Growth is the best charity

5. General

Growth is the best charity

This week’s flagship article is about effective (and ineffective) altruism and how to choose the right cause to donate.


📄 Article/s of the week

a. ‘Altruism and Development – It’s complicated…’ by Shruti Rajagopalan

Shruti leads the Indian Political Economy Program at the Mercatus Centre, a think-tank based at the George Mason University (directed by reputed economist Tyler Cowen).
In this eye-opening article, Shruti lays down the case for growth as the most effective form of altruism.
She starts with the vexed issue of air pollution in north India and wonders if that is a good cause to donate to.
She then steps back and mulls the question: How do we even decide which charity to support?

I looked up the top charities recommended by GiveWell—the top two work on reducing Malaria deaths. Malaria kills between 600,000 and 700,000 each year. And GiveWell is considered one of the most credible evaluators in the philanthropic space. Should I be thinking less about air pollution in Delhi and more about malaria in Africa?

This reflection leads Shruti to an interesting finding: not everything can be quantified in terms of impact:

One simple Google search in, I learned that globally air pollution kills 10 times the number of people killed by malaria. But the reason many researchers and experts feel that the “highest impact” comes from giving to malaria charities is because it is easier to quantify malaria deaths, and quantify malaria interventions by counting doses and nets, which lends itself well to evaluation and comparison.

As Shruti states, just because a problem is not “legible” (easily understood and solved), it does not mean that one should not put efforts to solve it.
In further sections of the article, she delves into the this complex and seemingly intractable problem of air pollution: How bad is it really? What are some of the surprising causes? Is runaway economic growth to blame?
On the last point, Shruti shares this surprising fact (emphasis mine):

There is a new class of environmentalism premised on demonizing economic growth as the reason for air pollution and the consequent evils. But the relationship between economic growth and air pollution is not so straight forward. One hundred years ago, London had worse air quality than Delhi today.


The good news: London solved it:

London solved this by getting richer, reducing its reliance on burning coal, building out a sewage system, transportation system, households switching to gas as cooking fuel, developing a waste disposal and management system, setting standard for vehicles and cleaner fuel, building an underground metro system and bus fleet, relying on innovation and entrepreneurship that developed devices to reduce household pollution and so on. But it took time and increases in both prosperity and state capacity made it possible.

She then shares data points from India’s history to show how problems like malaria (which were severe in the past) have been drastically reduced, driven by economic growth:

Sustained economic growth in India has saved an additional 405 lives per 100,000 in a country with 1.4 billion people. If India had the 1990 death rate from infectious diseases in 2019, an additional 5 million Indians would die each year. That’s the total estimated excess death toll from Covid in India. Economic growth in India has saved those lives every year. And as Indians become prosperous, the number of lives saved will increase without any additional spending on mosquito nets.

Shruti’s final takeaway: economic growth in India and Africa might be the most effective way to be altruistic.

If you want to make the greatest impact in the long term, nothing can beat contributing to institutions working toward increasing economic growth and prosperity in poor regions like Africa and India. Increasing economic growth will help solve both malaria and air pollution. It will be your least attributable contribution, but the one with the highest impact.

b. 3 rules to express your thoughts so that everyone will understand you (Alan Alda)

I’m a big fan of the rule of three in communication. The idea – if you split an idea into three parts it is easier to understand and remember it. Any lesser and it doesn’t seem adequately fleshed out. Any more and they’re too many ideas to remember.

This article is a good summary of the benefits of this approach.


🎧 Podcast episode/s of the week

a. ‘Cautionary Tales – The inventor who almost ended the world’ by Tim Harford

Tim Harford with his exemplary use of narrative techniques tells the cautionary tale of once celebrated inventor, Thomas Midgley Jr..

Why “once”? Because this person was responsible for two of the most harmful chemical inventions in human history: CFCs and leaded petrol. The former led to the hole in the ozone layer while the latter was ‘linked with serious long-term health problems from childhood, including neurological impairment’.

The story teaches us to be careful of second and third-order effects of our actions. And leaves us with a clear lesson from the story – you might still be excused if your actions have unintended consequences; but you cannot be condoned if they had unanticipated consequences – effects that you were either aware of, or should have known/found out.


🐦 Tweet/s of the week

This (from the co-founder of Atlassian) makes a lot of sense for all sorts of high-stakes meetings:

Source: Twitter

This is a very insightful take by Tiago – about how the the Twitter takeover by Elon Musk represents a victory by the tech evangelists over the social justice group in California.

Source: Twitter

This is a fascinating thread with some really cool visualisations:

Source: Twitter

💬 Quote of the week

“Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do.”

– Richard Dawkins


🍿 Movie/s of the week

a. The Swimmers on Netflix

An Olympic aspirant is participating in a routine competition in her home country. The whistle blows and she dives into the water. She’s swimming in her lane, when the RPG lands.
That’s right – a massive rocket-propelled grenade crashes through the roof of the swimming centre and falls into the pool.
Thankfully, it doesn’t detonate. The shocked girl is helped out of the pool by her father and elder sister.
‘The Swimmers’ is the inspirational story of Yusra Mardini, a Syrian swimmer who was forced to join the exodus of refugees attempting a perilous journey to Europe across the Aegean Sea.
At one point in the story, Yusra and her sister Sarah are forced to jump out of the sinking inflatable dinghy they are packed in and swim the rest of the way to the shore.
That performance, more than anything else she did, was Olympic medal-worthy.
She eventually qualified for the Rio Olympics and swam for the IOC Refugee Olympic team.
An inspiring story.​

b. Doctor G on Netflix

Ayushmann Khurrana has a knack for picking up unusual but meaningful subjects for his movies.
In Doctor G, he plays a doctor who’s forced to pick up Gynecology to do his Masters instead of the Orthopaedics specialty that he clearly desires.
The movie does a masterful job of depicting the transformation of his character as he goes from a typical ‘bro-dude’ to someone who discovers his sensitive side and loses the “male touch”.
Apart from stellar acts by Ayushmann and Shefali Shah, watch out for the performance of the young Ayesha Kaduskar who plays a pivotal character.


​That’s it folks: my recommended reads, listens and views for the week.

​Take care and stay safe.

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