Swochchhanda Shrestha


As I have learned about the ideas and methods of effective altruism over the course of the Arete Fellowship, I have become very interested in how these ideas can relate to systemic change. In particular, I think it is interesting to question Effective Altruism’s relationship with systemic change because systemic change is often hard to prove or provide definitive evidence of in the short term, such as through a Randomized Control Trial (RTC). It is much easier to prove that a non-profit organization is saving lives directly by providing the cure to a given widespread and dangerous disease than it is to prove a non-profit’s success in changing fundamental aspects of a society. In addition, many EA charities or movements rely on funds coming in from the developed world to help the developing world, and it could be argued that this can make those most in need very dependent on those in better positions.

However, as I have engaged with more readings and discussions regarding effective altruism, I have found that the movement as a whole is also directly concerned with systemic change and evolving to address it more directly. For example, many EA movements in developing countries have some goal of helping to spread Creative Capacity Building among people living in poverty. Furthermore, although EA is fundamentally concerned with evaluating the objective effectiveness of non-profit organizations, cultural considerations are also now considered and charities which partner with local organizations in order to effectively reach their beneficiaries are preferred. As a result, effective altruists all around the world work to implement not only proven and existing methods of saving and improving lives of those most in need, but also come up with new innovations that could possibly make the world a better and fairer place. These innovations can come in the developing world, by increasing the agency of poor individuals and giving them greater control of the quality of their lives, or it can come in the developed world, by making affluent people more aware of their privilege and the opportunity they have to make a significant positive impact in someone else’s life (often cited as an important motivator but not as often actually followed up on).

Ultimately, the idea that Effective Altruism does not address issues of systemic change at all is an outdated one. Instead, it is true that EA prefers for people with more expertise in cultures where systemic change innovations are attempting to be made, be the ones who work on such movements. In reality, this may lead to more effective systemic change in the long run, as well as allowing the contributions of less specialized altruists to go to less risk-averse causes.

Maisha Prome

Effective Altruism: The money is there, but where it’s spent just needs to be optimized.

The core principle of Effective Altruism is to make the most good out of given resources. This means ensuring the money that’s given to charity is being used to its best potential and that the most value can be achieved from every dollar. For example, to promote school enrollment, it is much more effective to spend funds on educating parents regarding the importance of education than it is to pay for clean uniforms or providing food incentives to children. When I was introduced to this idea at the start of the Arete Fellowship, it reminded me of a something I’d read in my Bangladesh Studies textbook back in high school.

The chapter in the textbook had been about GDP growth in Bangladesh over the past few decades and had said said something like this: most expatriates who live and work abroad send their incomes to their families in Bangladesh, and this accounts for a large source of Bangladesh’s foreign currencies. However, this money is rarely used to its full potential. The families would almost always spend it all on food, rent, and other living costs. If these families used a part of that money to invest in small businesses, there would be a return on that overseas currency that would help boost the Bangladeshi economy.

This optimization is analogous to EA’s aim to maximize impact from donations to charities.  Just as slightly more mindful use of money from abroad could boost the Bangladeshi economy, mindful use of charity funds could not only help a lot of people, but also make donors feel happy that their donations are making the highest possible impact.

I also came to realize there are many other cases in which application of EA principles could potentially revolutionize things. Another area, again in the context of my home country Bangladesh, is the practice of zakat. This is the obligation for Muslims who have a certain amount of wealth to donate 2.5% of their annual income to those in need. Bangladesh is a Muslim majority country and most people, including my own family, donate this money to poorer relatives in the village, especially the sick or elderly who cannot provide for themselves.

While this helps the millions of recipients every year, I wondered if these funds, like those from the expatriates to their families, could not be used more efficiently. Instead of directly giving the money to these people to spend, why not try other things, like help recipients set up small businesses or invest in elderly care homes? The different approaches should be researched, and the most impactful ones should be implemented. That way, the donations would do the most good. The recipients would gain even more from the money they receive. And Bangladesh is just one of many Muslim majority countries in the world. Just adjusting the practice of zakat to be more in line with the principles of Effective Altruism would mean billions of dollars better used for those who give and those who receive.

Audrey Saltzman

There has been another massive oil spill in the gulf and you are distressed by the

images of birds’ wings slick with oil, choked and unable to fly. On a scale of 1-100, how

bad would you say five birds dying would be? What about five hundred?

Weighing each bird’s life equally would suggest if your answer to the first

question was 1/100, the answer to the second should be 100/100. Yet, if you are like

most people you do not view two orders of magnitude more birds dying as two orders of

magnitude worse. In fact, the number of human deaths in a tragedy must change by a

constant fraction of the total number of lives lost in order for us to notice 1 .

As MIT students, we take pride in quantizing things for efficiency. Our buildings,

majors, and classes are all numericized. Therefore, it should not surprise us that if we

want to do the most good in the world for our limited quantity of resources, we should

take a scientific approach to this problem as well.

We must recognize that we all have biases that can affect our ability to judge

causes. It is only too easy for causes near to the heart of the relatively wealthy to

receive funding while other, more effective, causes languish. If we want to maximize our

impact, a good cause to donate resources to must have three factors. It is: (1) large, (2)

neglected, and (3) tractable 2 . A small cause can be completely solved without doing as

much good as solving a small fraction of a very large cause. If a cause is crowded, the

resources you contribute present a much smaller fraction of the total allocation and

often cannot be used as effectively. Finally, if we are confident a cause is currently

impossible to solve, we should not waste resources in the attempt when they could be

used elsewhere.

Once a cause is selected, the next step is to figure out how to address it. While

charities have different ideas on interventions, some can be vastly more effective than

others. Randomized control trials (RCTs) can be used to evaluate the good, or lack

thereof, done by taking a certain action. For $40,000, one guide dog can be trained or

2,000 surgeries to cure blindness can be performed 3 . While both charities seem

worthwhile, one can do three orders of magnitude more good. Such extreme differences

can be found for other cause areas, including education and global health.

Since putting some thought into your giving can change the effect your donated

resources have by multiple orders of magnitude, next time you are trying to make a

difference, be sure to ask yourself:

1. Am I correctly evaluating the harm done the “badness” of this problem?

2. Is this a good problem for me to work on?

3. Which potential solution will be most effective?

A scientific approach to giving can make all of the difference.