A Brief Overview of the Effective Charity Landscape, Part 2: Systemic Change

This is the fourth of six posts I’m writing for Effective Altruism Week.


There are basically two ways that a charity can do good in the world. The first way is to run some program—preferably an evidence-backed and cost-effective one—that directly saves or improves individual people’s lives. As I wrote yesterday, the best opportunities within this approach are those that serve the global poor. The advantage of this approach is that it offers concrete, tangible results that you can be confident in. For this reason, most donations by effective altruists go to these kinds of programs. But there’s a limit to how much good you can do this way—and there are other downsides as well.

The second way is to try to produce systemic change that makes things better on a large scale. This doesn’t have to be political, though it can be. This is a high-risk-high-reward approach; most attempts to do this don’t pan out, but some problems are so important that taking a risk on them is worth it. Generally speaking, this approach takes the form of either research (to understand some phenomenon that causes harm, and what might be done to solve it) or advocacy (to get solutions actually implemented in the real world).

A quick note on politics. Many important problems can be addressed only through political change, and many effective altruists are interested in finding ways to bring this change about. That said, most effective altruists don’t believe that supporting one side or the other in mainstream electoral politics is a very effective way of doing good. There are so many players exerting so much influence there that anything you do as an individual is likely to be counteracted by someone on the other side. Instead, we’re interested in finding overlooked opportunities for reform that don’t already have powerful entities fighting either for or against them. Lots of people have strong opinions on, say, whether income tax rates should be higher or lower, and any individual voice there is likely to be drowned out—but how many people are already yelling about, say, land use reform? Not very many—which is why a concerted effort there just might be an effective way to do a lot of good.

Most causes that effective altruists are concerned about can be classified in one of four major categories.

Global poverty

I wrote yesterday about ways to help poor individuals. But it might also be possible to help the global poor on a larger scale through policy change in America and other rich countries. The Open Philanthropy Project is currently researching ways that this might be possible. A few of the more intriguing possibilities include:

  • Labor mobility. How can you massively increase the income of someone living in a poor country? By letting them come to a rich one. Advocates suggest that enabling migration could create trillions of dollars per year in economic value, possibly as much as doubling world GDP—and most of this value would go to the world’s poorest people. Of course, there are risks, and more research is needed into the probable effects of policy changes in this area—not to mention how to overcome political resistance to such changes.
  • Reforming foreign aid. The United States currently gives $30 billion per year in aid to other countries—but this money isn’t spent as well as it might be. It could be valuable to research better ways to provide foreign aid, or to politically advocate for more of it (as is done in other rich countries; the U.S. gives only about two-thirds as much foreign aid per dollar of gross national income as the United Kingdom). Policies that affect foreign aid indirectly, such as agricultural subsidies, could also prove important.
  • Addressing climate change. It’s generally believed that the worst effects of climate change will be in poor countries in tropical regions, as rising temperatures may harm agriculture and induce extreme weather events that cause mass loss of life and economic damage. This is an area where there’s already so much advocacy that additional efforts are likely to be drowned out, but there may be underexplored facets of it that provide good opportunities, such as research into geoengineering.

Existential risk

There are a number of threats that humanity may face in the future, that have the potential to kill literally everyone if things go wrong. Arguably, the single most important thing we can do is to prevent this from happening.

Most of the truly dangerous risks are man-made, the result of recent technology. This isn’t surprising; nature didn’t wipe us out over the past millions of years, so it’s unlikely to suddenly change and do so tomorrow. Technology, on the other hand, changes fast and at an accelerating pace, and if we’re not careful there may not be time to deal with its negative effects before they become catastrophic.

Thus far, work on existential risk is still in the realm of relatively speculative research. The major organizations devoted to it are the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge University, and the Future of Life Institute at MIT. The Open Philanthropy Project is also studying existential risk. Specific risks currently being studied include nuclear war, biotechnology (which could be used to engineer an artificial pandemic), artificial general intelligence, molecular nanotechnology, and extreme climate change.

Animal welfare

Many effective altruists are concerned not only about humans, but about all sentient life. In particular, if your goal is to reduce suffering as much as possible, then it’s a good idea to include animal suffering, since animals substantially outnumber humans and factory farming causes a great deal of suffering.

I’m not writing extensively about this cause because I don’t have much specific knowledge of it. Animal Charity Evaluators recommends The Humane League, Mercy For Animals, and Animal Equality as effective charities working in this area. The Open Philanthropy Project is also researching prospects for addressing harms caused by factory farming.

Meta-charity

Charity recommendations don’t grow on trees. All of the research that I’ve written about in this and the last post was done by charities focusing specifically on finding out how do the most good.

GiveWell is by far the organization that has made the largest impact in identifying the best opportunities to do good. Each year, they issue recommendations for the best charities in the first category; most of the organizations mentioned in yesterday’s post come with their seal of approval. They also, in collaboration with Good Ventures, run the Open Philanthropy Project, which researches the kind of high-risk-high-reward opportunities that this post is about. Without GiveWell, almost none of the work I’ve written about here would exist and effective altruism could not have become the thriving high-impact movement that it is today. They deserve a round of applause.

Other organizations are devoted specifically to effective altruism outreach. Two of the more notable ones are Giving What We Can, which encourages people to pledge to devote 10% of their lifetime earnings to effective charities (I’m a member), and The Life You Can Save, which is based on the work of noted ethical philosopher Peter Singer and engages in more general outreach.

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