0% – even if there were an effect, this is probably a gross exaggeration!

  • anon

    maybe you can help a lot of people but 5019 or whatever anyone else could save doesn’t solve the problem since that’s just a tiny number compared to the millions of people who are starving in africa

    • Perspective

      This is one person of many, and also presumes no pay increase during life. To re-emphasise: for a working life of 40 years say, with no pay increase from £19,767.57, treatment for 7 of the most harmful NTDs for 158,140 people for a year can be provided. In other words, treating a small city for a year (with treatment at 50p per person per year). I repeat, that’s A SINGLE PERSON’S contribution (on a below average wage!).

  • Holy smoke

    That vicar is hot. He can baptise me any day ;)

  • Your laptop

    is sexy, and you know it. Definitely gonna check it out myself right here https://www.facebook.com/events/1581545938749145/?fref=ts

  • Average Dr

    By marrying my laptop just like Lukey, it looks like I can do around 25x more to benefit people’s health than I can do spending hours in a hospital for the rest of my life (https://80000hours.org/2012/09/how-many-lives-does-a-doctor-save-part-2-diminishing-marginal-returns/) #give10

  • M

    I think that although the basic argument that ‘If people didn’t donate in this way then they wouldn’t donate at all’ may be true, it is worth being aware of effective altruism’s role in the area of charity and development. The way in which these donations are managed results in a ‘top-down’ direction of funds to NGOs and charities that are decided by those in organisations like GiveWell (the organisation that Giving What We Can takes its lead from) who use their own metrics and decide themselves which charities are ‘the best value for their buck’. This will give them a huge amount of control over where the funding goes, something that could be really damaging to the entire sector. We’ve already seen that GiveWell have put GiveDirectly as one of their top charities despite widespread criticism and disbelief. Although Giving What We Can have listened to this and decided not to listen to GiveWell on this specific charity, they are still taking their direction from GiveWell and have themselves been found to have estimated the impact of SCI (one of their key charities) in a flawed way. Honestly, impact assessment in development projects is such a difficult task that these estimates have been admitted to be very uncertain (this is an area the sector has struggled with for years). It’s also worth mentioning that their concentration on health development is probably due to the considerably more widely available statistics on health, rather than a fair comparison of all sectors.

    Obviously we would rather people gave to charity than didn’t, but my point is that we need to be careful to jump on the bandwagon of what is effectively a social movement (with all of the huge promises and overconfident claims that we see so often in trends on social media). Over the last 70 years the development sector has struggled enormously with poor impact assessment, structural deficiencies and a difficulty with coming to terms with the fact that ‘the West does not always know what is best, we need to adapt our strategies to other locations and cultures and move away from a top-down implementation method’. Do we think that giving the power of directing donations to organisations that may well not be using it in the correct way (and therefore contribute further to the many problems facing the sector) is a risk worth taking? Perhaps people could make a pledge but research the impact of NGOs/charities and choose themselves (perhaps this would be closer to altruism – as it takes a personal interest in actually ensuring they are doing good, rather than clicking a button and feeling good about oneself) or give to organisations like the Gates Foundation (with a proven track record on efficient fund diversion – notably they decided not to fund the Against Malaria Foundation, one of GiveWell’s main charities, despite it being one of their main research areas), rather than giving the power to organisations that just aren’t rigorous enough and could seriously affect and damage the development sector.

    • Smaug123

      I think the point is that in the absence of any hard figures, it’s better for many people to leave the problem of “deciding where charity money should go” to people whose job it is to work these things out under conditions of uncertainty. It’s the same reasoning behind investing in the stock market through a broker: I don’t have the time or expertise to determine where best to donate/invest money, so I hire someone to do it for me. Taking a personal interest doesn’t necessarily ensure I am doing good, because I cannot hope to look at more than (say) ten charities myself without consuming inordinate amounts of time; additionally, donating on the basis of “I get the most warm fuzzies out of this charity” might lead me to spend large amounts of money on [turkey sanctuaries][1] rather than on interventions which might save human lives. I mean, if you have such a particular fondness for turkeys that I would save fifty turkeys rather than one human life (numbers made up, I’m writing this quite fast), then sure, donate to the turkey sanctuary. However, if (like me personally) you have no particular preference for charity, despite having searched around for causes close to my heart or whatever, then it seems better to rely on the opinion of an expert than to come up with my own less-informed one.

      Do you agree with that sentiment? I am perfectly happy to admit that there are many possible interventions, and we have little data on their impacts, but it seems sensible to me that we should prioritise those interventions for which we have the most positive data.

      [1]: http://www.farmsanctuary.org/giving/adopt-a-turkey/

      • M

        Right, you seem to have just focused on just one thing I mentioned. I am aware that the point of Giving What We Can is that people don’t need to weigh up the options themselves and can leave it to others to do so. I also understand the point of the emphasis on ‘effectiveness’, but thanks for your turkeys. But you seem to have missed my other points about the question of whether Give Well are indeed experts, the difficulties experienced by the development sector and how this organisation of giving may act to its detriment. A question I might ask is: if you are pledging to Giving What We Can, which bases its recommended charities predominantly on GiveWell’s recommendations, then would you like to see your money go to the Give Well top chosen charity Giving Directly which has come under a lot of scrutiny for its actual impact (summarised here http://www.ssireview.org/blog/entry/givedirectly_not_so_fast)? Even if Giving What We Can have listened to the criticism and excluded it from their list of charities, they are still basing their decisions on Give Well’s work – which in this particular case has been shown to be flawed.

        My point is literally just that yes, we do want to encourage people to give, but that they should be wary of the statistics like the ‘numbers of lives saved by their money’ and the actual impact that it may be having, given that the figures are estimates with high uncertainties (made by people with an unproven track record). Also, I think that it is important for people to know that this model of funding for the development sector resonates with those aware of previous failings of the sector and could cause it serious problems if large-scale fund diversion is in the hands of people not actually proven to be able to assess impact.

        • Matt Sharp

          “they should be wary of the statistics like the ‘numbers of lives saved by their money and the actual impact that it may be having, given that the figures are estimates with high uncertainties'”

          This is actually something GiveWell have started to emphasise:
          http://www.givewell.org/international/technical/criteria/cost-effectiveness
          (e.g. they make the point that ‘Estimates are generally based on extremely limited information and are therefore extremely rough.)

          If you have specific concerns about the relationship between Giving What We Can/effective altruism and the development sector generally, it would be great if you could discuss them on the facebook group:
          https://www.facebook.com/groups/effective.altruists/

          Alternatively, perhaps you could write a blog piece for GWWC?

          I do think it’s worth looking at the other recommended charities. The UK government is sufficiently convinced by SCI to give them millions in support. And providing bednets to combat malaria, as the Against Malaria Foundation do, has very strong evidence in its favour, helping to reduce the burden of malaria by 50% over the past ~15 years.