We have all heard the main criticisms of Charity, as a means for helping the socially and economically disadvantaged. Often when you give to charities you do not know how much of the money you are giving is actually going to help the disadvantaged, and how much is going to the top executive’s wages. It frequently seems like charities spend more on campaigning then they do on helping people. As such, their efforts can often come as insincere or morally dishonest. As a means to overcome these criticisms, a number of groups such as give well, 80,000 hours and the Life you Can Save have come together under the name of Effective Altruism (EA). This group aim to make sure that your charitable donations will not simply disappear into networks of corruption, making little to no difference to anybody’s lives. They intend to do this by combining the strong moral persuasion used by most charities with rigorous calculation and scrutiny of charitable outcomes, carefully assessing to what extent individual donations are helping, and making it their duty to make sure people give effectively. Despite being well intentioned, there are still numerous problems with the Effective Altruism approach. This blog post will aim to address some of these.
It Fails to Address the Root Causes of Poverty
Admittedly, this is a criticism which can apply to most charities and not just Effective Altruism. However, the mind behind the Effective Altruism idea, Peter Singer, asks in conversation with Carnegie council, that if we come across a child drowning in a pond, whom we can only save by ruining our £70 pair of shoes, surely we still have a massive moral obligation to save the child. Singer concludes from this, that we must have a moral duty to make charitable donations to organisations saving dying children in the global south. Acknowledging that many charities are corrupt and inefficient, Singer also argues that by giving effectively, you can save numerous people from death without unintentionally acting in an immoral or economically wasteful way. This is the understanding of poverty taken up by the Effective Altruism group, and used to persuade people to donate charitably more often.
On the surface of things, this idea seems logically sound. The problem is however, that global poverty is not like stumbling upon a child drowning in a pond, whose situation you have absolutely no responsibility for. There is more than enough evidence to suggest that global poverty is, both historically and contemporaneously, largely the result of western political and economic domination. For evidence of this, you just need to look to examples like our illegal invasions in the Middle East and Latin America, our support for resource extraction in places like Columbia, tax avoidance schemes, support for unfair trade deals like TTIP, and our support for brutal regimes. The riches westerners enjoy are largely the result of our exploitation of developing countries around the world. This is of course not meant to suggest that ordinary westerners are responsible for any of this. However, no matter how affective your altruism is, the charity approach fails to address the root causes of poverty. This has led some Affective Altruists to the bizarre conclusion that you should join Wall Street and give your pay to charity, failing to recognize the role banks play in facilitating inequality. All the while, the Effective Altruist approach obscures the fact that if we want to get rid of the problem of poverty, our duty needs to be to put pressure on ruling elites to stop harming the poor. This leads me to my next point.
Organising or Altruism?
Just to be clear, Effective Altruism works by rational calculation of each donations expected lives saved. One might welcome this approach as a call for strategic tackling of poverty, and to an extent they would be right. I am by no means against giving to charity, especially when you are clued up about the charity you are giving to. However, the methods focus on individualism, ignores the need for collective activism, in order to make lasting change.
The main problem with the Effective Altruist approach is that it leads to hostility towards causes with outcomes that are unquantifiable. Combine this with the individualist idea that lots of people making individual contributions will somehow make massive changes to the problem of global poverty, and you have got a recipe for political apathy. Sure it is better to know that your money is actually going somewhere when you donate to charity, but I cannot help but wonder whether the Spanish revolution of 1936 – 39, or indeed any mass social movement, would have occurred, if they all abided by the effective altruism model. By EA logic, why get involved in acts of struggle, when the outcome is extremely uncertain and problematic? Collective action frequently fails. From a historical standpoint, who do you think the EA’s would have supported in the run up to decolonisation, liberation movements or charitable organisations.
What those who want to address the issue of Global Poverty should be looking at, if they care about their methods actually changing anything, is looking to support and join in internationalist solidarity with movements both in the western world and the Global South. These can include showing solidarity with indigenous people, or just societies poor and disabled. As I mentioned earlier in this blog post, by failing to recognise, as Effective Altruism does, that the disadvantaged themselves are needed in the fight against global poverty, and simply seeing them as people in need of ‘aid’, we simultaneously fail to address the causes at the heart of poverty. This is not a ridiculous idea, there are groups out there like 38 degrees and food not bombs, which aim to combat poverty by challenging western political and economic dominance. These ideas however are ignored by groups like Effective Altruism, and the longer they are ignored the longer global poverty will remain a problem.
Overall, where once universities were hotbeds of political activism, people are becoming increasingly attracted to the individualistic logic and safe politics of groups like Effective Altruism. The problem here is that this facilitates not challenges state power. By co-opting moderate movements and charities, states are able to look as if they give a shit about poverty, while simultaneously cracking down on radical dissent. As such, movements should bring in an array of actors from across the political spectrum, even drawing in those perceived as moderates. I support giving some money to charity, however, when campaigns such as EA start telling you to join Wall Street in order to give some of your salary to charity, you need to consider who is really proposing a solution to the world’s problems.