Lesvos beach, 21st October 2015. Photo: Marienna Pope-Weidemann via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
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Why 'Effective Altruism' is ineffective: the case of refugees
Sam Earle & Rupert Read
5th April 2016
In trying to evaluate charitable interventions in 'value for money' terms, the movement for 'Effective Altruism' has lost its moral compass, Sam Earle & Rupert Read. The real changes the world needs are profound, systemic and political. There is no better example than the refugee crisis: the problem is not insufficient aid, but structural inequality, too many weapons, and too much war.
We must recognise the connection between war refugees and the global arms trade. This systemic thinking is what real politics is all about. But taking a wholistic view is, unfortunately, inimical to the entire Effective Altruism approach.
The Effective Altruism (EA) movement has garnered a lot of attention over the last year.
And it got a huge boost with the Zuckerbergs' announcement that they would donate 99% of their Facebook shares to charity.
The EA movement is now the world's largest and most influential organised philanthropy network. So why does it have so little to say about the refugee crisis - surely one of the major humanitarian issues of our time?
With the UN HRC claiming that there are 4.5 million refugees from Syria alone, and with every chance that the global number of refugees will continue to rise year on year for decades to come, owing to political instability and man-made climate change, surely this must be a priority concern for philanthropists.
Where Europe's politicians have repeatedly failed to offer humane and compassionate solutions, concerned citizens look for ways they can help - and yet no guidance is provided on this urgent issue by EA.
We are encouraged by the growth of the EA movement. Because we are encouraged to see a lot of people wanting to find effective ways of helping others. But this piece aims to raise a question-mark over whether 'Effective Altruism' actually is effective.
Does the 'audit culture' itself deliver?
Ironically, a key reason why we suspect that EA may be a systematically ineffective means of being altruistic is that we are suspicious of its quantitative / measuring obsession. One might think at first blush that it is self-evidently good to measure the effectiveness of one's giving.
But consider similar arguments in other areas. Does it actually turn out to be true that measuring the effectiveness of teachers is a good thing? Of students? Of academics? Of transfer-payments to the disabled?
The 'audit culture' nowadays often taken for granted is usually, we submit, a counter-productive distraction. The determination to measure everything degrades what one is measuring. The obsession with garnering 'evidence' for everything undermines the effectiveness of many of the very things one is attempting to evidence.
Our central worry about EA is this: that it is an essentially apolitical attempt to address what are fundamentally political problems. EA is essentially simply charity with a modern pseudo-scientific spin.
The lack of political - or any kind of joined-up - thinking in EA leads to some very dubious suggestions indeed. Most obvious is the EA-based 80,000 Hours outfit, which advises people to take the most lucrative career path, in order to be able to donate the greatest amount to 'effective' charities' over a lifetime's work (or 80,000 hours).
Thus, it would (allegedly) be better to be a hedge fund manager than an aid worker. Although such paths are not recommended by EA for everyone, any such advice still completely ignores the fact that in working for multinational corporations one is actively contributing to all sorts of nefarious activities - low-welfare exploitative labour, dirty and dangerous extractive industries, land-grabs, conflict over resources, political lobbying for looser regulations etc - in other words, activities that cause the very poverty that one is supposed to be dedicated to alleviating.
Mightn't it be more effective to find a way to oppose these corporations than to work for them?!
Don't bother campaigning - just make as much money as you can ...
Imagine if EA had been around to influence the young Obama. He would have been told: "Don't waste your time being a community organiser; become a rich young business executive, and you can pay for two or more community organisers out of the left-over money from your salary!"
Would the world really have been a better place, as a result of him accepting that careers advice? Now ask the same question with regard to Gandhi, Wangari Matthai, Caroline Lucas, Naomi Klein, or thousands of others ...
Does EA really have the evidence-base to support the claim that it's careers advice is actually making the world a better place? The answer to the question is of course quite obvious: it is No. Because such counterfactuals obviously can't be evidenced.
The EA approach overlooks meanwhile the key point that there are many ways to help effect and affect global change, of which donating money is but one: political engagement, activism, private and shared economic behaviours - like veganism or boycotts - and strengthening community bonds are among the others. The key point here is that no single activity is sufficient; rather all are required for a genuinely concerted effort.
A related consideration, from the EA perspective, should presumably be how to maximise disposable income. If one's goal is to maximise utility, how does one weigh up spending less money by buying intensively farmed food, or shopping in Primark in order to have more cash left over to donate to the chosen charities, against the harm caused by dangerous factory conditions in Bangladesh and intensive farming methods that are setting the scene for food scarcity in the coming decades?
Faced with such dilemmas one fears that preference would be given by EA to the option easiest to measure.
Addressing the structural causes of inequality
The point is that most of the causes of deep poverty are structural, and can therefore only hope to be alleviated through systemic measures - which is where global and national politics comes in. As the current refugee crisis shows us, although there is an urgent need and unquestionable moral demand for emergency assistance, such assistance will do nothing to address the causes of the problems.
This is why for instance Green MP Caroline Lucas has been at pains to point out the deeply unsatisfactory response of David Cameron - announcing (rather meagre) aid on the one hand, whilst simultaneously hosting an international arms fair.
As Caroline pointed out, we must recognise the - rather obvious - connection between war refugees and the global arms trade, if we are serious about addressing the issue. This systemic thinking is what real politics is all about. Being wholistic in one's approach, unfortunately, is inimical to the EA approach, which, as we have laid out, is necessarily balkanised because of its 'evidence-based' nature.
In any case, mention of the refugee crisis is conspicuously absent on the websites of the EA 'Giving What We Can' campaign, and only belatedly featured on a small blog post on the GiveWell site, recommending donations to MSF: but the problem identified above recurs (i.e. medical assistance is useful, but is not a substitute for safety, conflict-resolution etc). It may be that as a crisis it is considered by EA-advocates an emergency situation, and not something that would fall within the purview of regular philanthropy.
But this view would be mistaken: the crisis that has been unfolding in Europe this past year is just the start, and there is every reason to expect swathes of refugees from the Middle East and Africa to increase steadily in coming years as the effects of Climate Chaos hit and conflicts intensify.
Or perhaps refugees from Syria are not sufficiently poor enough to warrant help? Or perhaps their travelling (a hazard of being a refugee!) to Europe is to have crossed a philanthropic Rubicon: the cost of sheltering and feeding a single refugee becomes much more expensive, and therefore, according to the utility maximising impetus, it would be more cost effective to help people in poorer countries - and so, to take measures (including perhaps highly-coercive measures) to keep them there?
Poverty is a political issue
According to the principle of maximum utility only those in the direst poverty are worthy recipients of our charity, from the EA point of view - which therefore precludes any charitable giving to things like heritage, local conservation, guide dogs, medical research into western diseases.
Indeed given that EA - disastrously - follows a conservative, growthist model of economic development, it follows that such diseases will be in store for much of the developing world in the future.
But, as we've seen, poverty is a political issue, and after five years of Conservatives in power, there is now considerable poverty in the UK, as evidenced by the 1,084,604 people fed by food banks in this country last year, for example. Does this count as a sufficient degree of poverty?
And if it does, would giving to foodbanks be an appropriate way to address the issue - or does it in fact give tacit support to the kinds of welfare cuts that cause the foodbank dependence in the first place? Or what about fuel poverty, which leaves a million households in this country choosing between eating and cooking, and causes 15,000 deaths among the elderly each year? But doesn't Quality Adjusted Life Years (QALYS) value younger life-years more; and is this right?
These questions cannot be answered by doing cost-benefit analyses. They are - or, better, depend upon - philosophical and political questions. They demand the careful development of (and willingness to act on) a worldview that takes into the account the heart and not just the head. A wholistic, inter-personal and (if possible) wise way of both interpreting and changing the world. Such a worldview is lacking from the means-ends policy-wonkery of the EA movement.
Avoiding the systemic causes of crisis.
In this piece we have attempted to diagnose the root causes of some of the many problems that critics of EA have highlighted. We would argue that EA, in its drive to measure effectiveness, confuses the tool with the goal, counterintuitively resulting in the measurability of a cause as its most prized dimension.
This is because the EA movement is very much a product of our technocratic, scientistic times. With this diagnosis, one can expose the severe limitations of the EA approach, and reveal its inadequacies in the face of the unfolding refugee crisis. For example, EA must it seems conclude that refugees on Europe's shores are unworthy of help, on the grounds that it would be cheaper to help people in less expensive Africa.
But it is not only in emergency relief that EA fails refugees: more important still, in its myopic focus on measurable outcomes, it necessarily precludes any analysis of the systemic causes of the refugee crisis.
We conclude that the popularity of EA is a very promising sign - it is promising that so many people want to help, and to change the world - but we have suggested here reasons for believing that EA is not in fact an effective way of changing the world.
As the inadequacy (or rather, near non-existence) of its response to the refugee crisis helps demonstrate.
Sam Earle is a post-grad student at the University of East Anglia, working on developing a philosophical alternative to 'sustainability' thinking.
Rupert Read is Reader in Philosophy at UEA and Chair of the Green House Think Tank. This article is a precis of a much longer forthcoming piece of work they are doing for Green House, on EA.
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