Saving the World, Startup-Style: a Billion Reasons to Support Effective Altruists

This week's New York Times Magazine contains a short, but brilliantly provocative piece by "On Money" writer, Adam Davidson, titled "Saving the World, Startup-Style."

Davidson describes what he calls a "quiet revolution in the way many scholars and advocates think about approach." The main idea is that rich countries should stop concocting grand theories, but too often failing schemes, for how poor countries can develop, but rather should empower the recipients and pay money to whomever comes up with solutions that work.

The issue is important because roughly one billion men, women and children live in dire poverty on less than a dollar a day. The U.S. government spends about $30 billion a year on foreign aid, but most of that money never gets to poor people or even to the countries those people live in; rather, it ends up in the pockets of American employees, suppliers, shippers etc. Here's the basic problem: the poorest of the poor don't have lobbyists in Washington so this system is unlikely to change any time soon.

But, as Davidson notes, there is hope coming in the form of a bounty of new organizations -- most born after the Cold War ended, and enabled by open and nearly free communication provided by the internet, and the ability to track results of spending in ways impossible just a few decades ago.

Fistula Foundation, that I run, treats the childbirth injury obstetric fistula, by getting as much money as possible to the doctors who are able to help treat women. Our motto is 'lean but never mean.' We post detailed information about where money is spent and what it does on our website. We drive results, measured primarily by the number of women healed. But we are far from alone.

There's a growing community of like-minded 'Effective Altruist' organizations and a movement to match. Princeton Ethicist Peter Singer's The Life You Can Save (TLYCS) is a good place to start if you want to find groups making a real difference on the ground. If you visit the TLYCS website, you can read more about a couple of my favorite groups such as Against Malaria and pioneering poverty fighter- Give Directly. A couple of other favorites not part of TLYCS are Room to Read, co-founded by Erin Ganju and Acumen, founded by Jacqueline Novogratz - rockstars in my book, making profound differences in education and poverty alleviation, respectively.

The best of the new nonprofits are wired like a successful and dynamic Silicon Valley company. These "learning organizations" are not hamstrung by a bureaucratically driven five-year plan, but as summarized by Davidson have "adaptive leadership, continuous improvement, lean startups, i.e., companies that are designed to respond constantly to markers of success or failure."

Perhaps down the road there will be bi-partisan consensus that the US foreign aid agencies and the talented and dedicated people they employ, let alone those billion poor people, deserve a new mandate and structure, reflective of 21st century opportunities, and not obsolete Cold War practices. Until that time, there's a lot of places where each of us can help those one billion people at the very bottom of the income pyramid thrive.