When talking about morality that doesn’t depend on religion, the amount of charity work done by atheists and non-believers is often brought up. The specific example I’ve seen cited most often is probably the list of teams in Kiva’s community. The most numerous and generous group on this charitable microloans site, by a substantial margin, is that of “Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists and the Non-Religious”.
It’s not as if the claim that non-theists have no motivation to act benevolently or altruistically to other people needed any more empirical data to dispel it, but this’ll certainly do.
However, once it’s established that caring about other human beings is possible, entirely independently of a subservience to an omnipotent deity, it also behooves us to take an interest in how much good we’re actually doing, besides how good a show we’re making of it. And this is where the usefulness of microfinance perhaps deserves to come under more scrutiny than is commonly the case.
Charity evaluator GiveWell has described some of the myths about microfinance, all of which are things that I probably would have assumed, given the way operations like Kiva are generally pictured. But as much as some of these foundational ideas – allowing people to expand their businesses through loans, greatly increasing the impact of a donation through re-lending, and so on – sound good in principle, the evidence for the impact these projects have doesn’t seem to support the hype around them.
It’s worth remembering what this doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that there can’t be some good to be achieved through organisations like Kiva, or that there aren’t numerous people working in microfinance who are sincerely motivated and working hard to get people out of poverty. It doesn’t mean we should get discouraged from trying to help wherever we can, and looking for more effective ways to make real change.
But it does mean we have to be open to questions about whether the efforts we’re all making right now are doing as much good as they could be, or whether we have a lot more to learn yet about what’s going to actually make the world better.