“I prefer to give to local organizations.” I’ve heard this a lot.

Imagine a high school student who sits down to study for exams. Her chemistry
book is lying closest to her on the desk, so she decides to study chemistry.
Her father points out that since she has an A in chemistry and a D in geometry,
studying geometry might help her grades more. “But that book is all the way
over there in my backpack,” the student points out; “I prefer to study

If you were her parent, you probably wouldn’t let her get away with this. All
things being equal, she would benefit most from studying the subjects where she
is most behind. Even though she hasn’t learned all the chemistry there is to
know, a few hours of studying geometry will get her farther than spending the
same hours on chemistry.

Even within rich countries, we don’t have straight As on our report card.
Homelessness, environment, prisons, health, schools – we’re behind where we
should be in lots of areas. I’ve seen many of these first-hand, and I care
passionately about them.

But these are not our worst subjects. The fact that millions of people every
year die of easily preventable diseases, and billions live in grinding poverty
– that is a much worse failure. Only it’s not happening right here next to us;
it’s happening far away.

The good news is this: the same amount of effort goes a lot farther on our
worst subjects. For a few hundred dollars, I can save a life somewhere in the
developing world. There’s no local charity (local to me in the United States)
where that money will accomplish anywhere near as much.

I’m not saying we should neglect local causes altogether. If our own society
falls apart, we’ll be less able to help. But we should put most of our effort –
and money – toward areas where we’re failing.