EA’s success no one cares about
While this is part of EA Strategy Fortnight, my intention is to focus more on what effective altruism did well, rather than what it should do. At the same time, my hope would be that the post provides the community with at least some valuable context to the discussions about the path forward.
This post will be very subjective and a lot less thought-through than what I am usually comfortable sharing, although built on ~13 years of experience in the field. Some details may be off, for example by memory distortion or indirect testimonies. Nevertheless, it’s truthful to my internal models – when I walk and talk to my dog about this kind of stuff, you can expect my mind to go in the same direction as this post.
Recently, there has been a lot of attention directed at effective altruism. Some was external, but, from my perspective, most of it came from within the movement. My interpretation was that at least a portion of it was built on feelings of anxiety, doubt, and maybe some anger or fear. Of course, a lot of concerns seemed to me legitimized by what was happening or what we were discovering.
In some way, I was worried about the community I identify as part of, but at the same time, there was this feeling of appreciation that we can go together through a crisis. It’s a lesson for a young movement, and experience is invaluable. Just like it’s better to learn hard lessons about life as a teenager than an adult, of course ideally with not much harm involved.
The energy spent on inward focus felt encouraging, even though I disagreed with a chunk of the opinions. After all, some of the values of effective altruism I’m the most optimistic about are openness to criticism, intellectual humility, and truth-seeking. But the more external and internal takes I was reading, the more something seemed off. Something was missing.
It felt one-sided. There was almost no mention of successes and wins – some appreciation of what this very young and weird movement managed to achieve in such a short period of time. Maybe I shouldn’t expect this in adversarial pieces about EA, and maybe it was implied when people were making criticism internally, but it still didn’t feel fully right to me.
It felt like we all take effective altruism for granted. There was not much gratitude in the air.
Maybe one can argue that EA hasn’t done much. While I have my strong intuitions on the counterfactual impact of EA in many areas, in the end I don’t feel fully qualified here, so I would prefer to defer. Yet, I’m confident that there is at least one success we should celebrate, and it’s very much absent from the discourse – making historical progress for animals.
Animal advocate’s lens on effective altruism
This is my take on the short path of effective altruism’s impact on animals. Please note that I came from the part of animal advocacy that is closely aligned with effective altruism, so I’ll be biased, and it’s good to expect that reasonable people will disagree with me in at least some parts. Additionally, Open Philanthropy, which is crucial here, is the main funder of my organization. But if bias is present in this summary, I’m very confident it’s rather due to the alignment with the core premises of effective altruism rather than a conflict of interest.
While the animal advocacy movement has never been big, it has always had very active and dedicated activists. People have always been willing to sacrifice a lot to make a difference for animals. Breaking in or getting hired at farms to document the sickening reality of animal suffering or rescue animals, being abused by police, working for years for free or minimal pay, and using any personal funds available to produce necessary materials.
Unfortunately, there is a limit to how much you can achieve without resources. Fundraising has been limited for many reasons, but one fact that stood out was that in comparison to many other causes perceived as important in society, almost no foundations and grant makers were willing to support effective animal advocacy. Virtually no one wants to fund it in the “normal world” outside of EA.
A good example is this summary from Lewis Bollard – the first person responsible for building Open Philanthropy’s animal welfare space – in an 80,000 Hours’ podcast episode:
Lewis Bollard: […] Before we came into the space, I’d say that there was probably about 20 million dollars a year being devoted to this problem, it’s entirety. That’s now probably increased to maybe 50 million a year.
Robert Wiblin: So, 20 million in the U.S. or globally?
Lewis Bollard: Globally.
Robert Wiblin: Wow. That’s really very little. So there were almost no farm animal advocacy organizations, only a handful.
(I would correct, though, that there were a lot of groups, just with tiny budgets).
The scale of the effect that was achieved thanks to the investments is hard to understate. It greatly enabled activists – when you have close to no money, you don’t hit diminishing results quickly. To give you a glimpse of what I’m talking about: in 2012, my colleagues were worried about getting enough money to pay for petrol to drive to farms in the countryside in order to conduct an investigation. In 2017, activists from across the globe were sitting in Warsaw in the first Open Wing Alliance Summit organized by The Humane League to exchange knowledge, coordinate global campaigns, and get to know each other. This later proved crucial in finally pushing companies to comply with the demands of animal activists.
Today, thanks to Open Philanthropy, some of the organizations have budgets moving into the direction of what the whole global movement had just a few years ago (!). Open Phil itself has moved over 200 million dollars to animal activists in just the last few years. Not to mention other funding moved by effective altruism, which is also significant.
Not only has effective altruism enabled activists to do the work they dreamed to do, it also helped the movement to invest in itself to become more resilient. Again, it’s hard to explain how smart and unique this approach is, especially when faced with uncertainty.
“Normal” funders usually only care about the short-term results in isolation. Groups get grants, invest only in campaigning and get stretched thin wanting to deliver promised results at all cost to keep the funding. This is suboptimal for organizational sustainability, but also has a high potential of burning out people. With EA, and Open Philanthropy especially, it’s very different. Open Phil wants groups to take some of their funding to increase their robustness – invest back in the organization’s funding capacity, fundraising, and operations. OP is also happy to pay for training and courses for the movement and fund organizations whose goal is to improve other groups, like Sharpen Strategy under the leadership of Andrea Gunn and David Coman-Hidy.
What is more, for years people at Open Philanthropy have pushed groups they fund to have some mild and optimal policies (because it’s hard to recommend good practices without tradeoffs). This included anti-harassment policies or requiring external investigations for reports of sexual harassment. This incentivized groups to establish protection against abuse.
Not to downplay EA’s significant focus on capacity building, like featuring experts or sharing general reasoning on it. This all helps. I still remember well Habiba Islam’s operations workshop at some ancient EAG (2018?) and am grateful for people with relevant experience offering their help.
The value of this may be hard to understand for outsiders, but quick growth brought its challenges within animal advocacy. I strongly believe that one of the biggest weaknesses of our movement is insufficient expertise in managing and scaling organizations. At least judging by the many mistakes and poor decision-making by my group, Anima International.
From my perspective, the most impactful change that came with effective altruism was focus on civility, intellectual humility, collaboration, and charitable approach to disagreements.
Back in the days, the movement was constantly infighting and spending significant time attacking and criticizing each other. There were a lot of personal attacks, hostile takeovers, and constant attempts to bring individuals down.
In this post I won’t get into details, but many ambitious projects stopped due to this culture, and I suspect many people have drifted away from the movement because of it. While I wasn’t a target personally, I experienced burnout in 2012, after one international event, where I felt that most of the energy was directed at attacking other groups in an uncharitable way, rather than thinking about impact.
Of course, many groups were very collaborative, but internal problems sucked a disproportional amount of energy, as people generally care a lot about in-group status and reputation. This in itself is a fascinating fact about the human condition that threats or lawsuits from the industry, entering farms to witness the sheer horror of animal torture, or being abused by others seem to hurt us less than internal attacks by our peers.
This is why I will always be grateful to Open Philanthropy for setting up a norm to fund groups that don’t spend a significant amount of energy on infighting, but rather on campaigning. The approach elevated people who are cooperative and try to help others, as well as established an incentive to be such a person.
Of course criticism and disagreements are crucial, so is whistleblowing, but it has to be approached with humility, openness, and compassion which was too often absent.
Effectiveness and rigor
I feel really grateful that the effective animal advocacy part of the movement was historically very impact oriented. Nevertheless, effective altruism greatly improved the movement’s efforts to be cost-effective due to its resources and rigor.
The push to have some kind of evaluators like GiveWell for animal charities in the form of Animal Charity Evaluators made me very enthusiastic. Of course, there are challenges, because tractability and theory of change for animal liberation is extremely complex and nuanced with a short track record. Despite this, I think evaluations are really needed and important, and I’m hopeful that rigor will only increase.
The highlight of this community is the rigorous research and summaries. I’m doubtful whether so much would be published anytime soon without effective altruism. It’s even hard for me to pick just a few examples of extremely impressive work (especially coming from Rethink Priorities), because there are so many, but giving it a try to just underline this point:
New Report on Consciousness and Moral Patienthood by Luke Muehlhauser
Corporate campaigns affect 9 to 120 years of chicken life per dollar spent by Saulius Šimčikas
Strategic considerations for upcoming EU farmed animal legislation by Neil Dullaghan
The Welfare Range Table by Bob Fischer
Of course, many reasonable people will disagree with me on this, saying that EA is too prone to quantitative fallacy, has tunnel vision, etc. I think this criticism very often points to something real and serious. There are some mistakes, like leafleting studies from early Animal Charity Evaluators, that incentivized the movement to pursue the wrong interventions. But I think mistakes are unavoidable if we aim for ambitious goals. We need evaluators, hard discussion about effectiveness, and vulnerability.
Expansion of moral consideration
Effective altruism’s crucial success is pushing the boundaries of our moral circle. The best examples of developments here are examples of The Insect Institute (incubated by Rethink Priorities) and Shrimp Welfare Project (incubated by Charity Entrepreneurship). While I know that shrimp welfare has become a bit of a meme in effective altruism, it’s for a good reason – it highlights the importance of impartiality, careful reasoning, and focusing on neglected beings. The core premise behind animal advocacy has always been helping those whose suffering is so massive and who are pushed away by the society.
Trust and freedom
What is probably the most moving for me personally is that the funding space in effective altruism (with the most credit, again, going to Open Philanthropy) is extremely high-trust. You probably cannot imagine having a better funder as an organization. While OP is laser focused and unapologetic on bringing results for animals, it’s very open to substantial disagreements and mistakes, and cautious of outcome bias when measuring groups’ effectiveness. Not only do they not push or try to control you, but also often defer to experienced advocates (and often don’t!). On this and related general failures in philanthropy, I could probably write a separate post, so I will end here.
The enormous success
All of this contributed to big wins for animals. The corporate sector, after years of ignoring, threatening, and attacking, submitted to the will of both activists and public opinion. It has started withdrawing from the most egregious practices in areas like cage production. More investigations have been released around the globe than ever. The European Union is working on animal welfare law revision that can be incredibly progressive and impact a major portion of the globe due to so-called “Brussels Effect”. Attention on chickens farmed for meat is getting traction. Many new groups are appearing around the globe and receiving help in the form of funds and mentorship. We are talking about billions and billions of animals and future animals affected.
You may say it would have happened anyway, but I’m doubtful, especially when thinking about the scale. However, of course, I’m open to that argument. Still, just looking at my organization, at least around 70% of the work would likely not happen in the current scope – policymaking, hard-hitting investigations, movement building, building grassroot groups, pressuring companies, etc. Hell, just in 2012 in Poland, after the lengthy phase-out of battery cages due to the 1999 EU directive, there was an industry and public opinion outcry about egg prices, and we faced attempts to extend the phase-out period. The discourse didn’t seem sympathetic to animals. In 2014, we released the first investigation about [enriched] cage farming in Poland to the media, in 2014 our demands were ignored by the retailers, and in 2016, we already had first commitments from companies, with a big support from the public opinion.
Of course, there are reasonable critics of too narrow a focus or too much of one approach to activism that dominated the movement, like too much incremental work. This is a serious issue for debate, but this post is intentionally not about that. I want to focus on the good side, which for me is overwhelming. However, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t treat disagreements and skeptics seriously and listen very carefully.
At the same time, I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture. What is happening right now in the world is so sickening that it’s hard to imagine. Sentient beings tortured, malnourished, and deprived of basic needs. Wins and progress should never be taken for granted, we should be wary of ego and epistemic confidence, and we shouldn’t expect that it will get easier to not grow too comfortable. So far, we have moved a step closer, but the end goal – a future free from suffering – is incredibly far. My feeling of appreciation toward effective altruism, which includes you, dear reader, is like feeling gratitude for an act of kindness from a stranger when the room is on fire. It’s locally important, but we need to keep the big picture in mind.
Nevertheless, I want to pay deep respect to anyone who donated, changed their careers, spent time thinking about the problems, organized or mentored others, and reached out to people with influence. Most of the beings you helped will never thank you, so I will. Thank you – it does matter.
This is something to celebrate.
Thanks to Anna Kozłowska for language help and tips.
Hard not to mention the story of a fellow activist and one of the masterminds behind The Humane League, Aaron Ross, who was cuffed to a bench in a police station and left there alone overnight.