Learning How to Be an Effective Altruist

[Elsa Frey is Green Empowerment’s Program Manager in Portland.] From August 5th-7th, 2016, I had the privilege of attending the fourth annual Effective Altruism Global conference at the University of California Berkeley. Effective Altruism (EA) is a philosophy and social movement that promotes the use of high quality evidence and reasoning to scientifically determine the most effective ways to improve the world. GE is always looking for ways to enhance the impact of our work, so I headed down to Berkeley for a long weekend to learn how the insights provided by EA could aid us in our efforts.The first thing that I learned is that the Effective Altruism movement is diverse. Professionals, activists, and students working in the fields of philosophy, artificial intelligence, existential risk, international development, corporate social responsibility, and animal rights all came together to exchange ideas (and business cards) over three days of expert panels, workshops, and delicious vegetarian and vegan food. It was also a diverse gathering in terms of levels of experience: some attendees had been active in their field for decades, while others were undergraduate students who had yet to pick a career path. But ultimately, one thing united us all: a deep, earnest desire to make the world a better place in the most effective, efficient, and impactful ways possible. Unsurprisingly, this isn’t an easy task.

Will MacAskill, co-founder of the Effective Altruism movement, delivers the keynote speech. Photo credit: Genevieve Cottraux

Will MacAskill, co-founder of the Effective Altruism movement, delivers the keynote speech. Photo credit: Genevieve Cottraux

As Will MacAskill (one of the co-founders of the EA movement and the youngest tenured professor of philosophy in the world) noted, “Good intentions can all too easily lead to bad outcomes. The challenge for us is this: How can we ensure that, when we try to help others, we do so as effectively as possible? How can we ensure that we avoid accidentally causing harm, and succeed in having the greatest positive impact we can?” This is a very serious question for anyone working in international development in particular, because our field (though not Green Empowerment!) has an unfortunate track record of implementing well-intentioned, often very expensive, yet ultimately useless projects.The EA movement asserts that to avoid failures in development projects, we need to take a scientific approach. Methods that have been used for years (or sometimes decades) based on the assumption that they work should be questioned, rigorously evaluated through objective, scientific means, and held to high standards for effectiveness, efficiency (including financially), and sustainability. Any new methods should be treated as trials, subjected to the same aggressive level of testing as older methods, and should be adjusted based on the results. This was nothing new to me; I’m early enough in my career that these principles were firmly embedded within my training from the beginning. However, what attending the talks at EA Global pointed out to me was that an effective, evidence-based solution to a given problem may not be at all obvious or even clearly connected to the problem; so we need to not only be objective and methodical, but also open-minded and creative. Here’s an example, borrowed from Professor MacAskill’s book, “Doing Good Better”:In the mid-1990s, an MIT professor named Michael Kremer visited some friends in Kenya. While there, he got together with a friend who worked at a Dutch charity called International Christian Support (now named Investing in Children and Their Societies [ICS]) which was running a program in Kenya to try to improve school attendance and test scores. They provided a package of several different items and services which were commonly (and not unreasonably) thought to help with these issues: new textbooks, additional teachers in schools, and free school uniforms. Knowing that absenteeism is a chronic problem in schools in Kenya, and wondering about the effectiveness of this intervention, Kremer convinced his friend to let him test the program using a randomized control trial. Randomized control trials are the gold standard method for testing new ideas in scientific fields, but it had never really been applied to other fields like education or international development. Kremer’s friend agreed, and he set out monitoring and collecting data from 14 local schools: 7 were part of ICS’s program, and 7 were not. Much to his surprise, when he compared test scores and attendance rates between the experimental group and the control group, he found that ICS’s intervention had had virtually no effect at all. Over and over again, he found that seemingly obvious programs to improve education just weren’t working. At that point, a friend who worked at the World Bank suggested that he test deworming.
A child with the bloated belly that typically indicates infestation by intestinal worms (Schistosomiasis). Photo credit: Wikipedia

A child with the bloated belly that typically indicates infestation by intestinal worms (Schistosomiasis). Photo credit: Wikipedia

Few people from developed countries know much about intestinal worms (formally known as Schistosomiasis), but they’re parasitic infections that affect more than one billion people worldwide. Because they don’t kill nearly as many people as conditions such as AIDS or malaria, they often didn’t receive much attention in development programs. But they do make children ill, and they have a surprisingly easy and cost-effective cure: off-patent drugs developed in the 1950s can be purchased wholesale for pennies, and can keep children free of worms for about a year. So, Kremer and ICS tried a new approach: distributing intestinal parasite drugs through schools and having them administered by teachers.The results were staggering. Deworming reduced absenteeism in schools by 25%, and it was amazingly inexpensive. Every child treated spent an extra two weeks in school each year, and every $100 spent on the program provided a total of ten years of additional school attendance amongst all students. Furthermore, deworming didn’t only have educational benefits: it also had additional health and economic benefits. On the health side, intestinal worms can cause a variety of ailments, including intestinal obstruction, anemia, and a suppressed immune system that can increase the risk of other diseases like malaria. Deworming decreases all of these risks. It can also have long-term economic benefits: when Kremer followed up with the children ten years later,
Photo credit: Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL)

Photo credit: Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL)

he found that those who had been dewormed were working an extra 3.4 hours per week and earning 20% more income than those who had not. Eventually, these findings led to Kenya instituting a national deworming program for every school age child. The results of this study were striking, but they are far from the only example of international development projects using innovative and astonishingly effective methods. Examples like this are enough to convince me (and many others!) of the value of applying a scientific approach to development interventions, especially focusing on objectively monitoring and evaluating project outcomes to ensure that our projects are having the effects we want them to and aren’t just wasting money. Unfortunately, while many funders are very demanding in their calls for evidence of results, they are often less generous in offering money for undertaking this kind of work. It’s a seemingly chronic issue in our field, but some funders are beginning to adjust their stance. Attending EA Global infused me with even greater enthusiasm and commitment to evaluate our programs thoroughly and objectively, and to use hard evidence of our programs’ effectiveness to convince other funders to support this important work.To find out more about the Effective Altruism movement, you can visit the website of the Centre for Effective Altruism at https://www.centreforeffectivealtruism.org/.

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