Some brief thoughts on Effective Altruism

So as you can probably tell I’ve been incredibly busy and distracted for the last 6 months. I am however back, with a number of blogs planned for the summer! Look out for one coming up soon discussing my second and third term at Oxford, Prelims, and generally how I’ve fared. I’m going to dedicate this post to a new and fascinating concept that I feel needs sharing. Effective Altruism.

A friend recommended to me during the summer of 2016 to read Doing Good Better by William MacAskill. She talked so passionately and knowledgeably about the book that I went onto Amazon and bought it there and then.  As I’m sure you can imagine books that I intend to read have been rapidly piling up on my desk, meaning I have only recently got around to reading it.

To summarize the book very briefly, many of the ways that we go about trying to make a difference can be incredibly ineffective. An example from MacAskill that sets the scene very well is that of Playpumps International (PI). PI’s initial idea was a piece of children’s play equipment that, while in use, would simultaneously draw water up from the ground for local villagers. The idea was to roll this out instead of the conventional pump, providing two distinct benefits to the receiving areas. At the time millions of pounds of charitable money was spent on this idea, and it received considerable charitable support. People were emotively drawn to the idea of sub-Saharan children playing, and enjoying themselves, while mothers eagerly accept water from the pump. Who wouldn’t want to bring about such a situation? You’re probably guessing what comes next… The effectiveness of the pumping capability of the Playpump turned out to be incredibly poor, while costing more than conventional pumps it returns considerably less water for communities. Children started to refuse to play on the pump, and needed to be made to spin on it by family members desperate for the water. From this I think we can see the core principle behind Effective Altruism, the need for us to think independently about altruism, putting aside emotional draws aside and acknowledging the need to statistically justify our decisions.

If someone truly wants to help make a difference then they must consider a number of different questions. A few summaries are here, more in MacAskill’s book?

  • How can I best make a difference? For some people this may be through working in the public sector, or for an NGO. But for many this may be through earning to give. This decision should be made will a through consideration of all of the possible outcomes, what skills do you have, where are you best suited, how easy is it to switch careers etc. (A chapter in the book is specifically focused on this question). Taking Bill Gates as an example, through setting up Microsoft and making money this way he and Melinda have together saved ~122 million lives. Realistically there are many career paths that he could have taken, he could have entered teaching, worked for an NGO, become a doctor… but by following his skill set and examining possible outcomes he entered a field in which he could make a truly extraordinary difference. We can all make a difference, we must just examine where we, and our skills are best focused.
  • If I earn to give, where should I donate? I don’t see there as being a clear cut charity that stands out as being “the go to charity to make a difference”.  Although statistics can be used to support our decision these need to be taken with a pinch of salt, both value judgments and our limited research in certain fields limit the trustworthiness of any definitive league table. I do however want to point to a few things. Many of the most effective charities are likely to be working within the developing world. This being because the 100x multiplier suggests that any donation made by us is likely to have 100 times the impact in the developing world over the developed world. This is examined further by MacAskill but ultimately it means that a donation of on average $3400 (£2610) can save a life in the developing world. From the money that I earn from my summer internship I could save a life, presuming I focus this donation on the the most in need causes within the developing world. A pretty scary thought. An important part of donating is finding the specific charity that you see as efficient, scale-able, underfunded etc. For help with this consider visiting GiveWell. I have personally settled on the Sichtosomiasis Control Initative (SCI) based at Imperial College London. They focus on the spread of intestinal worms within sub-Saharan Africa, and work on distributing the cheap, easily manufactured medicines that can stop this “Neglected Tropical Disease” (NTD). Current estimates have 200 million people, who are almost entirely living within the developing world as suffering from this. Sichtosomiasis can kill, lead to deformity and have a considerable disruption in the education of young people and to the workforce. So far SCI have reached 100 million children with their drugs, and hope to eradicate the entire disease by 2020. I personally want to help them achieve this.

My hope for this post, even if it doesn’t convert you to Effective Altruism, is to make you think about effectiveness more when donating to charity. Whether this be signing up with charities directly (avoiding commission the charity may pay to third parties), changing your choice of charity, considering earning to give, or any such action.

One final thing that MacAskill discussed that I found incredibly interesting was a concept called “Moral Licensing”. This is something that I had personally never thought of previously, and that can make us think more deeply about human actions. Broadly speaking Moral Licensing occurs where an individual making an active decision to do a good deed, for example become vegetarian, can liberate them to do negative deeds as a response. In the book this was discussed in the context of altruism, but it does make you think much more about the way that we act, and others. This is certainly going to be a topic of future reading.