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Effective Altruism Offers a New Perspective on Ending Poverty 

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