Is effective altruism right to encourage donors to abandon local charities?


Jack Darby


Effective Altruism is fast becoming one of the most popular movements in philanthropy. The philosophy encourages individuals to give according to the greatest positive impact. Seemingly brilliant and obvious but does this mechanism of giving place too much emphasis on numerical data and unfairly discourage donors from giving locally?

Effective altruists want to correct well-meaning but ineffective givers by redirecting their funds to charities that have the most effective impact. MacAskill, a founder of the movement, proposes a thought experiment: Imagine you’re outside a burning house and you’re told that inside one room is a child and inside another is a Picasso painting. You can save only one of them. Which one would you choose? The effective altruist would choose the Picasso in order to sell the art to raise money for charities in Africa that could save multiple lives. This experiment exemplifies that while most people would save the child, donors should not give according to their emotional bias but by what would achieve the greatest good.

One major conclusion of Effective Altruism is that funds need to be given internationally, to the poorest communities, where, in theory, they have the greatest impact; as opposed to donating locally in developed countries. Again, difficult to find fault with, but the reality can be, well more messy.

This is illustrated in Nina Munk’s book ‘The Idealist’, who recounts her time in Africa following the economist, Jeffrey Sachs as he launches his $120 million ‘Millennium Villages Project’ to end poverty. The project was met with considerable controversy as critics cited errors with the design and claimed success: Sachs’ positive data from the villages’ development was widely publicised to funders but omitted key findings. There is a problem with data driven giving as data can be selective and presented in a misleading way without being questioned by the donors. Donors can be satisfied with tangible quotes that they’ve directly ‘saved’ X number of people by donating £20, but the reality is more complicated and harder to accurately measure.

Effective Altruists refuse to give locally (where donors limitations and complications of giving are starkly more visibly) as ‘metrically’ it seems to be less effective. Often the local, social, issues people are donating to take resources, investment and time to resolve or slowly improve, but is that really a legitimate reason to abandon these projects?

Effective Altruism has encouraged huge donations to brilliant causes that have traditionally been neglected and this blog is by no means meant to disparage the movement. However, we should be more sceptical regarding the power data and misleading statistics can have and aware of the detriment to local charities.

As Effective Altruism continues to grow, there are some that say local charities will inevitably suffer; the complexity of social issues will be simplified to quantitative data on a spreadsheet. Donors will avoid messy and fragmented local causes in favour of international projects that can instantly provide encouraging statistics.

Regardless of how dubious the data there will always be people ready to accept figures that show they’ve helped a high number of people regardless of the methods used to generate it. To paraphrase MacAskill we shouldn’t give simply because it makes us feel good, we should give to make a difference.

Jack Darby is Collective Fund Administrator at Prism the Gift Fund

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