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Some Thoughts on Effective Altruism

by Romy Krämer

Next to grant-giving, part of our work at Guerrilla is engaging people of wealth in conversations about our more radical approach to philanthropy in the hope that this helps move resources to grassroots social movements and place attention on the need for a just transition. Many of the people we speak to in this capacity have expressed an interest in Effective Altruism (EA) and some even cite it as a reason for why they won’t support grassroots activism. I guess that’s enough reason to share some of our thinking about EA. 

What is EA and what can be learned from it?

EA is a movement popularised by Peter Singer and other philosophers and has been taken up by some major philanthropists. There’s a website where you can learn all about the approach in detail. The basic question EA invites you to ask is ‘How can you create the most good in the world with the time or money you are able to give?’. If you agree with that question (for other questions to ask, see the next section), you might be inclined to join the effective altruists in using ‘reason and evidence’ to find the correct answer. 

So far so good. Old school philanthropy or traditional charity is about the benevolent philanthropist sharing their wealth with those among the less fortunate that are deemed deserving. Funding decisions are often based on personal relationships or emotional connection to a cause (sometimes invoked by dramatic images of suffering and grounded in moral obligation – (the duty of ‘giving back to the community’). In the worst case, funding comes with moralistic prescriptions and/or administrative strings attached that exclude grantees who can’t or won’t fit into the mould carved out by those with financial power. This model of philanthropy is rightly being criticised and EA has a big role to play in motivating philanthropists to interrogate the reasons behind their choices and go beyond ‘pet projects’ that they have a personal connection to or serving ‘attractive’ populations (i.e. children, cute animals).

EA makes a significant contribution by adding to the moral duty to donate, a focus on neglected issues with high impact potential and those where additional resources will contribute to their solution (referred to as neglectedness, importance and tractability in EA lingo). Based on these criteria, some classic issues promoted by EA as effective arenas to achieve benefits for people and planet at a massive scale are: mitigating global catastrophic risks from pandemics (EA promotors can today rightly say ‘I told you so!’) and advanced artificial intelligence, moving humanity to a plant-based diet, or ending factory farming. Organisations promoting EA (e.g. Open Philanthropy in the US and Effective Giving in Europe) also conduct in-depth research to compare the effectiveness of different approaches to tackle those issues, sharing their findings openly to maximise influence and improve overall decision-making in the field. This is a practice that traditional philanthropy can definitely learn from. 

photo: ‘blind justice’, Nicholas Jossi, Oldtown Bern

In short, EA rightly criticises traditional philanthropy for too often being based on emotional choices and assumptions with little backing and provides guidance for philanthropists who want to go beyond that. There is something disturbing though, about the almost religious fervour with which EA is being promoted as the approach to deciding where philanthropic resources are meant to go, and about the values that seem to underlie the approach, that makes it hard to reconcile it with the Guerrilla Foundation’s approach to radical social justice philanthropy (see here and here for examples of other critiques of EA). 

EA and radical social justice philanthropy

‘Where do I get the most bang for my buck?’ ‘Which single issue is the most neglected and thus most important?’ and ‘Is there a scientifically proven effective solution with measurable impacts?’ EA seems to unquestioningly replicate the values of the old system: Efficiency, growth, linearity, objectivity… no wonder the approach is being embraced by many who have most benefited from a system that centres around these values. 

Civil Rights Marches (retrieved from Library of Congress)

Questions of power in knowledge production, but also the power over people’s bodies or nature that is implicit in claims to having identified ‘the best way’ to ‘save’ people or the planet are being ignored. Linear theories of change don’t allow for emergence, complex relationships, and resilience from diversity. Unregistered grassroots groups with no resources to measure the impact of their work cannot be considered by a framework that prioritises ‘highly effective charities’ that work internationally as recipients. Yet, these collectives are a main source of change and prefiguratively create lived examples of alternative cultures and experimental social utopias. Technological ‘solutions’ to narrowly defined issues (such as geoengineering to tackle high levels of CO2 in the atmosphere) are prioritised because their outcomes are easier to quantify. Finally, EA’s utilitarian single focus on the outcome of individual welfare cultivates our societal myopia with respect to the bigger picture. Other social change goals like fairness, justice or anti-oppression are being overlooked.  

Thinking about the higher effectiveness of mosquito nets or HIV/AIDS education versus malaria or antiretroviral treatment, for example, belies a couple of other questions: What are the structural, economic and political factors that abet the spread of these and other diseases in certain parts of the world? Why would you seek to prolong the lives of individuals if you don’t address the high chance that the lives you saved end up as bodies in the Mediterranean after trying to escape climate change-induced drought and famine, dictatorships and war – all of which are one way or the other caused by Europe and the US? In short, why are we looking for the most effective way to save lives if we don’t try to fundamentally change where we’re headed as a species and replace our extractive economy with a truly regenerative one? Have we lost all hope for creating a different world where we transform our relationship with ourselves, those around us and the planet? Are we left to focus on maintaining the status quo by reducing misery, making it just bearable enough, but not questioning the root causes of trauma, exploitation, and planetary collapse? These are the questions that come up when I am confronted with an approach that gets promoted by highly trained, philanthropist-backed elites in white-collared shirts as the scientifically correct, data-driven and rational choice for the informed conscious philanthropist of the new decade. 

Yes, there are efforts within the EA community to focus more on advocacy and political work, for example when it comes to US prison reform, however, these also focus on very narrowly defined issues and are comparatively small in the overall EA universe of fundable approaches.

photo: Markus Spiske Fridays for Future protest against environmental collapse

Anti-asepticism

I know this is not a word, but that’s what comes up. EA feels aseptic, cold and – after a short high due to the stimulation by the prospect of high measurable impact – uninspiring. I am German and by nature much more drawn to EA than I would like to admit. However, the past years of working with activists and thinking about how social change happens, seeing Extinction Rebellion growing from a crazy idea into a global movement that not only has put climate emergency on the political agenda but also is changing how activists think about movement building, leadership and relating to oneself, have brought me to realise the importance of things like relationships, place, serendipity, and complexity. These are the unquantifiable yet invaluable aspects of our work with the Guerrilla Foundation that I learned to deeply appreciate and value. 

If we want our philanthropic activities to be data-driven, then let’s add some warm data to capture interrelationships, processes and patterns of complex systems and to help us tackling wicked problems and understand the field of social change better.

photo: Markus Spiske XR Demo, Lorenzer Platz, Nürnberg, Deutschland

Who gets off on ‘doing most good’ only?

It seems that EA is especially successful with young well-educated wealth owners, silicon valley folks and entrepreneurial types because its utilitarianism and unemotional data-driven approach tie right into the illusion of meritocracy and provide an opportunity to distinguish yourself from the ‘normal’ impact investing crowd by not only ‘doing well by doing good’ but also ‘doing the most good with your wealth’ (see more about EA’s ‘hidden curriculum‘ here). However, EA entirely avoids encouraging people to explore the emotions they might experience when thinking about the state of the world and to use this as a point of departure for a personal transformation to come to terms with race, class and gender biases, to reflect about the origin of their wealth or connect more deeply with the alternative value systems and world views from where calls for an alternative system originate. The philosophy and approach of initiatives like Resource Generation or donor collectives like Solidaire stand in stark contrast to this approach by encouraging and accompanying people of wealth and class privilege to start a personal transformation journey to find community and become allies who stand in solidarity with people’s struggles. While not always easy, to me this journey sounds so much more rewarding than a purely intellectual engagement with quantitative data about the effective placement of resources. 

photo: Micheile Henderson, a protest in The Hague, Netherlands
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