What Should You Do if You Are Not an “Effective Altruist”?

| August 2015
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Make Poverty History. Photo courtesy of Paul Downey (Creative Commons).

Photo courtesy of Paul Downey (Creative Commons).

In his new book The Most Good You Can Do, Peter Singer argues that a morally decent life involves giving a significant portion of one’s income to alleviating global poverty, and that this giving ought to go to the most effective organizations. Effectiveness, for Singer, is to be measured through randomized control trials that test the value of development interventions. Singer believes that morality requires us to give to those organizations that will do the most good.

As a number of commentators have pointed out, Singer’s “effective altruism” has considerable limitations. It is largely insensitive to the political economy of development, and it is insensitive to the degree to which growth in the nongovernmental sector displaces (on both the demand and supply sides) government provision of basic services. Worse, large-scale giving may protect autocrats from the democratic demands of their citizens. And it is difficult, if not impossible, to evaluate the effectiveness of large organizations like Oxfam, or organizations that do not deliver discrete programs, such as Global Witness or Human Rights Watch. Furthermore, even if a development intervention is shown to be effective in one place, it is uncertain whether it will work well in different economic and social circumstances.

But Singer’s argument—that affluent individuals have moral duties to people living in material and social deprivation—is nonetheless compelling. These duties may arise from a basic common humanity, where the brute fact of human suffering is a compelling moral reason to assist others. Or they may arise from duties of justice, where historical and contemporary institutional arrangements have caused global poverty to some extent, which generates duties of rectification and compensation.

So, if you are living in an affluent society and persuaded that one ought to join efforts to reduce global poverty, and that this is not best (or at least exclusively) done through “effective altruism,” what should you do?

First, reduce harm. While many of the problems that plague institutions in developing countries are local in nature, the public policies of affluent countries often exacerbate institutional problems and deter progress in poverty reduction. The arms trade continues to flood conflict zones and oppressive governments with ever more powerful weapons. Financial and political support for autocrats continues to undermine efforts at democratization. Excessive barriers to migration prevent low-income individuals from pursuing a better life.

Second, provide global public goods. The provision of such goods will benefit all of humanity, but especially people in low-income countries. Sadly, even though it would be possible to produce such goods with a limited number of participants, they are woefully underprovided today. For example, affluent countries could pay to incentivize the development of medicines that treat neglected diseases, or fund the creation of low-cost, low-carbon energy technologies. The development of improved agricultural technologies also has great promise for development outcomes. Peacekeeping operations, although far from perfect, have a broadly positive impact, and continue to be underfunded.

Third, ensure that public policies in developed countries are “institution enhancing” in developing ones. For example, when purchasing natural resources from developing countries, developed states should require that purchases are completed transparently, which will increase the ability of citizens in the resource-exporting countries to track how revenue is spent. Trade agreements should include protections for labor rights and the environment. And foreign aid must be provided in a way that enhances rather than undermines accountability between citizens and their state.

Randomized control trials of the sort Singer argues for can offer promising, and needed, new evidence regarding the effectiveness of anti-poverty programs. But the struggle against global poverty requires a broader focus than on individual charitable donations alone. Active citizens must reform public policies of powerful countries that deter progress in poverty eradication.

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  1. Luis Cabrera says:

    Nice piece. These are very sensible suggestions, offered in a sympathetic spirit that recognizes the potential force of Singer’s underlying argument. I would agree that a very strong focus on aid effectiveness, as measured by randomized control trials, etc., raises some issues, not least in its ‘look where the light is good quality’: it could tend to funnel funds toward only those efforts which can be relatively easily measured. Singer and the groups on which he leans are right to draw our attention to measurable impact, but it’s not the only factor worth considering, as Scott suggests. It’s possible that in this phase Singer has conceded too much to his critics and gone too far in the effectiveness direction. Good dialogue to have, E&IA

  2. David Chester says:

    The elimination of poverty will only come about when there is a far greater amount of equality of the opportunities to both get a good education and more significantly to have the chance to get a job that pays at a fair and reasonable rate. The job situation is controlled today by the limitations that entrepreneurs have for competing with the large and monopolistic organizations for the production of goods, of both consumer and durable kinds.

    This monopolistic situation was cause and continues to grow due not only to the domination of highly expensive manufacturing equipment but also due to the restriction of the right of access to useful sites near centers of population and goods consumption.

    An entrepreneur who cannot rent or buy a site where his employees can easily get to work and whose output can be easily distributed without a lot of additional expense, can most likely compete with the “big boys” in the market-place. However due to the way that our useful sites of land are controlled, there is a greatly restricted possibility for such an entrepreneur of getting a chance to compete in fair conditions (the so called level playing field).

    The speculation in land values results in the potentially useful sites being held out of use until their prices rise. This results in high rents and production costs and the resulting reduction in sales and limited production has the effect of driving the wages down because there are fewer jobs that workers to fill them. Low wages and low demand for goods also cuts back at the manufacturers, but they would rather suppress the entrepreneurs than pay better wages and allow more sales to be the result, since they do not act as a consistent body but make various products that are not directly wage related.

    Building land is also affected and so the new development regions are limited by the inflated cost of land and the resulting high price of their new houses and associated mortgages etc. If a wise government were to tax land values and reduce the taxation of earnings, purchases and investment, then there would be no advantage in land being held out of use and everyone (except the speculators in land values) would benefit. This is the cause and cure of poverty in the long term.