Which areas of philanthropy are most effective?

The text of this post is taken from an article on the Effective Altruism forum, you can read the full text here.

How can we figure out which causes we should focus on?

Researchers have found the following framework to be useful. Working on a cause is likely to be highly impactful to the extent that the cause is:

  • Great in scale (it affects many lives, by a great amount)
  • Highly neglected (few other people are working on addressing the problem), and
  • Highly solvable or tractable (additional resources will do a great deal to address it).

On the basis of this reasoning, several cause areas appear especially likely to be highly impactful.

These areas are not set in stone. They simply represent best guesses about where we can have the most impact, given the evidence currently available. As new evidence comes to light that suggests different causes are more promising, we should consider working on those instead. It’s also worth keeping in mind that if we move to a better cause, even if we aren’t sure it’s the best cause, our impact can still be much larger than it might have been.

We’ll discuss three main areas: alleviating global poverty, improving animal welfare, and trying to influence the long-term future.

Fighting extreme poverty
Diseases associated with extreme poverty, such as malaria and parasitic worms, kill millions of people every year. Poor nutrition in low-income countries can lead to cognitive impairment, birth defects, and growth stunting.

Much of this suffering can be prevented or mitigated with relative ease. Antimalarial bednets cost around $2.00 each. GiveWell, an independent charity evaluator, estimates that they can significantly reduce malaria rates. Even simply transferring money to people who are very poor is a relatively cost-effective way of helping people.

Improving health doesn’t just avert the direct suffering associated with sickness and death; it also allows people to participate more fully in education and work. Consequently, they earn more money and have more opportunities later in life.

Animal welfare
The advent of industrialized agriculture means that billions of animals each year are kept in inhumane conditions on factory farms. Most have their lives ended prematurely when they are slaughtered for food. Advocates for their welfare argue that it is relatively cheap to reduce demand for factory-farmed meat, or to enact legislative changes that improve the welfare of farmed animals. Because of the huge numbers of animals involved, making progress on this issue could avert a very large amount of suffering.

Especially given the scale of the problem, animal welfare also seems extremely neglected. Only 3% of philanthropic funding in the US is split between the environment and animals, while 97% goes toward helping humans. And even within the funding spent on animal welfare, only about 1% goes towards farmed animals, despite the extreme suffering they endure.

Improving the long-term future
Most of us care not just about this generation, but also about preserving the planet for future generations.

Because the future is so vast, the number of people who could exist in the future is probably many times greater than the number of people alive today. This suggests that it may be extremely important to ensure that life on Earth continues, and that people in the future have positive lives.

Of course, this idea might seem counterintuitive: we don’t often think about the lives of our great-grandchildren, let alone their great-grandchildren. But just as we shouldn’t ignore the plight of the global poor just because they live in a foreign country, we shouldn’t ignore future generations just because they are less visible.

Unfortunately, there are many ways that we could miss out on a very positive long-term future. Climate change and nuclear war are well-known threats to the long-term survival of our species. Many researchers believe that risks from emerging technologies, such as advanced artificial intelligence and designed pathogens, may be even more worrying. Of course, it’s hard to be sure exactly how technologies will develop, or the impact they will have. But it seems that these technologies have the potential to radically shape the course of progress over the centuries to come.

Because of the scale of the future, it seems likely that the best opportunities in this area will be even more impactful than those in the the previous two cause areas.

And yet, existential risks stemming from new technologies have been surprisingly neglected. There are probably just a few hundred people in the world who work on risks from AI or engineered pathogens.

US households spend around 2% of their budgets on personal insurance, on average. If we were to spend a comparable percentage of global resources on addressing risks to civilization, there would be millions of people working on these problems, with a budget of trillions of dollars per year. But instead, we spend just a tiny fraction of that amount, even though such risks may become substantial in the decades to come.

If we value protection against unlikely but terrible outcomes individually, as our insurance coverage suggests we do, we should also value protection against terrible outcomes collectively. After all, a collective terrible outcome, like human extinction, is terrible for everyone individually, too. For this reason, it seems prudent for our civilization to spend more time and money mitigating existential risks.

Other causes
There are many other promising causes that, while not currently the primary focuses of the effective altruism community, are plausible candidates for having a big impact. These include:

  • Improvements to the scientific establishment, such as greater transparency and replication of results
  • Researching mental health and neurological disorders, particularly depression and anxiety, and improving access to treatment in low-income countries
  • Tobacco control
  • US criminal justice reform
  • International migration and trade policy reform
  • Electoral reform (e.g. implementing better voting methods)

Of course, it’s likely that we have overlooked some very important causes. So one way to have a huge impact might be to find an excellent opportunity to do good that almost everyone else has missed. For this reason, global priorities research is another key cause area.

First published by Center for Effective Altruism on May 27 2020

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