Should we contribute to organizations that focus on saving lives today, immediately making the world a better place (with spin-offs lasting longer), or fund education to benefit future generations?
Often we hear catchphrases like "without an education there is no future" or "without water one cannot survive," as if it is obvious that we should focus first on one or the other. But many people go without proper education and access to clean drinking water. The difficult task that the expert panel undertook was to look at the extra good that an additional donation—even as little as $10—could achieve with respect to many good causes.
The contrast between saving lives today and aiming at tomorrow becomes clear when efforts to tackle global warming are included in the comparison. How could $10 best be spent? Should we, say, buy carbon offsets, or donate to a charity providing micronutrient supplements?
By putting all benefits to individuals, communities, and countries in monetary terms, we can compare the two options. Expert researchers for the Copenhagen Consensus found that carbon offsets are a relatively ineffective way of reining in global warming and reducing its effects—$10 would avoid about $3 of damage from climate change. By contrast, $10 spent on Vitamin A supplements would achieve more than $170 of benefits in health and long-term prosperity.
One lesson we can draw is that while global warming may exacerbate problems like malnutrition, communities bolstered by adequate nutrition will generally be less vulnerable to climate-based threats. Overall, we can typically best help through direct interventions, including micronutrient supplements, fortification, biofortification, and nutritional promotion.
There are billions of stories like Dulu Bibi's that demand our attention. By embracing simple lessons from economics, all of us—individuals, governments, and philanthropies—can ensure that our generosity yields the greatest benefit possible.
This article comes from Project Syndicate.