I wasn’t sure that I wanted to meet Toby Ord and his wife Bernadette Young. They have a dangerous reputation. They might take me for thousands of pounds. They’re not criminals. They don’t use weapons, or pick pockets.
They just demonstrate oh-so-reasonably how prosperous we all are, at least by comparison with the world’s billions, and how many lives could be transformed by our generosity. In the year since they started their movement, Giving What We Can, literally dozens of people have pledged to give away at least a tenth of their income — for ever.
Opening the door to their rented flat in Oxford, Ord looked harmless, as you’d expect from an academic philosopher specialising in ethics, who happens not to be wearing any shoes.
I followed him into the large but unshowy living room and sat opposite him on a floral sofa. Hardly waiting for me to open my notebook, Australian-born Ord explained how he first started to give away his dosh.
As an undergraduate, he says, he used to make idealistic statements about politics. “And people would say, ‘Well, if that’s what you think, why don’t you give all your money to Africa?’ It usually shut me up, but over time I thought about it. If we care about suffering and we want to help people then how much can we achieve?”
Ethical philosophy usually addresses problems beyond the scope of the philosopher to make great change directly, he says. But Ord found a way to make it personal when a friend gave him a vast book comparing the efficacy of various medical interventions and their cost. Ord discovered that some interventions have 10,000 times the effect of others — at the same cost.
“Imagine how you would feel if you went into the high street and found one shop selling the same thing as the shop next door for 10,000 times as much! Of course it wouldn’t happen, because the market wouldn’t allow it. But with charities it does. Two people could each give £1,000 to two charities and one would save a person’s life for a year and the other might save 10,000 years of life. And they wouldn’t know!”
He did some sums. He worked out that he was among the richest 4 per cent of people in the world and that if he gave away 10 per cent of his income he would still be among the richest 5 per cent. That somebody in his work might earn £1.5 million over a lifetime, and could comfortably live off just £500,000. And, finally, that if he gave away the remaining £1 million to the most cost-effective interventions, he could secure 400,000 years of quality life for people less privileged than himself. Four hundred thousand? “That’s a lot of life!” he beams.
It’s not always a question of “saving a life”, he explains, it’s also about quality of life in the time remaining. This is roughly how the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) calculates if treatments should be made available on the NHS — how long and how well people will live afterwards.
NICE won’t pay for treatments that cost more than £2.30 per hour of good health afterwards. Ord’s interventions are stunningly more cost-effective:
For just £2.20 his favourite charities, Schistosomiasis Control Initiative and Deworm The World, secure a year of good health, tackling neglected tropical diseases carried by parasitical worms that cause blindness, kidney damage and disfigurement.
“This is the difference between saving a single life and saving a life every day of your career,” he enthuses. “You might think that to achieve these amazing things you have to give up your career and move to another country to work for an NGO. But you don’t have to do that. You can carry on with whatever career you like.”
In 2005, he wrote about this on his blog and was astonished to receive messages from others wanting to give away large chunks of income.
He wasn’t sure at first how it would work. “My first thought was that I would be at the supermarket wondering if I should buy the cheapest cereal. But that is the way to go mad. It’s better to make a budget every year and treat the rest of the money as if it doesn’t belong to you.”
His wife explains: “By setting ourselves a limit we don’t have to think about every bit of spending.”
By the window there are two desks with two computers, Ord’s a rather whizzy Apple with a huge screen. He says that it’s more cost-effective to have a good one. It enables him to work more efficiently, and to give away more cash. Aside from the computers, the couple don’t seem to live it up. “Our greatest luxury is flying to Melbourne to see relatives,” says Young. She’s the more likely to be “tempted to buy shiny things”, but that’s not a real problem, she says, and I believe her.
They decided to give away a portion of their income while still students. “Now, even though we’re giving away a large part of our income, we still have more than we had then,” says Ord. It’s much harder to start doing it, they concede, if you have got used to a large disposable income, or have mortgages and children. This partly explains why so many of their followers are students.
“Also, we realise it’s easy to do this in Oxford,” says Young. “It’s a beautiful place and there are so many interesting things to do.”
Religious traditions often emphasise charitable self-deprivation, Ord says, because it helps the soul of the self-deprived — what happens to the money they give away is secondary. His own approach reverses that, it just happens to make him feel good to give away the money.
Good? How can it feel good? “I used to watch TV campaigns asking for support and feel guilty. Now I can face up to them.”
Something troubles me. If increased aid gave everybody long, healthy lives, wouldn’t that create a population explosion, leading to resource shortages and accelerated global warming? “There are many ways that you can greatly improve lives without significantly extending them — for example, curing blindness. Alternatively you could give to groups that promote family planning. Anyway, it seems that if you save the lives of children, families have fewer children.”
I play my ace: shouldn’t they be ashamed of themselves, talking publicly about how generous they are?
“Public giving can be annoying,” Ord agrees. “But there is a middle way, doing it without being boastful. The most common comment we hear from people is, ‘Oh, I’d like to give money but other people are not doing it and I would feel like a sucker if I did’. In other words, people giving money privately can have a bad effect: it leads to a fear that we are doing this on our own and holds other people back.”
One of Young’s friends told her that Toby could afford to give so much away because he’s married to a doctor.
“But then she realised that I’m doing it too,” says Young brightly. “We’re still good friends!”
But doesn’t their goodness get up people’s noses? “I don’t think we get up people’s noses … very much,” says Ord. “Some people say it’s unfair that they can’t join our movement because they don’t give enough. But we’re not saying that you are a bad person if you are not a part of it.”
1264 words. First published 13 December 2010. © Times Newspapers Ltd.