Effective altruismHow can we do the most good in the world? This is the guiding question of a new philosophical and moral movement called “effective altruism” (EA). Effective altruism, a concept coined by philosopher Peter Singer, is an attempt to use common sense and research to determine how each person can maximize his or her positive impact.

What is Effective Altruism?

The basic idea is simple. There are many things a person can do to improve the world. An individual can donate to charities, volunteer or support positive government action. Effective altruists, however, believe that it is not just a matter of doing good wherever it is most convenient. Take charities, for example. Some causes achieve their goals more efficiently than others. Donating $10,000 to an emergency surgery fund might save one life. But, donating that same money to a group that, for instance, teaches impoverished children how to read, could have a vastly greater effect. One of the issues effective altruists care the most about is global poverty.

Global Poverty: A High-Priority Cause

Addressing poverty is one of the most cost-effective and reliable ways to reduce suffering. Unlike some other issues, global poverty is a problem with proven solutions. Over the past 40 years, extreme poverty rates have dropped from 42% to less than 10%. With such a successful track record, it is easy to imagine that future efforts to reduce poverty will continue to pay off.

Looking at the measures taken on the ground, it is not difficult to see how a little money can have a big impact in solving global poverty. Parasitic diseases, for instance, are a huge drain on wealth and stability in large parts of the developing world, but they can be cured with a pill that costs less than a dollar. Mosquito nets are just as affordable, with the ability to protect more than half a million potential malaria victims a year.

Prioritizing Maximum Impact

According to effective altruism, it is not enough to devote time or money to a cause that generally has a good track record. An individual must look at exactly where their money is going. Even poverty-reducing measures have significant differences in efficiency and results. For example, a recent study compared the cost-benefit ratios of sustainable livelihoods graduation programs, livelihood development programs and cash transfers. Although graduation programs tend to cost more, they have far greater long-term success in lifting people out of poverty.

People are becoming far more conscientious of the causes and charities to which they choose to devote their time and money. Effective altruism is emerging in this environment. GiveWell, an effective altruism organization, analyzes the progress reports of well-known charities and conducts independent investigations into their effectiveness.

GiveWell is not afraid of courting controversy either. GiveWell recommends that individuals stop giving to some of the most well-known poverty reduction charities. According to GiveWell, these organizations lack transparency, show unimpressive results or already have more funds than they can effectively use. In the spirit of effective altruism, GiveWell instead recommends a list of alternate organizations that can fulfill similar goals far more efficiently.

Considering Effective Altruism

Effective altruism, as well as philosophically-related organizations like GiveWell, are not without critics. Some, particularly those involved with more traditional models of charity and activism, argue that effective altruism puts too many limits on an individual’s ability to donate however they choose. But, such criticisms notwithstanding, effective altruism offers a fresh perspective on how to approach pressing issues like global poverty.

– Thomas Brodey
Photo: Wikimedia

Effective Altruism Movement
The effective altruism movement explores the concept of how cost-effectiveness can improve the world. The U.K. recently formed a merged Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, reshaping its foreign aid program. Effective altruism ingrained in foreign aid programs can create more sustainable institutional change.

The Basics of Effective Altruism

Dominic Cummings, an influential advisor of the U.K.’s Prime Minister, is a proponent of the effective altruism movement. The concept of guiding the campaign promotes the use of reasoning and resources to maximize the good and apply it to the world to make it a better place.

The principles of effective altruism are scale, solvability, neglectedness and long-termism. Scale pertains to the range of effect and potential for positive impact. Therefore, if applied, U.K. aid and international development can render significant change through the multilateral system. This can lead other powerful actors to make their governments’ spending cost-effective. Solvability refers to the probability of growth regarding the relationship between the number of resources and eradicating epidemics. Neglectedness relates to the specific significance and size of under-resourced issues. Meanwhile, long-termism undoubtedly regards the long-run effects of projects’ decisions. They could either increase or decrease the expected value.

In the past, the U.K. considered the benefits and costs of projects’ impacts on the poorest and most conflict-affected regions. Its significant influence is in the multilateral system due to its contribution to official development assistance. It embodies effective altruism through pushing for greater cost-effectiveness and evidence to create a more significant impact on the development system. Department for International Development (DFID) projects, for example, tend to be high-risk and high-return.

How UK Aid Can Go Further

The UK currently funds thousands of projects. However, effective altruism principles suggest that the government merely focuses solely on the most significant projects to prioritize optimal allocation. The government must also consider relatively neglected countries while focusing on critical partnerships. Furthermore, as the U.K. works to fulfill its high-risk, high-return pledge, it should also increase research aid productivity to maximize the impact of support.

The Center for Global Development displays that adding additional objectives onto focused single-objective programs weakens the project, becoming more ineffective. Additionally, due to the U.K.’s significant influence in the multilateral system, DFID needs to hold funds accountable. This can occur by measuring its agencies’ achievements first and by multilateral spending. This is preferred over spending aid via large organizations.

Becoming More Effective

Due to the focus on systemic change, the U.K. can adhere to effective altruism values through investments in energy infrastructure, transportation infrastructure and market integration. Effective altruism principles also suggest that foreign aid can benefit national interests and the economy. Investing more in a global system for different funds for assistance and research helps the U.K. and other countries in its more notable impact.

The U.K.’s foreign aid programs are changing due to the recent formation of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. By applying the principles of the effective altruism movement, the U.K. can ensure that aid reaches the poorest and most affected countries. Government aid programs can create institutional change by depending on the evidence that displays where and how they should give support and through which agencies.

Isabella Thorpe
Photo: Flickr