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Academic leads 'giving revolution' by pledging £1m of future earnings to charity

Academic leads 'giving revolution' by pledging £1m of future earnings to charity

News (UK)

A £30k-a-year Oxford University academic has pledged to donate £1m, two thirds of his expected future earnings, to effective overseas charities involved in tackling poverty.

Dr Toby Ord, a practical ethics researcher from the university’s Future of Humanity Institute made the pledge in launching a new society called Giving What We Can.

Members of Giving What We Can will take a public pledge to donate at least 10% of their salary to whichever organisations they believe can most effectively use it to fight poverty in the developing world. They can also pledge to donate more, as Ord has. Prominent moral philosopher Peter Singer has joined Ord, his wife and twenty others in making the pledge.

At the launch, at Balliol College, Oxford, Professor Alan Fenwick from Imperial College London talked about his work fighting neglected tropical diseases through his organisation: Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI). Ord gave him a cheque for £10,000 representing the amount he put aside for charity while a student.

Ord explains: “As an undergraduate, I often argued with my friends about political and ethical matters. I regularly received the retort: ‘if you believe that, why don't you just give all of your money to people starving in Africa?’ . This was meant to show that my position was absurd, but as time passed and I thought more about ethics, I found the conclusion increasingly sensible: why not indeed?”

Instead of just giving his money away, Ord began investigating how he could use it to achieve the largest possible impact. He says, “While it costs about £30,000 to save 'a year of healthy life'  in the UK, the most efficient programmes in developing countries can achieve this for only £2.”

Ord calculates 'years of healthy life' as how long a person lives after being cured of an illness that could have killed them. But it can also include improvements to the quality of a person's life. If a donation makes a person's life 10% better every year for 10 years, that will count as one year of healthy life.

Ord worked out that on an academic’s salary he should be able to earn around £1.5m (in today’s terms) and if he lived like he did as a student, he should be able to give away around £1m of this.

“My student years were not extravagant, but were immensely enjoyable, with the chief enjoyments such as reading beautiful books and spending time with my wife and friends costing almost nothing,” Ord continues.

Ord calculated that in this way he could help save a total of 500,000 years of healthy life for some of the world’s poorest people through interventions focusing on tuberculosis or neglected tropical diseases.

He says: “Life on my current income is very good. If I spent the extra money on myself I could go on holiday more often, get an iPhone, eat out at expensive restaurants. It would be nice, but not all that much better. So I have a choice between greatly improving the lives of tens of thousands of people or adding a few extras to my life. Put like that, it is an easy choice.”

Ord said that, as well as his own commitment, “I realised it would be great if there was an organisation out there that made this stuff clearer for people. Giving What We Can is that organisation.”

The society will share information about the most effective charities, tax effective ways to give and offer ‘a friendly challenge’ for others to join them. Members can choose to give their money to wherever they think it will be most effective in eliminating suffering in the developing world.

The Giving What We Can website will contain resources on giving, links to major reports on poverty, articles on giving and foreign aid, and interactive tools to show how much you can do with your own income. It will also provide information assessing the effectiveness of different aid programmes.

“In some ways this may be the largest impact that we will have,” says Dr Ord.  “Everyone can use this information to give more effectively.”

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