While papers whine about Oxbridge debauchery, student altruism gets ignored

The Telegraph, 1st March 2017

There’s something quite odd about coming down to breakfast on a Sunday morning, often with a thick head, and glancing at the paper to see that someone else is having a go at the place where you live.

I imagine it’s what it might have felt like to be a spy behind the lines during the war, when newspapers were full of news of your country’s terrible crimes, interspersed with op-eds about how we ought to fight them with all our strength.

I’m not fighting a war, of course, and I might not do any more than have a little chuckle before going back to my fry-up. But there is something oddly obsessive and single-minded about the way news of Oxford, and our fenland counterparts, reaches the press.

From consulting the papers, you might be forgiven for thinking that we spend most of our time celebrating the empire, campaigning against people who celebrate the empire, getting drunk in eighteenth-century period dress and burning money in front of homeless people.

That’s why it’s faith-restoring to meet someone like Tom Gardiner from the student chapter of Giving What We Can, a charity running the Big Match campaign in Oxford.

“This year Oxford and Cambridge are taking part in the Varsity Big Match, where each university is aiming to raise as much money as possible for the Against Malaria Foundation, one of the most effective charities in the world”, he tells me over a coffee in one of Oxford’s busy cafés.

“The idea’s simple, if you donate £10, our donors will also donate £10, making this a really exciting way to give to charity – doubling your money for a high impact cause. At Oxford we’ll be running a series of events across the Big Match fortnight, including a talk from Rob Mather, CEO of Giving What We Can, and a panel discussion exploring the reasons why we give to charity, including guests such as Mark Goldring, the CEO of Oxfam.”

The Big Match campaign in Oxford has a ‘matching pot’ of £15,000 that they’ve collected from Effective Altruism supporters, and want other students at Oxford to ‘match’ it by donating too. That means, if they meet their target over the next two weeks, the student body will have collected and donated £30,000. Over at Cambridge the same campaign is running, taking the total to £60,000.

The key point of the campaign, though, is the rationale that underpins it. It’s part of the Effective Altruism movement, which takes a novel but refreshingly up-front approach to charitable donation. Their idea is that while most charity work is a good thing to be doing – indeed, we have a moral duty in the West to give as much as we can – there’s also an ‘effectiveness’ dimension. The charities that we give money to, they say, ought to be the ones that have the greatest effect on human life.

That means that their chosen charity is held to a very high standard. The Against Malaria Foundation meets this. It has been named the GiveWell top charity of the year before, and commits almost all money donated directly to the purchase of bed nets for the prevention of malaria. The nets are sent to their target locations in sub-Saharan Africa on the backs of convoys already going to the area, dramatically reducing overheads and raising the efficiency of the way donated money is used.

 

The Against Malaria Foundation has been named the best charity of the year again this year by Giving What We Can, who claim that it’s one of the most effective charities in the world in terms of its ability to save human lives.

The effective altruism movement itself was founded in Oxford, by philosophers Will MacAskill, Peter Singer and Toby Ord, founder of Giving What We Can. Their idea revolves around two central principles: cause prioritisation and cost-effectiveness. Their argument is that rather than donating to charities that appeal to us because of personal reasons, coincidence or the effectiveness of advertising campaigns, we ought to choose the causes that have the greatest impact, in order of the impact that they have. After that, it’s important that the causes are cost effective, since many of the world’s most famous charities spend so much money on expensive employees, executives and public relations that the proportion of cash spent on the cause is diminished.

Focus on these two metrics means that the charities that effective altruism campaigns donate to are impartial – the personal connections of those in the movement to particular causes are entirely irrelevant to the places that the money ends up. In this case, up to £60,000 will be donated by the students of Oxford and Cambridge to the Against Malaria Foundation, which will buy almost 30,000 malaria nets.

Will MacAskill, one of the founders of the effective altruism movement, is supportive of campaigns that think a bit more carefully about the way that students donate.

“Effective Altruism encourages us to put more thought into our charitable donations, and the Big Match campaign at Oxford is both a genuine and well-considered effort to relieve the plight of some of the most impoverished people around the world,” he said, over a weblink from the United States.

“The Against Malaria Foundation is an outstanding organisation that fulfils many of the criteria that effective altruists look for, demonstrating an ingenuity and cost-effectiveness that many other charities simply cannot claim. Given that all money raised will have a significant and measurable effect on the lives of those within malaria-stricken communities, I hope the Big Match is the success it deserves to be.”

This sort of student campaign is the Oxford that no one wants to believe exist – one which thinks deeply about the impact it has on the world and the way it can make the most difference. Student societies – from the political to the sporting – have pledged money to the Big Match campaign in the hope that they will reach their £30,000 target and be able to buy thousands of nets that will protect thousands of lives.

Although the likes of Ronald Coyne – the notorious £20 note burner – are the headline-making Oxbridge students, we ought to be careful about buying into the lazy stereotype that we’re all rich and that the value of money gets diluted in the enormously wealthy colleges in which we’re lucky enough to briefly live.

The work of Tom and other students at Giving What We Can and even, as we dread to say it, their counterparts at Cambridge, is the sort of story that properly represents students. While Oxbridge debauchery might be an entertaining breakfast time for the Sunday papers, it’s not really what life here is like. If £60,000 makes its way to improving the lives of thousands of people over the next couple of weeks, hopefully that will be what people remember. If not, you heard it here first.

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