A screenshot of freerice.com; at left is a word game and at right is a bowl of rice showing how many grains have been donated.

Freerice.com: The Costs and Benefits of Education

Cover image courtesy of freerice.com

–by Grey Kennedy–


Freerice.com is a humanitarian service that gives food to countries that experience food insecurity. With the goals of helping users learn as well as helping end world hunger, the company gives rice donations through a paid banner and academic questions posed in a game format. This review focuses on the negative and positive elements of this site and the negative and positive outcomes for countries receiving aid. The company claims to be a non-profit organization, but this article questions the intentions of the donors and the methods of distributing the money.

Freerice.com: The Costs and Benefits of Education

The website freerice.com is a means for people to give food to African countries by answering questions on myriad subjects. For every question a user gets right, ten grains of rice are donated to a country in need. A banner ad funds the site and the donations (freerice.com). The ad produces enough money for the website to donate to the World Food Programme, which in turn gives a small amount of rice to people experiencing food insecurity. The website states that the user is donating exactly ten pieces of rice per question, but this is not true. By answering questions correctly, they are generating money that is then sent away to get the rice. This tactic of counting the exact rice as people get more questions correct is a psychological tactic that makes people believe they are more directly involved with the donation. It keeps them playing because they are able to picture a tangible amount of rice and that aspect better connects them to the cause. Everyone knows that ten grains of rice are not enough to feed someone, so a person could easily justify that it is worth it to continue playing.

Prosocial Behavior

The goals of the website are to “provide education to everyone for free” as well as “help end world hunger by providing rice to hungry people for free” (freerice.com). This influences people to participate because there they experience a direct benefit, and they anticipate others do as well. I believe that the people who benefit the most from this act of humanitarianism would be the people who are answering the questions. This is a direct benefit for them because they are able to feel good about themselves for what they understand to be contributing to the reduction of world hunger. In addition, these people are able to receive an amount of academic benefit.

According to researchers Martela and Ryan, “prosocial behavior itself… improves well-being.” Looking at freerice.com, the researchers questioned whether people needed to have a tangible or physical relationship with the people they are helping in order to feel more involved in the helping experience. They found that the physical relationship does not affect the prosocial behavior displayed.

The good feeling people get after “helping,” might lead us to question the intentions of the people playing the game. Are they “pure”? Are they “selfless”? Does it matter? Although there may be debatable intentions of the participants, their involvement with the website still generates money to be donated. From this standpoint, their intentions do not necessarily matter because people are still receiving the rice regardless of the reasons for participation. This method may get more users to play because it would also attract people that care only about learning and not giving to others.

Effects on Market and Production

An analysis of the website conducted by Ishrat talks about the benefits of the website purely in terms of education for the user. She states that the “option of playing and learning makes the site unique and motivating for the learners” (Ishrat). Her work emphasizes the idea that the site is mainly a means of educating people, and it barely speaks of the helping aspect. This differs from the work of Muldoon who focuses on the emotional aspect that people feel to help. Muldoon states that people use this system due to the empathy-altruism hypothesis. His research found that inducing empathy and anger in a participant increases the amount that they contribute to the donation (Muldoon). This tells us that people are largely driven by emotional factors. Inducing negative emotions causes a person to engage more in order to reduce the negative feelings that they are experiencing so the “helping” could be considered self-serving.

One might ask if the free food distributions that come as a result of freerice.com could be harmful to rice farmers or anyone in the rice business in the areas that are receiving the help. Could the distribution of food impact the local food market since people will not have or want to pay for food, if they are can get it for free. It turns out this is not the case; Abdulai, Barrett, and Hoddinott demonstrated that the presence of food aid does not have any disincentive effects on the production of food in rural Ethiopia.

Although this data states that freerice.com does not contribute to the lack of desire to work, there are some indications that it could negatively impact the market in which the food is being circulated. A lower market would directly affect all citizens because there is less money being circulated in total. A study conducted by Ferriere and Suwa-Eisenmann from 1994 to 2009 came to the conclusion that food aid “reduces the probability of being a producer.” This raises questions about how individuals in an area will behave if they stop receiving food aid. If an area is receiving food aid and has been for a substantial amount of time, then there is likely to be fewer producers.

This helping project is especially relevant to me because I used it frequently in elementary and middle school. When we received free time on computers we were greatly encouraged to go on this website and earn food for the hungry. The idea that young students are encouraged to spend their time learning and helping others can shape their future outlooks on helping. From an early age, we are not taught to question whether or not helping is truly beneficial and we just assume it does well. This is an issue because people continue to engage in these behaviors without questioning how their acts are truly impacting their environment. If these humanitarian acts are continued through means that are harmful to certain economies, it could be detrimental.

In an online article, Lance Wiggs questions the true dispersion of money made through the website. Wiggs provides some analysis of the money that advertisers spend and comes to the conclusion that it is likely that the founder, John Breen, “collected one million dollars for global poverty efforts” on a non-profit organization (Wiggs). This leads us to question the integrity of this organization because they claim to be not making any money from the website. An issue arises because viewing from the outside disables us from being able to determine how much money people are paying for ads and how much is being given to the World Food Programme. Wiggs then opposes this idea saying how even though the founder may be making revenue off of this, it is likely still worth it if it aids in hunger resolution around the world in some way.


Often when donating we do not consider what would be best for the receiving country. Humanitarian organizations generally assume that everything that they choose to do will be helpful. The idea of what is helpful is dependent on the cultural standing as well as the economic standing that the country resides in. In order for the donations to be truly beneficial, the free rice organization needs to consult with the governments within the countries to see what they need and if the rice is benefitting them or causing them issues. Maxwell and Singer state in their research that it is important to maximize “the effectiveness of food aid”. The effectiveness is dependent on the “need for food” as well as the country’s “level of sustainability with commercial imports” and the country’s “incorporation in a poverty-oriented development plan” (Maxwell and Singer). If a donation company is willing to take all of these aspects into account when giving food aid, then they will be able to ensure that they are truly assisting the country and not hindering its growth.

This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.


Primary Sources

“Play Online, Learn Online and Feed the Hungry.” Freerice.com- Not Your Average Online Trivia Game

Secondary Sources

Abdulai, A., Barrett, C., Hoddinott, J. “Does Food Aid Really Have Disincentive Effects? New Evidence from sub-Saharan Africa.” Elsevier, 21 Sept. 2015

Bennett, M., Farrelly, D. “Empathy Leads to Increased Online Charitable Behavior When Time is the Currency.” Freshwater Biology, Wiley/Blackwell (10.1111), 26 Oct. 2017

Ferriere, N., Suwa-Eisenmann, A. “Does Food Aid Disrupt Local Food Market? Evidence from Rural Ethiopia.” Elsevier, 24 July 2015

Illich, I. “To Hell with Good Intentions” Conference on InterAmerican Student Projects, 21 May 2018

Ishrat, A. “Critical Evaluation of Freerice.com.” English Essence, 17 Oct. 2017

Martela, F., Ryan, R. “Prosocial Behavior Increases Well-being and Vitality even Without Contact with the Beneficiary: Causal and Behavioral Evidence.” Springer Link, 28

Mar. 2016

Maxwell, S., Singer, H. “Food Aid to Developing Countries: A Survey.” World Development Elsevier, 19 Mar. 2002

Wiggs, C. “Free Rice: Addictive, but is it a scam?” lancewiggs.com, 12 Nov. 2007


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