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Making Altruism More Effective

This post was written by Carson Christiano, CEGA’s Executive Director.

Local health centers experimenting with coronavirus | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Determining how every person can do the most good in the world is no easy task, but it’s one the Effective Altruism (EA) movement has admirably set for itself. Over the years, the movement has steadily grown, until last week it was suddenly everywhere. Followers of CEGA may find themselves drawn to — or at least curious about — the EA movement, which similarly values evidence.

CEGA overlaps with the EA movement in one fundamental way: like EAs, we believe in a world where scarce resources are allocated as effectively — and cost-effectively — as possible. (It’s no coincidence that the word “effective” appears in both of our names.) We’re not philosophers, so we don’t comment on the moral obligations of individuals to give to those less fortunate, or even the obligations of decision-makers to allocate their resources responsibly, though we work hard to facilitate the latter.

Rather, as a network of social scientists, we generate and communicate evidence, insights, and new tools that donors, governments, social enterprises, and others seeking to improve lives and reduce poverty can use to make more effective decisions.

Dealing with Uncertainty

Unfortunately, like EAs, we operate in a world that is rife with uncertainty. A world where, despite the growing role of evidence in global development over the past two decades, serious gaps remain in our collective understanding about how best to alleviate poverty. A world where the climate — be it political, cultural, and meteorological — is constantly changing, making it difficult to translate what findings we do have from one particular time or place to another.

CEGA deals with this uncertainty by helping to reinvigorate the role of evidence in policy making, building coordinated portfolios of research that yield rich collective insights (hopefully greater than the sum of their parts), and by spotlighting effective interventions. We hold our researchers to high standards of transparency and reproducibility so that decision-makers can be confident in the credibility of research findings. We’ve built a platform to crowd-source priors regarding the effects of untested social programs. In other words, we do what we can to make the limited evidence we have go a long way.

GiveWell — a prominent EA-focused charity evaluator and long-time CEGA supporter — deals with this uncertainty by prioritizing a small number of charities for funding that they believe have a “high likelihood of significant impact.” Indeed, directing a large amount of money to a small set of well-vetted organizations will almost certainly drive progress towards desired outcomes. Bolstered in part by CEGA research, GiveWell has helped to make a meaningful dent in daunting global challenges like child malnutrition, intestinal worms, and malaria.

The Need for More (and Better) Evidence

Last week, GiveWell announced an update to their criteria for classifying organizations as “top charities,” effectively increasing the burden of evidence for making the list. As organizations like GiveDirectly and Evidence Action have noted, this change reflects GiveWell’s need to provide more certainty to donors, whose appetite for impact understandably outweighs their appetite for risk. We lament that options for confidently investing in “high-impact” interventions are so limited — not because those interventions don’t exist, but because the evidence doesn’t (yet) exist.

Despite GiveWell’s generous contributions to building the evidence base, the total amount of funding for impact evaluation research in global development remains abysmally small (especially when compared to standard private sector investments in research and development). To support the EA movement on its exciting growth trajectory, the evidence base upon which altruistic investments are made will need to expand significantly.

Making Altruism More Effective

Effective Altruism offers a useful framework for thinking about how to create a better world. In the realm of global development and poverty alleviation — CEGA’s focus — GiveWell provides a valuable link between those wishing to see their charitable investments have large and meaningful impacts and the programs that actually achieve them. With investments in more (and better) evidence, we can fill gaps in knowledge that stand between effective altruists and an untold number of high-impact investments.

This could mean funding evaluations of promising new interventions that have not yet been tested at scale, or supporting long-term evaluations that help us understand how the impacts of interventions change over time (both of which donors seeking “big wins” tend to shy away from). New evidence would not only enable better decisions by donors and policymakers, but might also clarify and evolve current thinking in the Effective Altruism movement. Given the movement’s growing momentum, this could be a promising investment.

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The Center for Effective Global Action

CEGA is a hub for research on global development, innovating for positive social change.