An Intro to Effective Altruism and what people in EA have done to fight COVID-19
Apr 13, 2020
This is the written version of a talk I gave on April 11 for a virtual event of Effective Altruism Philippines. The poster for the event is below. I gave an introduction to EA after the main talk by Kenneth Abante.
Good evening, everyone!
I’m Brian Tan, co-founder of EA Philippines. I know you guys came here to attend Ken Abante’s talk, but we think most of you would also be interested in learning about what Effective Altruism is. We think that learning about EA can help you make a bigger social impact as well as in helping fight COVID-19.
This talk is an introduction to Effective Altruism, and why learning about it can help us address COVID-19 or the next global disaster.
What is Effective Altruism?
Effective Altruism is a global community of people using evidence and reason to figure out how to help others as much as possible, and taking action on that basis.
There are 170+ different chapters in 40+ countries, and EA Philippines is one of them. EA Philippines was founded in 2018 to be the local community of Filipinos interested in EA.
What exactly do Effective Altruists do?
So you guys might be wondering, what exactly do effective altruists do? What does it mean to figure out how to help others as much as possible, and take action on that basis?
#1: They research a lot before acting
The first thing about Effective Altruists is that they research a lot before acting. They know that many attempts to do good fail, but the best are many times better than others.
An example of this being done is Toby Ord, the co founder of the EA movement. Toby is a philosopher from Oxford University, and he and a couple of friends were trying to figure out what were the best charities to donate to back around 2009.
Initial research they did led to very little resources on this. Although there are charity assessment firms that evaluate charities, they evaluate them mostly based on their financial health and transparency. There was very little research being done to see how cost-effective their programs are, especially against other similar programs that could be done. So Effective Altruists like Toby decided to do their own research.
In a 2013 paper, Toby outlined how different the cost-effectiveness of five different interventions to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS was. And he found that one intervention was significantly better than all the rest.
This was the intervention of education for high-risk groups. So by educating higher-risk groups, such as sex workers, this would result in 27 years of life saved (also known as DALYs) per $1,000 spent on this intervention. This was much better than interventions like condom distribution, prevention of transmission during pregnancy, or doing antiretroviral therapy once you have HIV/AIDS.
And this type of big differences in cost-effectiveness of interventions does not exist only in HIV/AIDS. It exists in multiple aspects of global development.
For example, in education, a study found that the simple act of making sure kids are in the right grade level for their capabilities resulted in 460 Learnings-Adjusted Years of Schooling per £100 spent.
This was highlighted by Dr. Rachel Glennerster, the former head of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL):
“…when we looked at the cost effectiveness of education programs, there were a ton of zeros, and there were a ton of zeros on the things that we spend most of our money on. So more teachers, more books, more inputs, like smaller class sizes — at least in the developing world — seem to have no impact, and that’s where most government money gets spent…But measurements for the top ones — the most cost effective programs — say they deliver 460 LAYS per £100 spent ($US130)…the two programs that come out as spectacularly effective… well, the first is just rearranging kids in a class.”
“You have to test the kids, so that you can put the kids who are performing at grade two level in the grade two class, and the kids who are performing at grade four level in the grade four class, even if they’re different ages — and they learn so much better. So that’s why it’s so phenomenally cost effective because, it really doesn’t cost anything.”
#2: They‘re willing to do unusual things to do a lot of good
Another thing that effective altruists do is that they’re willing to do unusual things, such as donating a lot, or changing career paths, in order to do a lot of good.
One example of this is Julia Wise and Jeff Kaufman. Julia and Jeff are a couple living in Boston, Massachusetts, and every year since 2013, they have been donating almost $100,000 or more per year. And usually that is 30 to 50% of their annual income, which is huge.
In 2013, they earned $245,000 dollars combined, which is a lot. But they spent just $15,000 of that, or $1,250/month. That’s quite a small amount to spend for 2 people in Boston, and they did have to make sacrifices and cost-savings to achieve this.
They were doing this though because they wanted to donate as much as they could to the world’s most effective charities, in order to save as many lives as they could.
#3: They believe they should save the lives of others when they have the resources to do so.
The third thing that effective altruists do is that they believe they should save the lives of others when they are privileged with resources to do so.
One of the proponents of the EA movement is the philosopher Peter Singer. Singer has been writing about the importance of helping the global poor since the 1970s. And this is one of the lines from his influential essay, Famine, Affluence, and Morality:
“If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought morally to do it.”
So you might be thinking, this quote, and this idea of Effective Altruism, only applies to people from rich countries. People from rich countries earn more compared to people from poorer countries like the Philippines, and therefore have more to give to other countries.
But Effective Altruism is not limited to people from rich countries. For many people attending this talk who are working, you probably earn more than P20,000 per month, post-tax.
And with that salary, you are actually richer than 84% of the world’s population. The EA organization, Giving What We Can, has this calculator to let you see how rich you are compared to others, and the screenshot above is from it.
Also, as seen above, at P20k/month, your income is more than 4.7 times the global median. This is after accounting for PPP (purchasing power parity) or household-equivalent international dollars.
So for people earning P20k/month or more, you should be quite grateful that you are in a more privileged position than 84% of the world.
#4: They’re willing to solve global problems that are big in scale, neglected, and solvable
The next thing Effective Altruists do is that we’re willing to solve global problems that are big in scale and solvable, but very neglected.
These are just some of the main problems EA thinks are most important to solve in the world. One of them is definitely global poverty or development, and usually it’s in focusing on helping the poorest countries, such as those in Sub-Saharan Africa.
This includes helping fund things that help decrease the rates of malaria and other preventable diseases, where by donating to the most effective charities, you can save lives for as little as P150,000/life, if you take the median across GiveWell’s recommended charities.
The second cause is farm animal welfare. Globally, we slaughter billions of animals per year, most of them living in horrible conditions. This is just a very neglected cause, because most people don’t think that what they’re eating is something bad, and is something that hurts nearly billions of animals per year.
And the last one, which is top-of-mind given COVID-19, is global catastrophic and existential risks. Existential risks are things that could cause humanity to go extinct, which means billions of future humans will not be able to enjoy life.
An example of how effective altruists are doing work in these neglected problems is the Open Philanthropy Project. OpenPhil is a foundation started by Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna. Dustin Moskovitz is the co-founder of Facebook, so he’s worth billions of dollars. OpenPhil is one of a few foundations worldwide that are making grants in line with EA principles, to try funding work that solve the world’s important but neglected problems.
Since 2015, they have funded a total of $69 million to organizations working on biosecurity or pandemic preparedness. One of these organizations they’ve funded is the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, which they gave a $16M grant in 2017 and have recently given another $19 million. With this money, the Center for Health Security (CHS) has been able to really ramp up its operations.
One of the things that JHU CHS has done is conduct global pandemic exercises. They simulate what would happen if a pandemic happened today, and how the government and other institutions should respond to it.
I want you all to watch this video because the pandemic that they were preparing against in their last simulation was actually a Coronavirus pandemic. They didn’t predict that COVID-19 would happen, but it’s just interesting to see that this organization was actually trying to prepare for a similar pandemic to the one we’re having now.
Through this, we see how EA foundations like the Open Philanthropy Project have allowed an organization like the JHU CHS to do more of this type of neglected policy and research work, in order to prevent or fight against possible pandemics like the one we’re facing.
So yes, biosecurity and pandemic preparedness has been a top cause area / problem that EAs think should be solved for many years now. If you search effective altruism biosecurity on YouTube, there are quite a few talks about this topic in past EA conferences.
And yet, most philanthropists and people worldwide just don’t think a lot about pandemics. It’s only now in COVID-19 that this has become a forefront of people’s focus.
So how did Effective Altruists respond to COVID-19?
COVID-19 is definitely a big problem across the world, and EAs took notice of it earlier than most people.
Back in January 21 2020, when there were only 392 confirmed cases of COVID-19, effective altruists like Rob Wiblin were already alarmed. Rob is one of the most popular people in the EA community — he’s a director of research at a career advice organization called 80,000 hours. nonprofit. He was posting about COVID-19 since January 20, and I was following him as well on Facebook, so I was alarmed about this very early on.
And in January 27, there were there were 2,800 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the first post about it was already on the EA forum. So EAs were very ahead of most countries and most people, who at the time were just thinking that this is just like a normal flu.
The organization 80,000 Hours, which gives career advice to people looking to make a big social impact, released podcast episodes on the topic in February 3, and I was listening to them as early as then. Their episode with Dr. Cassidy Nelson is super interesting. As early as February 13, she felt that this was likely not going to be contained.
What is the Philippines doing to respond to COVID-19?
EA Philippines has also done some efforts to respond to COVID-19, because we do want to help solve it as well. We’ve compiled a list of effective local organizations to donate to that are working on COVID-19 efforts. This Google Doc was mainly written by Tanya Quijano, who used to work at the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).
We’ve compiled here organizations we vetted and trust that are that are accepting donations. These are mainly organizations working in the areas of supporting our healthcare front-liners, improving testing capacity, and providing assistance to the poor and vulnerable communities in the Philippines.
Tanya is also working on a project with some NGOs and CSO networks to map out and track ongoing COVID-19 activities to us, mainly in providing assistance to the poor, since the lockdown has resulted in a lot of people losing their income.
And even just in organizing this event, preparing a talk like this, are small things I am doing to help.
Hopefully, through Ken’s talk, you’ve learned about what the government is spending on to fight COVID-19. And hopefully, through my talk, you’ve learned more about Effective Altruism, and what we can do to stop future problems like COVID-19.
Calls to Action
With this talk, our first call to action is we want you to think of what is being neglected in the fight against COVID-19 — what people aren’t donating to or thinking about, and consider donating to or helping out in those projects.
There are a lot of projects and organizations that people are asking you to donate to right now. And most of them are probably good ideas. But we want you to think about more and research on what is being neglected, but also is important.
Secondly, EA isn’t just about donating effectively. We also know that improving the government and making systemic change is important. It would be great for us to find ways to improve our government and keep them uncomfortable.
This is why we invited Ken Abante over to give this talk, about holding the government accountable. In the same way that we want charities to be transparent and rigorous in tracking how effective their programs are, we want the government to be held to a similar or higher standard.
We also know that working in the government is actually a career path that is very impactful. Ken is one of those people advocating for those careers, and we think that advocating for people to join those roles in government is also very impactful.
Thirdly, we want to tell people that COVID-19 should remind us that there are other pressing problems out there in the world, and we have a duty to do our part to help stop those problems.
Before COVID-19, there were already a lot of pressing problems. There are millions of people dying from preventable diseases in Sub-Saharan Africa and in Southeast Asia.
There are also other future pandemics that could happen, and we can do small action to help prevent these, such as by donating to organizations that are helping prevent these future pandemics. Or even just reading up more about these existential risks, so that you can learn more about these things.
COVID-19 does not mean the end of the world, but it is not the last global catastrophe or pressing problem we will face. So it’s important to learn what the other pressing problems are and how you can dedicate your life to prevent or mitigate against them.
So that’s it, thank you for listening! I hope you learned something valuable from this talk.
Resources to learn more about EA
If you want to learn more about EA, you can message our Facebook page so we can send you some resources or books on EA. You can also watch Peter Singer’s TED talk on YouTube, which is a great intro to EA.