Giving effectively

Writing a blog post is often related to that feeling of having too many browser tabs open. Before I close them, I wanted to jot down some unstructured thoughts on my recent reading around effective altruism (EA).

I have already “hidden” some observations in a recent post here on future intellectual endeavors but thought I can keep chewing on this topic.

A lot of philanthropic money is flowing into EA given its popularity with the young tech scene and its evidence-based approach to better giving. I am impressed by the caliber of people who work in some of the affiliated organizations (or “meta-charities”), e.g., Rethink Priorities¬†or Give Well.

The movement has been met with a lot of resistance from “entrenched interests” in the global development scene. Not every NGO appreciates its work being dissected by quantitative analysts. But the charitable donations market is competitive, so each donor should expect some transparency around the effectiveness of their giving.

Nonetheless, there remains a lingering skepticism beyond the usual attack lines, although not much of it is coherently voiced yet –or at least prominently and visibly judging from my open browser tabs. I am sure there will be more criticism as the movement matures and gains more clout.

On the polemic front, I found one relatively dated piece on hard-left Novara Media which neatly encapsulates some of my feelings. With a little hyperbole, the author criticizes the movement for mis-framing the issue of global poverty, being apolitical, symptoms-focused, and lacking solidarity. Lastly, it absorbs moderates and stifles more radical student activism.

The most complete overview of the criticism and how the movement may react to it is in this 2016 article, by Iason Gabriel, another very impressive individual with a similar profile than many of the other thinkers in this realm–think (lack of) diversity.

Among the points raised in the article are the questions of scalability (successful NGOs are sometimes successful because they are small–big money chasing them will “ruin” their competitive edge), crowding out (why should I donate to selected “effective” charities if big philanthropy is funding them already) and many others.

I don’t think I can engage head-on with the more philosophical questions. However, when think tanks are increasingly vying for EA money and get their ideas assessed, we need too keep some of these criticisms in mind and see how a set of values feeds through to profane and mundane-looking impact assessments.

This came to me when reading the “intervention report” of the Charter Cities concept. Its frequent references to World Bank research made me shudder a little, as did the quantification of ROIs in a field as sensitive as global urbanization.

In this particular example, assumptions are being tested and contested without a deeper initial engagement with questions of justice, politics and distribution. It appears to me that the many researchers who are engaged in impact assessment exist in a world of think tank-like ideological homogeneity, standing on the “pillars” of neoclassical economics broadly, and rational choice and behavioral economics more narrowly.

This world is obedient to quantification but perhaps shy to ask more radical political questions that are increasingly required today.

Perhaps I am building a strawman argument here. I stand corrected if EA decides to throw its money into “degrowth” PR, or radically progressive taxation policies or other global redistribution schemes. Those might be hard to quantify using the ideological framework of the involved parties, but is in my mind pretty indispensable in the future.

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