GiveWell charity recommendations

December 14, 2012

(This article was originally published at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

In a rare Christmas-themed post here, I pass along this note from Alexander Berger at GiveWell:

We just published a blog post following up on the *other* famous piece of evidence for deworming, the Miguel and Kremer experiment from Kenya. They shared data and code from their working paper (!) follow-up finding that deworming increases incomes ten years later, and we came out of the re-analysis feeling more confident in, though not wholly convinced by, the results.
We’ve also just released our new list of top charities for giving season this year, which I think might be a good fit for your audience. We wrote a blog post explaining our choices, and have also published extensive reviews of the top charities and the interventions on which they work. Perhaps the most interesting change since last year is the addition of GiveDirectly in the #2 spot; they do direct unconditional cash transfers to people living on less than a dollar a day in Kenya. We think it’s a remarkable model, with a surprisingly strong track record and the potential to change how international charity is done. We’ve also published extensive updates over the past year on the progress of the Against Malaria Foundation, which continues to hold the #1 spot. (And if you’re interested, a more general overview of what GiveWell is all about is here.)

I asked the following question to Berger: Why only three choices on your list of top charities? I’m sure that the Against Malaria Foundation, GiveDirectly, and Schistosomiasis Control Initiative are all great, but it could be good to have other options too. For example, Deb and I state in our book that we donate all royalties to nonprofit educational charities (or something like that, I can’t remember the exact words). I haven’t actually kept track of this for awhile, so I think I’ll a write a check for a few thousand dollars. But what would be a good educational charity? Maybe GiveWell has a suggestion?

Berger replied:

When GiveWell started, we did research in a number of different areas (U.S. education, international education, international economic empowerment, and global health). For instance, our 2010 cause overview on international education is here. Over time, we’ve become more and more convinced that global health is an especially promising cause for individual donors. We’ve written about this pretty extensively on our blog (see here), but we’ve come to believe that international health has an especially strong track record of success, potentially outstanding cost-effectiveness, and relatively high accountability to outcomes, making it an especially strong area for open-minded donors to focus on.
Of course, we agree that there are worthwhile charities working in other areas of international giving, and in the past we’ve recommended Pratham, an Indian education NGO, for donors especially interested in education. We recently de-emphasized the category of “standouts” (where Pratham fell) because they received a relatively small portion of the money given based on our recommendations and we felt that our research time was better-spent in areas we find more promising.

Fair enough. Here’s what GiveWell wrote about Pratham:

Pratham is a large, India-based organization that runs a wide variety of programs aiming to improve education for children in India.

Pratham’s largest program is Read India, which provides basic reading and math lessons to millions of preschool- and primary-school-age children. . . .

We recommend Pratham as our top recommendation for developing-world education because:

- GiveWell staff visited Pratham programs two times in Mumbai, India during the fall of 2010. We do not feel that these visits allowed us to evaluate the effectiveness of Pratham’s programs, but we came away with a generally positive impression. For more, see our Fall 2010 India site visit notes.

- Our impression is that Pratham has a strong reputation among people who are familiar with Indian educational organizations. Pratham has a strong reputation among respected international aid scholars such as researchers at the Poverty Action Lab at MIT.4 In addition, several representatives from other charities in India, told us (unsolicited) that they have the impression that Pratham is a strong organization.

- There is limited evidence about what works in developing-world education. Programs that intuitively seem effective such as building schools, training teachers or providing textbooks do not have a strong track record of success. (For more on this cause, see our overview of developing-world education programs.) In a sector with limited evidence about what works, Pratham stands out for having subjected its programs to rigorous trials to determine which approaches are most effective. (For more on Pratham’s commitment to evaluation, see the evaluation section of our July 2009 review.)

Despite the above, we are not confident in Pratham’s overall impact. Nevertheless, for donors interested in the cause of developing-world education, we have found no organization stronger than Pratham.

I wanted to share that because I felt that discussion was admirably honest (or, at least, gave the impression of honesty; I haven’t actually tried to evaluate the claims) without hype.

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