Charities Should Perform Experiments

The most recent episode of This American Life spends the first part of the show examining two different charities, GiveDirectly and Heifer International. GiveDirectly is a revolutionary new organization that gives money to poor people in Kenya. Its philosophy is pretty straightforward: poor people know what they need most so just give them the money to do so. It has seen remarkable results in Kenya and The Life You Can Save ranks it as the fourth most effective charity. It was started by a group of grad students in a development economics class who decided to give money to Africans and see what happened. More importantly, they’re very data-centric and are committed to figuring out whether giving poor Africans money is effective. The grad students are so committed to it that they’re running a randomized controlled trial where researchers are traveling to two villages right next to each other, one where the residents received money from GiveDirectly and one where they didn’t. It’s a massive survey with hundreds of questions that are trying to isolate down how the money affected all aspects of the Kenyans’ lives:

Have health outcomes improved? Has your income improved? Have you been able to feed yourself and have basic nutrition? How have family dynamics evolved? Do you feel like you have more respect in the family? School attendance, all these sorts of things. You do those in both cases and you compare.

Heifer International, on the other hand, takes a different approach to helping poor Africans: it gives them a cow. Planet Money’s Jacob Goldstein, who travelled to Kenya for this report, commented on how large the cows were:

And let’s just say right off, these were some very impressive cows. They looked strong and healthy. They looked like they could eat the other cows we saw in Kenya.

You can imagine how helpful a strong, healthy cow would be for poor, rural Kenyans. Overall, both charities are looking to improve the lives of impoverished Africans, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be looking to figure out which charity is best at doing so. Yet, that is basically Heifer International’s position, at least according to the Vice President of Heifer’s Africa programs, Elizabeth Bintliff. GiveDirectly challenged Heifer International to a charity-vs-charity competition in the same manner of the experiment above. They’d take two villages right next to each other and GiveDirectly would give money to residents of one while Heifer would give cows to the residents of another. Then they’d have independent researchers come in and collect all the data and figure out which one improved the lives of the Kenyans the most. This is the exact type of research that charities need to be doing. But Bintliff declined:

I mean, as an African woman, that sounds to me like a terrible idea. I mean, it sounds like an experiment, and we’re not about experiments. These are lives of real people and we have to do what we believe is correct. We can’t make experiments with people’s lives. They’re just– they’re people. It’s too important.

Bintliff obviously is very committed to Heifer and has devoted her life to helping Africans. It’s very noble, but her hesitance to use data hinders the ability of charities to help people. Maybe Heifer is very effective at improving the lives of Africans. Maybe it isn’t. We don’t know right now, because we don’t have the data. Yet, we have every ability to collect the data! Researchers actually can do a pretty good job of measuring happiness. And I understand that Bintliff doesn’t want to perform experiments, but charities will be so much more effective and help poor Africans even more if we do perform experiments. It’s a shame, because GiveDirectly has seen such promising results that I’d be fascinated to see how Heifer stacks up. But it looks like we’ll never know. In the end, Bintliff’s refusal to perform the experiments hurts those who she’s looking to help.


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