Why the EA aversion to local altruistic action?

Dear EA-verse,

Thank you for posting the contest soliciting critiques of the EA movement. I have to say though. I am somewhat loath to critique a movement that’s getting people to go forth and do some good in the world. With all the problems we face, any initiative to get more people donating and doing good with their skills is, well, a good thing! I do admire the spirit of continuous improvement so will try to honor that in this first post of mine.

Spending the past week digging into the EA forums, links members kindly shared and talking to several EA adjacent friends, I do have a few thoughts that I’d like to share for discussion and reaction. Although I’ve spent over a dozen years in EA-adjacent spaces, I’m still very much new here so the epistemic status of these thoughts is very much tentative, provisional and subject to revision. I thank you in advance for your constructive ideas and insights.

First, I have to confess I don’t understand the use of the phrase “effective altruism.” A more accurate phrase for much of what goes on here might be “optimized altruism” rather than the effective sort. Why optimized? Much of the rhetoric and donations seems to be about the biggest global impact per unit of dollar and/​or effort. Yet those first order direct impacts neglect the many possible second and third order impacts.

Let’s consider a couple examples. First, suppose one donates to their local animal shelter rather than to the highest ranked GiveWell charity. Is that really a bad thing? Might that donation to a local cause even be a more effective thing? Consider that one may not just donate to their animal shelter but also take their pet for classes to said shelter. Further consider that one may meet other people and make friends at the animal shelter. That may seem small but when you consider the loneliness crisis and the unraveling of society in places like the US, that’s actually the sort of small action that’s instrumental to a functioning civil society. Given the realities of current geopolitics, a small action to prevent a civil war in these United States and avoid global upheaval may very well save countless lives.

Now that’s just a story. It’s not data and evidence. We can discuss the implicit causal linkages each step of the way. We should also though discuss the implicit assumptions in the priors that doing the most good with a given amount of inputs is the best path to uplifting the human conditions. What’s missing in the alternative scenario where one donates to give bed nets or a similarly high impact strategy to uplift the greatest poverty? You’re not actually going to forge the same type of human connection with someone halfway around the world that you can with your local community. There’s also always the question of sustainability and the broader questions of development. It does not ultimately do a ton of good to lift someone out of immediate poverty if say the result is that’s just another mouth to feed in the upcoming global food crisis.

Second, I have to confess I don’t understand the ultimate aims of the EA movement. Perhaps that’s fine? It seems some argue that EA isn’t an ideology so much as a question: “How can I do the most good, with the resources available to me?” I have to wonder though with so many resources—money, time and talent—being dedicated to this movement, if a greater sense of responsibility and stewardship is needed.

There are very sound reasons to be skeptical that simply encouraging greater amounts of individual donations will be enough to address the massive amounts of world poverty. There are deep reasons why there is more than enough food to feed everyone on the planet and yet so many members of our human family still go hungry.

Anything that people can do to help alleviate that suffering is a good thing! And people that are donating so much of their income and orienting so much of their lives to optimally impact that harsh reality of contemporary human existence is again a good thing! Yet let’s be clear eyed about what’s going on.

The unspoken story underlying too much work in global development goes something like this: You’re poor and destitute. I’m not and have resources to give. Here’s a fish /​ fishing rod /​ fishing lesson that I have determined is the most effective. Go forth and be saved! Here I’m not questioning anyone’s motives, casting aspersions or even saying this is true of EA—again I’m new! -- but just trying to share a hyper simplified story of the subtext that’s all too common in global development.[1]

As an alternative consider the following story: here I am. Here are changes I have made to get my community in order. You and your community are cordially invited to do the same. In my experience, this latter approach of leading by example is much more sustainable and powerful. And that’s true whether you’re working at the level of a team of twelve or much larger scales.

That’s my motivation in wondering why there is such a massive aversion to local impact[2] and more nuanced stories of impact that consider second, third etc effects. Further I wonder why there isn’t more EA work to address the very real needs for better public problem solving and moral action in the more affluent areas of the globe that members of the EA community tend to reside in. Source EA survey [LINK]

There is a MASSIVE need for money, time and talent to develop more effective government operations. See the highly suboptimal response in far too many Western democracies to Covid-19 or the challenges in building much of anything public works-wise in places like the United States. Here is a seven minute memo I wrote on that subject surveying the growing movement focusing on the “state capacity” deficit:

Will working on that state capacity issue lead to a clear quantifiable metric with a high ratio of impact to input? No, policy work is fuzzy, messy and doesn’t save lives so immediately, usually.[3] Neither this type of policy work working in areas of the world with the highest poverty. Yet there emphatically is poverty and avoidable public problems in many of the affluent areas of the planet that EA members live in!

Further note that improving state capacity involves leveling up the public sector’s digital competency. While many projects in the gov /​ civic tech space are locally focused, the power of the digital revolution is naturally global. Solutions developed in one place can be scaled elsewhere. Lead by example.

Cui bono: Perhaps this betrays my biases since I’ve had similar motivations to the EA community yet spent my first dozen years out of undergrad working on government reform issues, primarily in California and mostly through the lens of better public technology.

Thank you for taking the time to read this far, and I look forward to the opportunity to dig in deeper in the comments.


Locke (PA IRL)

PS Also on a tangent, I’d like to offer a BIG thank you to whoever designed this forum. It’s seriously kinda amazing—great user experience.

[1] a family friend and mentor gave me a book called “The Ugly American” which shares a bunch of parable-like stories in global aid that shapes some of my thinking here.

[2] looking at the main EA webpage and topics that a EA forum member handily pointed me too, global development and avoiding global risks seem to be the main foci of the movement.

[3] see this example of leading practices in more effective government and better use of data that literally saved lives in NYC through more optimized fire inspections.