The idea that “everyone can – and should – do their bit in changing the world for the better” will not be new to you. Inspirational quotes on the topic abound, just as websites of non-profits, online giving platforms and even volontourism offers telling you that “you can make a difference”.
At the same time, people who do say of themselves that their highest ambition is to make a large positive impact on the world get those pathetic smiles in response, saying “what a naive little do-gooder”.
So a) who can and should change the world, b) what does “making a difference” actually mean, and c) how do we do it?
This post has some more detailed answers to a) – and a lot of more questions (Blogposts on the others forthcoming).
Don’t you have to be rich and powerful to change the world?
Long story. Short answer: yes, that helps, but how do you measure how rich and powerful you are?
Since you are reading this blog, you are among the 60 % of the world population that has access to internet, and among the much smaller among these that has time to read blogs (time not spent earning money or fulfilling basic needs). That puts you at quite an advantage as a world saver.
We usually associate “making a difference” with the work of charities and NGOs, and thus with donating money or time to their cause.
Having spent some time fundraising for a charity, the usual response in the street is “I’m not rich enough to give money”. I would never dispute that, but being rich is a subjective feeling in this case, and it depends a lot on what you compare yourself to. Please feel very warmly invited to use this calculator here to find out how your household income compares to the rest of the world.
If you are not rich enough to give and make change, how many people are?
(I know it may not feel like that when you look at your bank statement at the end of the month. I work for a charity and live in London, so hey, I feel you. Still my UK living wage puts me among the top 8 % of the global population. I believe that is both scary, in terms of what degree of inequality “we” rich people are actually tolerating, and empowering!)
What this actually means, is that the resources to solve massive problems such as extreme poverty, lacking access to education and deaths from diseases such as malaria are in our hands.
The question is only what we do with those resources. The costs of education, sanitation and healthcare for the entire world population are about half the amount of global spending on ice cream per year. And many life-changing interventions, especially in poorer countries, are actually not that expensive (depending on who provides them, and how well). Is there a bowtruckle in ice cream spending?
Are you obliged you to use your privilege to impact positive change? Or: what if I’d rather eat ice cream?
Hey, we’ve gotten from economics to philosophy, which means answers are even more ambiguous. The Effective Altruism movement believes it does. Here is the general idea:
If you walked past a pond and saw a child drowning and crying for help, would you jump into the pond and save it, being a good swimmer and the only person around? You probably would. Now, the effective altruism movement, based on Peter Singer’s utilitarian philosophy, essentially points out that you have an obligation to save or help someone if you have the opportunity to. People in the developed world today, the argument follows, have many options to impact change for disadvantaged people in very easy, low-cost ways. We don’t see people dying of hunger or malaria in front of our doorstep, but that should not matter because we do have the means to help them. Here are two great talks explaining this in more detail.
Why would I want to be altruistic?
I personally am very reluctant to consider anything an “obligation” for anyone, ever, simply because if you make it someone’s duty, they are less likely to do it with commitment, than if they see the value in it for themselves. There is no point in condemning eating ice cream rather than donate to charity. So here are some more arguments for using whatever you have at your disposal to make life better for others:
- Looking for ways to become happy? It’s not even that new to suggest you will by helping others, because humans are primed to do that. There are studies showing the increase in happiness we get from buying something for ourselves is much lower than what we get from buying something for others. On the other hand, once you have reached a certain level of wealth, any addition to it does not make you significantly happier.
- Looking for a great job? Your job satisfaction depends, beside mastery and autonomy, on a sense of purpose. While a purpose can be anything, the above suggests merely “working to earn money to become rich” is not a purpose that will make you happy in the long term. How about “working to earn money to empower others”? Or even “working to empower others”?
- This bit is significant because you are more likely to be motivated, productive and good at your job if you have that sense of purpose, thus earn more money, which you can then spend on… 80000 hours, a network affiliated with the effective altruism movement, have lots of very interesting research on this topic.
So why is not everyone focusing their efforts, at least during all of their professional lives, to altruistic purposes?
Maybe for these reasons?
- We define success not in lives improved for others, but in numbers of followers, wealth accumulated, career steps climbed.
- We define happiness not as lives improved for others, but as holidays spent, items on the wish list purchased, as improvements to your own life.
- We don’t want to spend time worrying about other people’s problems, while we have to deal with our own.
- It’s easy to look away. How many blog readers in the developed world actually talk to someone in absolute poverty regularly? Or someone from a country affected by environmental degradation? Or a refugee?
So what’s the use of being a “do-gooder”?
Buzzword alert – You could define a do-gooder as someone who does good. In common usage, a “do-gooder” is someone who means well but has no clue, thus ends up intervening and changing things that make matters worse rather than better. The voluntourism mentioned above is a case in point.
So – I’d sum this all up as “do good, but don’t be a do-gooder”. That’s very easy to write, and a bit harder to do, and I actually have no clue how to do that most effectively. But there certainly are ways, and if you have some, recommend them!