My challenge for you in 2021: Do the most good you can

Posted by Jesper on December 24, 2020

(Deze post is ook vertaald naar het nederlands.)

This post is quite different from the usual stuff I post here. It’s about an idea I believe is really important; not nearly enough people know about it, and I’d like to share with you. It’s also about a challenge I have for you for 2021. If you were hoping for an Agda post, I apologize! Meanwhile I hope you find this post interesting as well.

If you’re a bit like me, you may have this common problem: you read, watch, or listen to the news and learn about all the horrible things that are happening, such as diseases, poverty, climate change, and war. Then you wish there only was something you could do to stop that from happening and prevent all that suffering! Especially in a year like 2020, I feel the urge to help more strongly than ever. But what can we possibly do?

Let’s think through the options. You could decide to make a donation or volunteer for a charity in an area you care a lot about, but you’re unsure if that will have any impact. Maybe you start buying fair trade products and work on reducing your ecological footprint, but worry that you’re mostly buying off your own guilt. Perhaps you consider going into politics or becoming an activist, but you’re afraid that you would never be heard among all the louder voices. I sure have often felt desparate not being able to make a difference. But what if I told you there’s another way you can make a large positive impact on the world, one that does not require large sacrifices in your career or lifestyle, yet way too few people actually know about? Let me introduce you to effective altruism.

Effective altruism is both an idea and a global movement built around this idea. As an idea, effective altruism is about finding the answer to a simple question: how can we make the largest possible positive impact with a given amount of resources? As a nerd who likes efficiency and optimizing things, this question alone made me curious already. As a movement, Effective Altruism (EA) consists of many people and several organizations that try to answer this question for different areas, such as global health, climate change, animal welfare, and the long-term future of humanity. At the same time, these organizations also try to convince people to donate to the top charities they identified. However, one thing they don’t do is tell you to give any particular amount to effective charities: you can be an effective altruist whether you donate 5€ or 50% of your income (which some people actually do!).

One of the reasons why it is possible to make such a big impact is because you are probably richer than you realize: see this calculator by Giving What We Can to find out how rich you are compared to the rest of the world. According to this calculator, if you have an average job in a typical Western country and donate 10% of your income to the Against Malaria Foundation (or an equally effective charity), you will save dozens of lives over the course of your career. That is like being a superhero without the spandex! (Nothing against people who like spandex.) In cause areas that are harder to measure than global poverty and health -such as climate change or long-term future of humanity- your impact could very well be even higher. For me, when I first learned that I could save lives with just a small portion of my income, I felt really motivated, and I still do.

Now, you could wonder whether it is really that important to identify the absolute best charities, instead of just picking one that is reasonably effective. But in fact, the very best charities in an area are often 10x (and sometimes up to 100x) more effective than the average. To give a example, to help fighting climate change you could decide to offset your CO2 emissions, which means you prevent around 0.05-0.1 tons of CO2 for every 1€ (see Gold Standard). Meanwhile, according to the research by Founder’s Pledge that same euro can prevent well over a whole ton of CO2 emissions (10-20x as much) by donating it to their recommended charities such as the Coalition of Rainforest Nations and the Clean Air Task Force. As another example, the least effective HIV/AIDS intervention produces less than 0.1 percent of the value of the most effective (source: The Moral Imperative of Cost Effectiveness). Just compare that to the time you spend shopping around for better prices online when buying a new TV, which perhaps makes a difference of 10-20%. Compared to that, it really pays off to spend some time on finding the very best charity for the causes you care about!

In addition to finding the best organizations within each cause area, effective altruism is also about identifying the cause areas where our donations can make an outsized impact compared to others. For example, your dollar goes further overseas: we can have a bigger impact on more people’s lifes by working on global health than by trying to solve poverty in Western countries. To help with evaluating different problem areas, there are three main criteria that people within the EA movement generally agree upon:

The idea is that if a problem is very large, very neglected, and very tractable, then it is likely a good candidate for making a large impact. This simple framework can sometimes lead to non-obvious results, such as some effective altruists deciding to support global priorities research over work on climate change despite it being a smaller problem overall, because it is much more neglected.

Once a problem area is selected comes the difficult task of finding and comparing the most effective organizations working on that problem. Often there is a lot of uncertainty involved in estimating impact accurately. For example, does protecting a piece of rainforest really work or does it just mean a different piece of forest will be cut down somewhere else? It is also difficult to compare different forms of impact. For example, how do we compare the effects of preventing diseases to the effects of better education in third-world countries? Luckily there are several highly reputed organizations with the sole mission of answering these hard questions:

If you want to make a real impact with your money but are unsure where to donate, you definitely could go worse than by following the advice of any of the above organizations. Myself, I’m donating this year to three of the Effective Altruism Funds: the Founder’s Pledge Climate Change Fund (80%), the Global Health and Development Fund (15%), and the Effective Altruism Infrastructure Fund (5%) (these funds are tax deductible in the US, UK, and Netherlands, and hopefully soon in other countries too). The money in these funds will end up at organizations such as Clean Air Task Force for advocacy for clean tech, Carbon180 for carbon removal solutions, Against Malaria Foundation for the distribution of insecticide-treated bednets, J-PAL for innovation in government of low-income countries, and 80,000 Hours for helping people maximize the impact of their careers. It fills me with a very warm feeling learning about all the things these organizations accomplish and knowing that I’m a part of what enables them to continue their work!

One of the nice things about the EA movement is that there are lots and lots of very well-articulated ideas you can read or listen to. So instead of going into more depth here, I will recommend some entry points to learn more about effective altruism:

If you’ve read this far and I have managed to convince you, I have a challenge for you to increase the amount of good you do in the year 2021. Concretely, the challenge is to live on 99% of the money you would normally, and pledge to give the remaining 1% to highly effective charities. Just one percent is small enough that you will probably not even notice, yet large enough to do something really awesome (of course if you’d like to give more that’s even better!) If you want, you can make an official pledge on Giving What We Can (as I have since 2017) or One for the World. Both these organizations also provide some excellent advice on what effective charities to donate to.

Whether or not you decide to take the challenge, I hope this post has made you at least a bit interested in effective altruism, and that it will motivate you to do the most good you can in 2021. A happy new year!