The Agenda

How to Think About Altruism: Calestous Juma, Leon Neyfakh, and Why We Really Give

I want to juxtapose two really excellent articles. The first is by Calestous Juma, and it is a report for the International Monetary Fund on the extraordinary strides being made by the growing African middle class:

To the outside world, the symbolism of helping people living on a mere $1 a day had irresistible appeal. But the emphasis on aid did not encourage Africa to aspire to higher economic performance. A change in focus from poverty to gradually growing prosperity represents a deep shift in the perceptions of Africa’s economic future, with profound policy and practical implications.

The traditional emphasis on eradicating poverty in Africa distracted both the African authorities and international donors from serious consideration of ways to promote prosperity: infrastructure development, technical education, entrepreneurship, and trade. [Emphasis added]

Juma goes on to recount the extraordinary growth of the broadly-defined African middle class:

These people are not middle class in developed country terms, or even by the standards of emerging markets, but in African terms they have disposable income and are demanding an increasing amount of goods and services that contribute to the overall well-being of society. Their average income is between $1,460 and $7,300 a year.

According to the AfDB, Africa’s middle class has been steadily rising since the 1980s. In 1980 the middle class accounted for 26 percent of the population, standing at 111 million. A decade later it had risen to 27 percent, or 196 million, and by 2010 more than a third of the population was middle class (AfDB, 2011b).

Middle-class Africans are young and in the acquisitive phase of life, according to a recent survey of the Nigerian cities of Lagos, Abuja, and Port Harcourt by emerging market investment bank Renaissance Capital. Nearly 70 percent of them are under the age of 40. About half at any given time are in the market for refrigerators, freezers, and other durable consumer goods. And that consumer demand extends to other sectors—such as housing, home improvement, transportation, and leisure.

Consumer spending in Africa is projected by the McKinsey Global Institute to reach $1.4 trillion in 2020, from about $860 billion in 2008. Decisions by major consumer retail chains such as Walmart to establish a presence in Africa reflect global confidence in the economic impetus we can expect from the African middle class.

By 2030, African countries with large populations—such as Ethiopia, Nigeria, and South Africa—will be the main sources of the new middle class, who can be expected to spend $2.2 trillion a year, or about 3 percent of worldwide consumption.

Across Africa, change is in the air. Many of the old problems remain—deep poverty, poor infrastructure, and famine in areas of a continent abundant in natural resources. But equally remarkable is the rise of a new generation of young entrepreneurs creating new opportunities for ancient lands.

The rest of Juma’s article is, and I’m not exaggerating here, insanely, insanely stimulating, particularly the sections on the African diaspora and agricultural development. (I’m tipping my hand as to the issues I care about, obviously.)

Actually, Juma’s article reminds me of a recent riff by the brilliant young novelist Teju Cole, who recently wrote a series of posts about the problem with “#FirstWorldProblems.” I was jealous that Alexis Madrigal beat me to blogging about Cole’s riff some weeks ago. But I’m grateful to Madrigal for quoting Cole at length:

I don’t like this expression “First World problems.” It is false and it is condescending. Yes, Nigerians struggle with floods or infant mortality. But these same Nigerians also deal with mundane and seemingly luxurious hassles. Connectivity issues on your BlackBerry, cost of car repair, how to sync your iPad, what brand of noodles to buy: Third World problems. All the silly stuff of life doesn’t disappear just because you’re black and live in a poorer country. People in the richer nations need a more robust sense of the lives being lived in the darker nations. Here’s a First World problem: the inability to see that others are as fully complex and as keen on technology and pleasure as you are.

One event that illustrated the gap between the Africa of conjecture and the real Africa was the BlackBerry outage of a few weeks ago. Who would have thought Research In Motion’s technical issues would cause so much annoyance and inconvenience in a place like Lagos? But of course it did, because people don’t wake up with “poor African” pasted on their foreheads. They live as citizens of the modern world. None of this is to deny the existence of social stratification and elite structures here. There are lifestyles of the rich and famous, sure. But the interesting thing about modern technology is how socially mobile it is–quite literally. Everyone in Lagos has a phone. [Emphasis added]

If you haven’t read Cole’s Open City, you really should. Insight leaps off of almost every page. 

Now let’s turn to a passage Leon Neyfakh’s excellent article for the Boston Globe on why we give to charity. I’ll only mention it here, but I might discuss it at greater length:

[Deborah] Small, of the Wharton School, conducted an experiment with George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University and Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon showing that when people were given more facts and statistics about the problem a charity was trying to address, they actually became less likely to donate. The best approach for a charity raising money to feed hungry children in Mali, the team found, was to simply show potential donors a photograph of a starving child and tell them her name and age. Donors who were shown more contextual information about famine in Africa — the ones who were essentially given more to think about — were less likely to give. Small sees her findings as evidence of a kind of contest going on inside of each of us, one that pits our emotional side against our intellect in a battle for control over our behavior.

Small’s findings are backed up by Daniel Oppenheimer, a psychologist at Princeton and coeditor of the book “The Science of Giving,” who found that simply giving people information about a charity’s overhead costs makes them less likely to donate to it. This held true, remarkably, even if the information was positive and indicated and the charity was extremely efficient.

“When we start thinking about it, we might start analyzing it,” Small said. “Is this really going to be effective? Is this going to be the best use of my money? How else might I spend my money? What happens is you stop feeling.”

For humans, who distinguish themselves from beasts in part through their analytical powers, this is a troubling conflict. Why should thinking be the enemy of generosity? What does it mean that as soon as we enter the “deliberative mindset,” to use Small’s term, we become less altruistic towards our fellow man?

One reason analytical thinking might have this effect on the charitable impulse is that, once people really think through what the charity they’ve selected might accomplish with their money, they start realizing just how little their contribution is going to help. This is sometimes referred to as the “drop in the bucket” effect. According to [John] List, thinking about all the people you’re not helping when you donate — the millions of children left to starve for each one you save — makes the act of giving a lot less satisfying. “If you really did the calculus,” List said, “my 25 dollars to the Sierra Club means nothing on the margins. So if I wanted to be really analytical about it, I’m not going to give.” According to List, that means that a world in which everyone thinks rationally about their charitable decisions might mean the most efficient, best organizations get the most money — but it might also be a world in which far less money actually gets donated. [Emphasis added]

Let’s think this through, however. If the most efficient, best organizations get the money — the organizations that, say, turn $9 of every $10 of every donation into worthwhile activity, should we care about the fact that less-efficient organizations will die off for want of resources? One can imagine a scenario in which donations plummet yet worthwhile activity remains constant, or even increases. 

This frame of mind might misunderstand what charities actually do, unbeknownst to donors and unbeknownst even to many of the people working for charities:

One dominant strain of thought among charity researchers is that our donations aren’t chiefly driven by concern for others, or a principled sense of altruism — that instead, it’s largely a way for us to indulge the desire to feel virtuous and happy about our role in the world. This theory was formalized in 1989 by behavioral economist James Andreoni, who described the rush of self-satisfaction and sense of purpose one experiences after committing support to a worthy cause as “warm glow.” The reason we give money, Andreoni wrote, is that it makes us feel good — regardless of how much it benefits the people we’re ostensibly trying to help.

Another prominent theory to emerge from the research is that people give because of social pressure. We want to avoid appearing selfish or coldhearted, especially in front of people who are suffering or people whose opinions we care about. We might feel this type of pressure when we find ourselves passing a homeless person on the street, or when someone at the office asks if we’d like to participate in the companywide campaign for United Way.

Those aren’t the reasons we like to think of ourselves as donating, but experimental research on charity tends to support the notion that donating and thinking occupy separate realms. Jonathan Baron, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, asked a group of participants which charity they’d rather give to: one that achieved its goals so efficiently that it could spend 20 percent of its money on advertising, or one that required more money to do the same amount of good, and thus spent less on promotion. Though the first charity was technically more efficient, people tended to favor the latter: What mattered to them was seeing more of their own money at work, Baron concluded, rather than the amount of good it did. [Emphasis added]

The theories Neyfakh references both evoke Robin Hanson’s emphasis on signaling. When non-Africans express care and concern about Africa’s poor, they might be doing a number of things, depending on context: (a) the person in question might be a rigorous utilitarian with reasonably high earning potential, in which case she might actually spend little time expressing care and concern and more time working at a lucrative job yet living well below her means in order to donate in excess of 80 percent of her disposable income to highly efficient aid organizations; (b) she might be on a dinner date with a person she is trying to impress by projecting a generosity of spirit that might make her seem to be a more desirable marriage partner; (c) she might be a mother trying to inculcate a sense of humility and gratitude in her young children; (d) she might be an economist who became notorious during the early 1990s for her support of “shock therapy” in post-communist economies in transition, and discovered that advocating massive state-to-state transfers of wealth from the affluent market democracies to sub-Saharan Africa was a good way to draw attention to herself as well as to a putatively worthy cause, even if the arguments she deploys are dubious and she actively resists randomized field trials and other serious efforts to measure the efficacy of her various celebrity-backed projects. 

We might feel differently about persons (a)-(d). Though (a) might have an understanding of the moral order I find impoverished, she strikes me as praiseworthy, if only for putting her money where her mouth is. And I feel the same way about (c). (b) strikes me as harmless, whereas (d) strikes me as, well, you can probably guess. 

But in the end, as Juma suggests, persons (a)-(d) are trivial to the fate of Africa’s poor. It is the African middle class and the African diaspora matters for me. To understand why, it helps to think of psychologist Seth Roberts’s notion of “personal science” and why it matters:

“Why does personal science matter?” is the title of my talk at the First Quantified Self Conference, which I gave two days ago. My answer to that question is personal scientists are more likely to make useful discoveries than professional scientists. Relative to professional scientists, personal scientists have two big disadvantages (less resources, less knowledge) and three big advantages (more time, more freedom, and more desire to be useful). Over the last half-century, the disadvantages have been getting smaller — the personal scientists have been catching up — causing them to overall move ahead of (= have a greater likelihood of making useful discoveries than) professional scientists. [Emphasis added]

Professional scientists tend to emphasize their advantages over personal scientists. But when you think about it, professional scientists and personal scientists are both likely to suffer from cognitive bias. The difference is that personal scientists trying to solve their own problem — insomnia, obesity, acne-prone skin, etc. — have a much bigger incentive to solve their own problems than professional scientists have to solve problems for some anonymous, undifferentiated mass of people, unless, of course, there is considerable profit to be made or prestige to be gained. Profits, however, can be made by offering solutions that don’t actually work, e.g., by getting Medicare to pay for a particular medical device. Prestige can be gained, as Gary Taubes reminds us, merely by bullying others and effectively engaging in academic politics. Personal scientists only care about discovering strategies, remedies, etc., that actually work, which is why they’re often so constructively obsessive

So one can in a similar vein argue that it is Africans who matter most for the African poor because middle class and diaspora Africans are much more likely than people who are not of African origin to have intimate knowledge of the problems facing poor Africans and, perhaps most importantly, to actually be related to poor Africans, which raises the stakes considerably. Signaling is no longer what is at issue. Rather, caring for the poor is a matter of inclusive-fitness-optimizing behavior. That is, to borrow a footnote from Newson-Richerson,

If the fitness of an individual is determined by the number of copies of his or her genes that are present in future generations, the term “inclusive fitness” acknowledges that an individual’s fitness is also enhanced by actions that promote the survival and reproduction of close relatives with whom he or she shares many genes.

Incidentally, what we might call the argument from personal science — what matters is how much we actually give a damn — might relate to Jason Sorens’s case for greater local resource decentralization, which we’ve discussed in this space.

If we embrace the argument from personal science, we obviously haven’t concluded that altruism is impossible. But it is worth interrogating the real uses of altruistic arguments. To what extent are the arguments and ideas Neyfakh raises in the context of charity salient in the context of arguments for redistribution at the level of the polity or state? Because this post has already gone on too long, that will be the subject of the next post. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

Donald Trump and the Imperial Presidency

As the writer of a weekly political column in the Age of Trump (ugh), I have lately been wondering if, bereft of an idea, I might just write TRUMP over and over again, 750 times, and get people to read it. An idle thought — perhaps. After all, this was the week when my Twitter timeline was full of mainstream ... Read More