Cost-Effective Compassion: The 10 Most Popular Strategies for Helping the Poor
Donors' subjective impressions of a program's effectiveness are even less accurate. Jesus tells us that "it is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35). But too often Christian antipoverty organizations have worked overtime to ensure that we feel blessed by our giving. Nonprofits tend to market themselves to potential donors through success stories, anecdotes, and narratives that emotionally connect. In doing so, they want our giving to feel good. But these carefully selected anecdotes virtually always exceed the average impact on a program participant, creating a bias in donors' minds about the impact of their giving.
The difficulties in assessing the impact of antipoverty efforts only magnify the need for understanding the impacts of different types of programs. Love, understanding, and giving are deeply intertwined. Genuine love motivated to action is concerned about the consequence of its action. If I truly love my wife, I study her needs and desires carefully to understand the effect of my actions toward her.
Giving that gives in response to feelings but which disregards consequences can turn into a narcissism that is only semiconscious of motives. Genuine love carefully considers how an action affects the recipient. In some cases, love may call us to acts of compassion even when there is little hope of a life-changing result, such as when we stay by the side of a dying person. But in many cases, it is more feasible to measure tangible impacts of our giving, especially when it comes to helping the poor. In these cases, we are not being good stewards if we give blindly without understanding the impact of our giving. The blessings of givers should be rooted in the blessings of receivers.
In recent years, development economists have made remarkable progress in measuring blessings to receivers. I have been fortunate to belong to a generation of development economists who are borrowing tools from the field of medicine. For example, the use of randomized controlled trials to evaluate development programs has helped us understand the relative merits of different approaches to poverty alleviation. Other new methods that mimic the impact-identification power of the randomized controlled trial have also proven fruitful in this area.
So what are the best ways to help the poor in developing countries?
To answer this question, I polled top development economists who specialize in analyzing development programs. I asked them to rate, from 0 to 10, some of the most common poverty interventions to which ordinary people donate their money, in terms of impact and cost-effectiveness per donated dollar.
Sixteen researchers responded to the survey. They are from Cornell, Duke, Yale, the University of Maryland, UC-Berkeley, Stanford, George Washington, UC-Santa Cruz, the University of Minnesota, Brandeis, Michigan State, Tufts, and the World Bank. Of the respondents, five are members of the Association of Christian Economists. And they showed remarkable consensus in their ratings. Virtually none of the highly rated poverty interventions received low marks from any of the responders. Likewise, virtually none of the lowly rated programs received high marks. I did not include my own rankings in the survey, but I do comment on each. The following are the results in order of greatest estimated impact to the least, followed b organizations that use that strategy (= faith-based).