William Macaskill, Doing Good Better
Peter Singer, The Most Good You Can Do
These two books provide a good introduction to the emerging movement of ‘effective altruism’ which is making waves among philanthropists, students and some development wonks too. Effective altruists seek to use reason, data and evidence to maximise the amount of ‘good’ they can do in their lives. They donate a large share of their income and engage in detailed technical discussions about which charities are most effective. There are some interesting lessons for aid donors here, but also some serious questions about effective altruism, including the way it tends to portray development as a financial and technical problem, rather than a political or social one.
In 2004 the New Yorker magazine published a profile of an extraordinary man. Zell Kravinsky, a real estate magnate, had not only given away almost all of his $45 million fortune to charity, but decided to donate one of his kidneys to a stranger. Kravinsky, according to Peter Singer in The Most Good You Can Do, “puts his altruism in mathematical terms”. The risk of dying as a result of the donation was estimated at 1 in 4,000. This meant, to Kravinsky, that if he withheld his kidney from someone who would otherwise die, he would be valuing his own life at 4,000 times that of the stranger – a valuation he described as “obscene.” Kravinsky says that the reason people question his kidney donation is that “they don’t understand math.”
Kravinsky is one personal example – admittedly a rather extreme one – of a growing social movement which calls itself effective altruism. Effective altruists are committed to do as much good as they can with their lives. They tend to live modestly and donate as much as they can to charity – at least the traditional 10% of their income, often much more. They debate which charities are the most effective ones to support, based on quantitative measures such as ‘cost per life saved’. They try to choose the most effective career to do good, often concluding that they can have more of an impact by taking a highly paid job in a bank or a hedge fund and giving away most of their salary than by working directly for a charity or other ‘good cause’. And a small but growing number are also choosing to donate part of themselves– blood, bone marrow or even a kidney- to someone who needs it more than they do.
The two books under review set out the ‘creed’ of effective altruism (there is something almost like a community of believers about the movement) but they do so in quite different ways. Doing Good Better, by William Macaskill, a young associate professor of philosophy and the coiner of the ‘effective altruism’ term in 2011, comes across as a practical guide for the young, committed graduate who wants to know how to do the most good with their life. The focus is on how to distinguish between ways of helping which are highly effective from those which are ineffective – both in terms of careers and charities. There are checklists of questions you should ask before supporting a particular cause or charity, and the book concludes with some tips about how to become an effective altruist. Peter Singer’s The Most Good You Can Do is more reflective and philosophical, although still very readable. The author has been writing on the ethics of donations to charity since 1972 so is something of an intellectual father for the movement. The Most Good You Can Do reviews the emergence of the effective altruism movement, and looks into what motivates effective altruists and how they justify what they do.
Global poverty reduction is not the only ‘cause’ considered by Macaskill and Singer, but it features high on the list – especially as saving lives in poor countries is much cheaper than saving them in rich ones. In deciding which interventions are most cost-effective in fighting poverty, Macaskill puts a lot of emphasis on randomised controlled trials (RCTs) – a methodology imported from medicine where there is a group of people randomly selected to receive the ‘treatment’ (i.e. development project) and another group who do not, so the effects of the project can be more clearly identified. In fact, GiveWell – an organisation set up by effective altruists to rate charities according to their impact and find those which deliver “real change for your dollar” – recommends only four ‘top charities’ all of which are backed by RCT studies.
RCTs have been subject to a lot of debate in development circles in recent years, much of it critical. I have some sympathy for those critiques, but before I get on to them I’d like to consider the positive contribution that effective altruism can bring to development agencies. Firstly there is a welcome emphasis on really understanding in detail what an NGO is achieving. Sometimes in development agencies we struggle to articulate what a particular project or programme is actually doing in practice – for example, it sounds much better to say your project is “building capacity” than to say you are buying computers and running training courses. Also, whilst staff in development agencies go through a lot of hoops before approving new projects, including cost benefit analysis and estimates of value for money, too often these are rhetorical exercises based on weak underlying numbers, so the emphasis on ‘hard evidence’ vetted by a completely external organisation is attractive (at least the basis of GiveWell’s judgements is clear, even if you don’t agree with it). There’s also a welcome emphasis on following up to ensure effective delivery. The Against Malaria Foundation, for example, gets points on GiveWell because it has “strong processes for ensuring that nets reach their intended recipients and monitoring whether they are used over the long-term” – to avoid classic problems such as nets being sold on or used for fishing. Finally it’s notable that GiveWell’s top rated NGOs are all focused on one particular kind of intervention. There may be good reasons why development agencies and large NGOs try to do a little bit of everything – but there are surely some benefits to focusing on one thing and doing it extremely well.
This said, there are aspects of the effective altruists’ worldview that to me are somewhat troubling. As others have pointed out, effective altruists have to date – and especially on GiveWell – tended to focus on charities which provide cost-effective ‘fixes’ such as distributing insecticide treated bed nets or deworming pills. They do not seem to have engaged much with what to me are the bigger factors which influence global poverty – for example the broad-based economic growth which is lifting millions of people out of poverty in countries like China and Vietnam; the corrupt political systems in many developing countries which ensure the benefits of development go mainly to the elite; and the ways rich countries’ actions and policies can act to keep poor people poor –through, for example, support for undemocratic leaders, the arms trade or tax havens. Effective altruists will point out that their movement is not only about GiveWell, and that there are other initiatives which are considering how effective altruists can support what they call ‘systemic change’ – for example the Open Philanthropy Project. But this has not to date looked at any of the structural factors which underpin world poverty.
The other troubling aspect of the movement is the way it explicitly discourages people from basing their charity on an emotional connection. For example Macaskill says despite having visited a Fistula hospital in Ethiopia he decided it would not be appropriate for him to support the Fistula Foundation as he believed there were other charities who would make more effective use of his money. I don’t disagree with that decision in itself, but in a world where people are becoming more individualised, and genuine connections and empathy seem to be rarer and rarer, there is something concerning about subjecting every emotional impulse to a cost-benefit calculation. I’d rather urge people to hold on to their impulses to be kind to their neighbours and help people they know, rather than exclusively basing their desire to do good on sending money abroad.
Effective altruism is an interesting movement which has the potential to shake up the development business in some ways. The presence of an independent organisation like GiveWell may increase the pressure in development agencies for better measurement of their effectiveness. But in responding to this pressure, it will be important to remember that the numbers do not tell the whole story. For me, evaluation of development programmes’ effectiveness has to involve not only quantitative calculations of ‘cost per life saved’ but also a thorough, qualitative assessment of the ways in which people’s lives are affected by programmes – including especially their unintended consequences.