On Effective Altruism

I don’t categorically reject effective altruism and I appreciate the added rigor and reflection it has brought to philanthropy and international development. That said, Kate Mann really captures a lot of my unease with EA and I recommend reading her. And as she argues, that rigor can be misplaced or even wrong, in which case EA sort of falls apart.

The other criticisms of EA, that she references, are how it often removes from the analysis the agency of “beneficiaries”, the importance of inclusion and process, and the important role of institutions and power (including the soft power of ideas). For me, this essay by Lant Pritchett is a reference point. EA is extremely concerned about efficacy and, therefore in attribution. But if you’re overly concerned with attribution, then you’re constantly trying to isolate variables, create clean experiments, and measure precisely (but not necessarily accurately).

How aid and progress is experienced by people matters a lot, in terms of sustainability of impact and also for human dignity. The philanthropists of yore achieved a lot with different methods; building institutions, giving based on vision and capacity. There certainly downsides and failures. But, the goals were big and generational, with a lot of trust — or faith — in their partners and long time horizons (ie patience) which made huge outcomes possible (eradicating small pox, green revolution), even if the attribution is somewhat diffuse.

At realistic levels, direct charity will always have marginal scale, even if undertaken by fabulously wealthy billionaires. Real scale is achieved through market transformations and/or government policy. That’s why development projects, as under GiveWell and Give Directly are ever only pilots and proofs of concept. Not that the positive impact isn’t real, only that it’s small.

I have engaged with EA advocates and Give Well in the past and they recognize the importance of public policy and advocacy to systemic change. They’ve opened initiatives to try to bring policy/advocacy into the EA philanthropic schemes. But it’s not an easy fit. I remember a telling experience when Give Well was trying to engage with policy with rigor. At one point they decided that a high-impact project they would invest in was to engage in pesticide regulation in India. The idea was to promote new regulations to remove highly poisonous pesticides from the market. The expected impact of this regulatory change was to reduce the horrific level of farmer-suicides, because drinking pesticides was a common method for farmers taking their lives.

But, I literally laughed out loud when I heard about this project. Because farmer suicides in India has been a hotly debated and studied problem in the development sector. Suicides have famously been attributed to GMOs, to government policy, and many other causes. They have also been disputed as a problem — some analysis indicates farmer suicide rates are lower than other populations in India. There’s a whole deworming-style debate on farmer suicides in India which Give Well just…. sidesteps. And the question of what was causing the suicides was, apparently, uninteresting and maybe irrelevant. Give Well selects a project to offer farmers less lethal pesticides to drink. That was the policy goal. Not to improve the farmers’ livelihoods, or reduce the ruinous debt that befalls many poor farmers, or to address social and political stigmas, shame, depression. To me, Give Well was seeing trees, but no forest.

Do I know that the pesticide project would fail? No. (According to information on Give Well website, it’s been very successful). Would it save lives? Probably. Would it improve farmers’ livelihoods? I don’t know enough about pesticides, but that wasn’t the point. Would it address the causes of farmer suicides? I don’t think so.

And maybe that’s my problem with EA. Without criticizing the motive, which is altruistic, it tries to take problems out of context, one by one. And then lines-up person-years saved against expenditures and delivers a final solution to a question only rich people are asking: what should I do with my money? The focus, in the end, is the money. And the goal is to reassure the donor of the efficacy of his precious money. It’s a solution to the donors’ problem, not the farmers’.




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I'm a human person, working in policy & advocacy in international development, gender rights, economic justice.