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Is all charity good?

Thursday, 15 November 2007 charity rant

In light of some of the feedback surrounding my last post, I address the core problem I see with good causes like FreeRice, namely that they don’t do nearly as much good as they could and probably harm other charitable causes.

This particular rant follows on from my last post about FreeRice.com, the vocabulary test that promises to donate rice each time you get a word correct. My maths was a little harsh, and definitely looking at the maximum potential.

An interesting question just popped into my inbox (and I paraquote): If I think “ending poverty and needless starvation around the world is something that should happen”, am I not wary that a story like that could, ultimately, kill needy people?

To answer that, I’d like to discuss the psychology behind charity and potential ignorance of FreeRice.com users.

Most people like to do charitable things. Some more than others, but people feel good when they know they’ve helped somebody. However, they also like money. For some this isn’t an issue — they’ll donate to charities but others won’t part with their green unless it buys them something in return. On this count, FreeRice is a great thing. It gets people to interact, only putting their time in and they get the enjoyment factor of seeing how good their vocabulary is, even improving it; but on top of that, rice gets donated using a portion of the sponsorship funds.

They donate rice

So surely something is better than nothing?

This question was hurled at me several times in response to the napkin-maths. Normally I would say yes but I believe that telling somebody they’re doing measurable good with something like FreeRice might make them less likely to donate to other good causes, labouring under the impression that they’ve done “their bit” to make the world better.

Well they have done a bit. The problem, I have though is that in order to donate $1 of rice (based on my earlier maths), you need to answer 5,000 questions correctly. To put this into context, if you take 10 seconds to answer each one, donating $1 of rice would take you 13-14 hours, provided you had a very high accuracy.

That’s my problem. It makes people think they’re doing good. I initially thought I was doing pretty good, having donated a few thousands grains, but when you work it out, that comes down to just pennies. If you’ve got spare time and you want to do some good, work an extra hour each week and donate that money. If that’s $30, you’ve just donated 1,500,000 grains of rice — the equivalent of spending half a year (without a break) on FreeRice.

As the latest commenter on the original post just said, there have been about 1.7 billion grains of rice donated. That equates out to about $10,000. It’s a mighty donation for just over a month of running but when you consider that it took people a shared 54 years to get there, you have to wonder if it’s a good cause at all.

By all means play FreeRice — it’s fun and educational — just don’t con yourself that you’re feeding a family of four while you do. If you want to make a difference to somebody, find a proper charity and give them some proper money, even if it’s the change in your pocket because just that will make more difference than hours spent on FreeRice.