The 3 charities which most deserve our support

There are at least 1.5 million charities world-wide. Which ones should one give to?

That’s a hard question, and I don’t have an answer for everyone, but with some research and reading I do have an answer for me. Each of the charities represents a theme that is important to me.

The charities are: Give Directly, Cryonics UK and the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute. And the themes are:

  • Making life better, right now, for those most in need
  • Improving humans, so that the future is as good as possible for everyone
  • Addressing existential risk, to help ensure that there is any human future at all

These themes interlink. We have a moral obligation to make the world better for everyone now. Making the future as good as possible is a duty we owe to everyone alive and yet to be born. And the value of either of those is pretty limited if we wipe ourselves out in 5 or 50 years time. But that doesn’t explain why I picked the charity for each of these themes that I did.

So to answer that question…

Why Give Directly?

GiveWell is not the same as Give Directly. GiveWell is another charity started in 2007 by 8 folk who previously worked for hedge funds. They had the same question as me: of the many charities, which are most worth donating too?

You can slice this question in multiple ways. One (somewhat) easy way of answering the question is to look at the percentage of the donations received which are actually spent on the charitable purpose, whether that’s supplying bed nets, providing palliative care for cancer victims or supporting the education of children from socio-economically deprived homes.

The problem is that this doesn’t tell you how much benefit comes from spending money on that charitable purpose. Is the education of poor children more valuable than palliative care for the terminally ill? This is ultimately a value judgement, to use a technical philosophic term, and really it means that you just have to decide.

But you can do better than “intuition” or “trusting your gut”, and that’s what Give Well provide: a transparent and evidence based investigation of other not-for-profit’s. Funded by donations themselves, they publish the results of their research and let individuals make their own decisions. This is Effective Altruism. They also open their own kimono – here’s their original business case.

GiveWell have identified a number of top charities, with excellent impact and high percentage spend on their charitable purpose. Give Directly is one of them, focusing on direct cash transfers using mobile banking to those individual African homes which are most in need. Others focus on malaria prevention and deworming.

As a self-confessed economic liberal, I think it’s best to push the charity spending as close to the “front line” as possible, and reading about GD makes me very happy with them as an organisation. But actually, at the end of the day I would be confident that any money I donated to any one of GiveWell’s top charities would be well used.

Why Cryonics UK

There is a lot that could be done to improve humans. That’s undeniable.

At a simplistic sweep, we are self-centred, short-sighted (always metaphysically, sometimes physically), constrained by our experience and controlled by our emotions.

As we get older we’re less of these things. We might not be happier, but we’re wiser. Living longer is the best way to be a better person.

But we also all get sick, injured and die.

And when someone dies, we all lose. The person themselves and also everyone who knew them or was in any way associated with them. Every death is a disaster.

Which is a funny way of looking at it. Death is inevitable, right?

But does it need to be? And what happens if it isn’t? How much would we all gain if we could just stop dying?

Worth a read.

You can solve that problem by “curing death”, and step by step we’re doing that. But whether we cure death in time for any particular person – you or me or anyone else – is a crapshoot. And that’s the motivation for cryonics.

It wasn’t until 1990 that every UK ambulance finally got a portable defibrillator. And it wasn’t much before that when, if someone keeled over on the street with a heart attack, they’d be considered dead. In 1947, the heart of a 14-year old boy undergoing open chest surgery stopped. It was restarted, the first successful use of a defibrillator on a person. Ever since then, and especially with the subsequent development of those external, portable defibrillators and their deployment to ambulances, our definition of death has shifted. Now if you keel over on the sidewalk with a heart attack you aren’t dead – you’re very much alive. And with any luck you’ll soon be in an ambulance.

So it turns out that “being dead” is a pretty amorphous concept. It depends on your ambulance. And cryonics is an ambulance to a future hospital, one which doesn’t exist yet but which might be able to fix whatever’s killing you now.

Of course cryonics isn’t actually an ambulance. Cryonics is the preservation-through-cooling of someone who is legally dead. By perfusing the individual with chemicals that prevent ice crystals forming, their temperature can be safely lowered to the point at which molecular motion ceases without the water in their body ever freezing. That’s right – cryonics patients don’t freeze. They vitrify, like glass.

At this point, to be clear, you have not solved the patient’s problem. In fact you’ve made it worse. Their blood has been mostly swapped out for antifreeze, they’re upside down and they’re stored at 77 Kelvin. Before they can possibly be considered fit and well again, you need to fix whatever killed them, warm them up, undo any damage caused by the antifreeze and repair any damage caused by vitrification.

But you’ve also stopped them from rotting. And you’ve dodged apoptosis, the automatic self-destruct our body’s cells go through when they’re deprived of oxygen for more than a few minutes. It all sounds ludicrously science fiction – but it’s not. Cryonics is used all the time for preserving eggs, sperm and embryos. And experiments on other species and organs are positive (this is a couple of years old but otherwise a good summary of the state of the art).

To summarise: Death and the ill health associated with aging is the elephant in the room, an enormous cost that we shouldn’t pay any longer than we have to. It’s not obvious when we’ll work out all the details, but I’m confident we will and cryonics is the rear guard action that saves as much as possible while we work it out. In short, cryonics can help almost anybody, regardless of what’s killing them.

So cryonics is the obvious thing to support. But why Cryonics UK?

That’s easy. I’m in the UK, they want volunteers to donate time as well as money and so I can give both.

Why GCRI?

Existential risk is a funny beast. It has always existed, in the form of large asteroids, alien invasions, a passing blackhole, a supervolcano or an uncomfortably close supernova. There isn’t much we can do about those except get our eggs into more than one planetary basket ASAP. I’m a fan of SpaceX.

But beginning with the Cold War, we’ve been looking at an ever growing ecosystem of existential risks. Nuclear weapons. Genetically engineered killer plagues. Nanotechnology. Hostile super AI’s. Global warming. Cyber. Did anyone die because WannaCry locked the NHS out of their own network? What happens if ransomware permanently shuts down the UK’s electrical network and we have to rebuild the whole damn thing from scratch? I’ve got a smart meter now and I think it looks like a bullseye.

In short, there are a lot of problems here and a lot of ways that things could go wrong.

It’s also unclear what a solution even looks like. Nick Bostrom thinks we need better insight, better technology and better coordination amongst ourselves. This sounds sensible, but it is not exactly a specific suggestion.

So academic research is where we should begin. In the same way that early research into relativity and nuclear physics is what enabled the Manhattan project, academic research into understanding and mitigating existential risk is the best way to make progress.

And Nick Bostrom’s Future of Humanity Institute (FHI) would have been an easy suggestion at this point, the but the FHI is big and my donation will be small, so its marginal impact would be low. Far better to support someone small. The Global Catastrophic Risk Institute is comparatively tiny, numbering only 20 members and running on a budget of less than $200,000 a year. However, they do critical research that no one else does and maybe a little bit of money from me will help them do a bit more.

So what does all this mean?

GCRI, Cryonics UK and Give Directly are the three charities I support. Writing this blog post has forced me to do the reading and thinking to come to a conclusion. But back to gifts: If you want to give me a one I’d be flattered if you’d donate to one of these charities instead (but don’t tell me how much).

More widely, I would love to know which charities you think deserve our support most and why. Comments and suggestions are very welcome!

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