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Introduction to Effective Altruism

Most of us want to make a difference. We see suffering, injustice and death, and are moved to do something about them. But working out what that ‘something’ is, let alone doing it, is a difficult problem.
Which cause should you support if you really want to make a difference? What career choices will help you make a significant contribution? Which charities will use your donation effectively? If you don’t choose well, you risk wasting your time and money. But if you choose wisely, you have a tremendous chance to improve the world. This essay is an introduction to effective altruism — the use of high-quality evidence and careful reasoning to work out how to help others as much as possible. Its purpose is to help you figure out how you can do the most good. It will help you think about which cause to focus on and how to use your money or your time to start making a difference, right away.
Your opportunity
You have an outstanding opportunity to do good. History contains many examples of people who have had a huge positive impact on the world. Irena Sendler saved 2500 Jewish children from the Holocaust by providing them with false identity documents and smuggling them out of the Warsaw ghetto. Norman Borlaug’s research into disease-resistant wheat precipitated the ‘Green Revolution’; he has been credited with saving hundreds of millions of lives. Stanislav Petrov prevented all-out nuclear war simply by being calm under pressure and being willing to disobey orders. These people might seem like unrelatable heroes, who were enormously brave or skilled or who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. But you too can have a tremendous positive impact on the world, if you choose wisely. The simplest way to see this is to look at the impact your money can have. If you’re reading this, then you are probably astonishingly wealthy in global terms. Have a guess at how rich you are by global standards and then take this test to see how rich you really are. For example, if you earn the typical income in the US, and donate 10% of your earnings each year to the Against Malaria Foundation you’ll probably save dozens of lives over your lifetime.
This is such an astonishing fact that it’s hard to appreciate. Imagine if, one day, you saw a burning building, kicked the door down, ran in and rescued a small child. You’d feel like a hero — it would be one of the most important days of your life. What the evidence shows is that you can do that, every one or two years, for the rest of your working life. What’s more, this doesn’t even take into account the long-run benefits of your actions. Because Irena Sendler saved those Jewish children, generations of people
are now alive because of her. Similarly, by helping people in poverty now, you provide benefits to the community that echo for decades.
And your potential for having a positive impact isn’t just confined to money. As well as being among the richest people in the world, you’re probably also among the most highly educated and highly skilled. And, in fact, it’s plausible that you can do even more good with your time than with your money. Lincoln Quirk, inspired by effective altruism, co-founded Wave, a company that’s poised to enable hundreds of millions of additional dollars of remittances to flow to poor countries. Many attempts to do good fail, but the
best are exceptional Taking advantage of the opportunity we have is challenging. If we don’t think carefully about how to do good, we risk wasting our time and money doing things that don’t actually work.
Let’s consider a fairly typical story of trying to do good — the Playpump. A Playpump is a device that looks very similar to the roundabouts you probably played on in parks as a child, and is installed in countries across southern Africa. As children play on the roundabout, the axle turns a pump which draws water from an underground aquifer — a source of clean, fresh water. The water is stored in a header tank covered in advertising billboards — which provides funding intended to make the whole system cost-neutral. On the face of it, the idea of providing play equipment to children and water for a village sounds like an amazing idea. In the early 2000s, companies like Colgate and Ford, and celebrities like Jay-Z and Beyoncé invested heavily to roll out new Playpumps in poor, rural communities; Bill Clinton called it ‘a wonderful innovation’. But in reality, the Playpump was a disastrous idea.
Roundabouts are fun because they keep spinning when you jump on them — the resistance from the water pump meant that Playpumps required constant effort to turn. The fun element was mostly gone, and what seemed at first like providing play equipment became closer to enlisting child labour. It was left to older women in the village to turn the pump — a task they found highly demeaning. Sometimes children were paid to miss school to turn the roundabout. Businesses decided against advertising on the tank stands, meaning that instead of being cost neutral, the system became very expensive to install (around $14,000, versus around $3,000 for a regular handpump).
And they weren’t even very functional: to provide enough water for a village’s daily water needs, you’d need to turn the Playpump for 27 hours each day. The Playpump isn’t a rare example of do-gooding gone wrong. In a study of Scots doing sponsored parachute jumps to raise money for charity, the authors found that, because there were so many injuries from first-time jumpers, for every £1 the skydivers raised for (mostly medical) charities, they cost the National Health Service £13 in medical expenses. Studies of Scared Straight — a still-popular program that attempts to discourage juvenile delinquents from a life of crime by taking them on prison tours — have found that the program increases rates of criminality. One think tank estimated that, because of this, every $1 spent on the program cost society over $200. And one study found that most interventions, when rigorously evaluated, produce weak or no effects.
In most areas of life, we understand that it’s important to base our decisions on evidence and reason rather than guesswork or gut instinct. When we seek medical treatment, we want treatments that have been shown to work through scientific trials. When we invest money, we try to get as much information as we can about all our options to find out what will give us the greatest return. When we look to buy a product, we read customer reviews to find out if what we’re buying really works. Yet when it comes to doing good, too often we lose these standards. We donate to charities just because someone approached us on the street, and never find out what our money was used to do. We volunteer for an organization because it’s local, not because it’s effective. We buy ‘ethical’ goods because they have a certain label on them, without looking into what that label really means. As a result, good intentions are often squandered because people use their time and money in ways that do comparatively little good.
To ensure we do the most good we can, we need to be willing to compare the costs and benefits of different actions. Consider the $40 million school TV presenter Oprah Winfrey financed in South Africa in 2007. This might be a wonderful benefit for the 150 young women who are able to attend. But it’s possible to build a school in nearby Angola for $30,000 — meaning a well-organised group of schoolkids could probably fundraise enough to have a similar impact to Oprah. Oprah could have funded more than a thousand schools for the same money and given tens of thousands of additional young people access to basic education. Just considered by itself, the $40 million seems like a generous contribution. But considering all the other things the money could have gone towards, it seems more like a missed opportunity.
Of course, it’s easy to point to examples of celebrity excess. But we all face similar choices when we choose how to help. We should ensure that we’re not missing opportunities, by giving our time or money to projects that are less cost-effective than the best options available to us. Development economists at MIT’s Poverty Action Lab have shown that many programs (for example, those designed to improve school attendance) do nothing, and amongst those that have any measurable impact the best have more than ten times the impact of the average. Comparing different ways of doing good is difficult, both emotionally and practically. But these comparisons are vital to ensure we help others as much as we can. And when it comes to comparing ways of doing good, the most important choice is your choice of cause.
Which cause?
The world is getting more peaceful and more prosperous. While media coverage tends to focus on negative stories, the world is actually getting safer, people have longer and healthier lives, and the opportunities open to the average person are growing every day. These changes show us that big improvements to our quality of life are possible, and can sometimes occur very rapidly. Concerted efforts to improve the world have already had phenomenal success. Let’s consider just a few examples. The number of people living under the World Bank’s poverty line has more than halved since 1990, the number of annual deaths from malaria has halved since 2000. We lived through the Cold War without a single nuclear weapon being detonated in an act of aggression between countries. Over the last few centuries, we have abolished chattel slavery, dramatically decreased the oppression of women, and, in many countries, done a great deal to secure the rights and acceptance of people who are gay, bi, trans or queer.
But many people have missed out. A billion people live on less than $2 per day (where the $2 is equivalent to what $2 buys in a USA — little more than a couple of bags of rice). Millions of people die each year from preventable causes, like malnutrition, diarrhea or malaria. And our prosperity and longevity also bring their own set of problems. The industrialisation of our agricultural sector means billions of animals spend their lives in inhumane conditions on factory farms, before being slaughtered. Climate change, resource competition and disruptive new technologies all have the potential to negatively impact billions of people in the future.
The cause that you choose to work on is almost certainly going to be the biggest factor that determines how much good you can do. If you choose a cause where it’s not possible to help very many people, or where there just aren’t any good ways to solve the problem, then you will significantly limit the amount of impact you can have.
Many people start out with a cause already picked out. There are lots of reasons for this, such as having seen the problem up close, reading a news article, or having a friend who’s already raising money for a particular organisation. But if we choose a cause that simply happens to be salient to us, we may overlook the most important moral problems of our time. William Wilberforce was one of the key figures in the movement to abolish slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries. Imagine if he had instead chosen to use his energy and influence to fight for the rights of white factory workers, because that was the cause he happened to be most passionate about? The world would be a much worse place. Unfortunately, people often don’t choose to work on the most important causes. As
a consequence, even if they do some good, they’ve missed an opportunity to make a much bigger difference.
Consider just one way of making a difference — donating money. A huge amount of money is donated every year. In the US alone, $373 billion was donated in 2015. In the UK, £10 billion was given by individual donors — an amount comparable to the UK’s spending on overseas humanitarian aid. But most of these donors chose to give within their own communities. While it’s understandable that people want to make a difference where they can see the effects of their donations, the result is that money goes to people who are already well-off by global standards, rather than to those who need it the most.
American entrepreneur Marc Benioff, CEO of web-based software Salesforce, has donated more than $100 million to children’s hospitals based in San Francisco. It’s unlikely that these hospitals will save many additional lives as a result of his donation, because the US health system already provides a very high level of care by global standards. That same donation to highly effective charities working in very poor countries would have saved thousands of lives.
Music industry mogul David Geffen donated $100 million to refurbish an opera venue at the Lincoln Centre, and another $100 million for upgrades to the Museum of Modern Art, both in New York. While these donations will make these venues nicer for museum- and theatre-goers, it’s also easy to see that much more good could have been accomplished if that money had been spent on more pressing needs. Unfortunately, most big donations follow the same pattern. In fact, the majority of donations over a million dollars go to causes in wealthy countries, with just 11% of the money going overseas. And it’s not just billionaires who don’t choose to donate as effectively as they could. Of the $373 billion that was donated to charity in the USA, a mere 4% of the total was donated to charities operating internationally. Just 12% of the £10 billion donated by UK individuals in 2014 went overseas.
This is a missed opportunity. Some of the best opportunities to make a difference are overseas. The amount of extra money required to achieve universal coverage of malaria nets — which, as we’ve already seen, are an incredibly effective way to prevent suffering and death — was estimated at around $200 million for 2015. David Geffen’s donations to cultural institutions alone could have nearly closed this gap. And we shouldn’t just focus on donations. The same focus on salient nearby causes over more effective causes elsewhere in the world is just as true of how people choose to spend their time.
If you want to figure out what cause to focus on, it’s important to reflect on why you want to help people. Do you just think that it’s bad for people to suffer and die from a particular cause (like cancer, malaria, or war), or do you think that all suffering and death is bad, whatever the cause? Most people on reflection would agree that, if we want to improve people’s lives, then it shouldn’t matter what’s causing their suffering — the important thing is that they’re suffering.
By remaining open to working on different causes, we’re able to pivot to where we can make the biggest difference, without locking ourselves in too early.
Promising causes
How, then, can we figure out which cause we should focus on? We’ve found the following framework to be useful. We find causes important to work on to the extent that they are great in impact (they affect many people’s lives, by a great amount), that they are highly tractable (additional resources will do a great deal to address the problem), and that they are highly neglected (few other people are working on addressing them). On the basis of this reasoning, there are several cause areas that have particular prominence amongst members of the effective altruism community. These choices are not immutable. They simply represent best guesses about where we can have the most impact, given the evidence currently available. As new evidence comes to light that suggests different causes are more promising, we should consider working on those instead.
Fighting extreme poverty
About 900 million people live under the World Bank’s poverty line of $1.90 per day. Diseases associated with extreme poverty, such as malaria and waterborne illnesses, kill millions of people every year. Poor nutrition in developing countries can lead to cognitive impairment, birth defects and growth stunting. Much of this suffering can be easily prevented or mitigated. Antimalarial bednets cost around $2.50 each. With technical assistance, countries can fortify staple foods like flour with essential micronutrients (like iron, iodine, and vitamins) incredibly cheaply. Treating a child that has a parasitic worm infection costs less than $1.50.
Mass-media campaigns to drive behaviour change are a promising way of improving health and wellbeing, and may significantly improve the effectiveness of other healthcare services. And simply transferring money to people who are very poor provides direct economic empowerment, giving recipients more control over their lives.
Not only does improving health avert the direct suffering associated with sickness and death, it also allows people to participate more fully in education and work, and consequently earn more money and have more opportunities later in life.
Animal suffering
Many people in the effective altruism community believe that we should be concerned about the welfare of nonhuman animals. In particular, the advent of industrialised agriculture means that billions of animals each year are kept in inhumane conditions on factory farms, and most have their lives ended prematurely when they are slaughtered for food. Advocates for their welfare argue that it is relatively cheap to reduce demand for factory farmed meat, or enact legislative changes that improve the welfare of farmed animals, and that the huge numbers of animals involved mean that making progress on this issue could avert a very large amount of suffering.
The future of the human race
If we believe that we should have moral concern for people who currently exist, but live in other parts of the world (that is, separated from us by space), then many people argue that we should also have moral concern for future generations of people (that is, separated from us by time). The number of people who might exist in the future is astronomical. Because of this, ensuring that the human race continues and that the long-run future of the human race is positive seems very important.
However, there are many ways in which we might miss out on a very positive long-run future. Climate change and nuclear war are well-known threats to the long-run survival of our species. But emerging technologies, such as geoengineering and the design of novel pathogens, pose risks that are new and at least as great. And other technologies that will be developed over the coming decades, such as advanced artificial intelligence, have the potential to radically shape the course of human progress over the centuries to come. Many people in the effective altruism community therefore choose to ensure that we can harness the benefits of these new technologies while avoiding the risks.
Other causes
There are many other promising causes that, while not currently the primary focuses of the effective altruism community, are plausible candidates for having a big impact. These include:
• Fundamental scientific research
• Improvements to the scientific establishment, such as greater transparency and replication of results
• Researching mental health and neurological disorders, particularly depression and anxiety, and improving access to treatment in developing countries
• Some forms of cancer research and treatment
• Climate change prevention, adaptation, and mitigation
• Tobacco control
• Prevention of road traffic injuries
• US criminal justice reform
• International migration and trade policy reform
Of course, it’s likely that we have overlooked some very important causes. So one way to have a huge impact might be to find an opportunity to do good that’s potentially high-impact, but that everyone else has missed. The Open Philanthropy Project has done work to investigate a range of different cause-areas, in order to work out which provide the best opportunities for large grants. (Note that the top causes will vary from person to person, depending on your particular skills and circumstances ). Their current list of top causes includes global health and development, scientific research, farm animal welfare, US criminal justice reform, immigration reform, biosecurity, and artificial intelligence. If you want to explore some of the decisions involved in more detail, we’ve created a cause prioritization tool to help you decide which cause to focus on.
Which career?
For most of us, a significant fraction of our productive waking life — over 80,000 hours — are spent working. This is an enormous resource that can be used to make the world better. Often, typical ‘ethical’ career advice is much too narrow. The most common advice is simply to work at a non-profit: but many non-profits are ineffective, or working on the wrong cause, or won’t set you up with the skills and experiences to have a big impact over the long-run. We think that scientific research, work in policy and politics, entrepreneurship, and work for highly effective organisations (both for-profit and non-profit) are very promising career paths. Another route is ‘earning to give’: deliberately taking a higher-earning career with the aim of donating a significant proportion of your earnings; if you have a skill that’s in high demand, sometimes you’ll be able to donate enough to fund more work than you would be able to accomplish yourself.
A final option, compatible with some of the others, is skill-building: taking a job with the primary aim of building up skills, experiences, credentials and a network that will help you to have an even bigger impact later on in your life. Unlike donations, your personal fit with
a given career path is very important. But we need to think about that in the right way. The standard career advice of “follow your passion” often doesn’t make much sense, especially if your passion doesn’t fit with any of the most important causes. But figuring out the area where you can do work that you’ll be able to excel at is very important. Passion is also much less important than you think — it turns out that other factors affect your job satisfaction significantly more. 80,000 Hours is an organization dedicated to helping people figure out in which career they can do the most good. They provide a guide to the most important concepts relevant to your career choice, a set of tools to help you make a decision, and have conducted a large number of career reviews across a wide range of fields.
Which charity?
One of the easiest ways that a person in the developed world can make a difference is by donating money to organisations that work on some of the most important causes. Monetary donations allow an effective organisation to do more good things, and is much more flexible than time donations (like volunteering). As noted above, most of us don’t realise just how rich we are in relative terms. Someone on the median income in a rich country is likely to be in the top 5% of incomes globally, and be around twenty times richer than the average person. This relative wealth presents an enormous opportunity to do good if used effectively.
Donating effectively
Some organisations associated with the effective altruism movement seek out the most effective causes to donate to, backing up their recommendations with rigorous evidence. The largest of these is GiveWell, which conducts in-depth research into promising causes and charities, and recommends those that it feels represent the best opportunity for a donor to have a big impact. Donating money doesn’t require any special skill, nor is it something that can only have an impact if the donations are very large. While having more money allows you to donate more, by focusing on the best organisations and causes you can have a big impact even with a small donation.
GiveWell’s top charities are all within global health and development. They recommend Against Malaria Foundation, which distributes bednets to protect children from malaria; GiveDirectly, which makes unconditional cash transfers to very poor individuals; and Schistosomiasis Control Initiative and Deworm the World, both of which treat people for parasite infections. Another important charity evaluator — though much smaller than GiveWell — is Animal Charity Evaluators, which focuses on finding the most effective animal charities.They recommend Animal Equality, Mercy for Animals, and The Humane League, all of which do outreach to encourage people to reduce their meat consumption.
Unfortunately, there’s currently no organisation that makes recommendations for the best long-run future charities for typical donors. Some organisations that those in the effective altruism community donate to in this category include the Future of Humanity Institute, the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, Cool Earth, the UPMC Center for Health Security and the Ploughshares Fund.
Pledging to give
It’s easy to intend to give a significant amount to charity, but it can be hard to follow through. One way we can hold ourselves to account is to take a public pledge to give. Giving What We Can has a pledge that asks people to give 10 per cent of their lifetime income to the organisations that will make the biggest improvements to the world. The Life You Can Save has a similar pledge, starting at 1% of annual income to organisations fighting the effects of extreme poverty.
Getting involved
Effective altruism is a collection of ideas. But the ideas are meaningless if they aren’t acted upon. There’s already a growing community of people who take these ideas seriously, and are putting them into action.
The community
Nearly 2,000 people have taken the Giving What We Can pledge to donate 10% of their lifetime income to the most effective organisations. Hundreds of people have significantly changed their career plans on the basis of effective altruism. And altruism meet-up groups.
Taking action
If you’re inspired by the idea of effective altruism there are many ways you can take action.
• Take a 10% giving pledge: Giving What We Can
• Donate to highly effective charities: GiveWell
• Get advice on using your career to do good: 80,000 Hours
• Attend an effective altruism conference Effective Altruism Global
This essay is copyright © The Centre for Effective Altruism 2016 and is published on It may be freely copied or redistrubuted, in whole or in part, provided it is clearly attributed to either the Centre for Effective Altruism or, and that any derivative versions also include this copyright notice.

This expert opinion is tagged under:

  • Impact measurement
  • International giving
  • Inspirational donations
  • Understanding philanthropy