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Effective Altruism

How can we improve the lives of as many sentient beings as possible?


Effective Altruism (EA) is a philosophy and a social movement that aims to make the best use of the limited resources both time and money to improve the lives of as many sentient beings as possible. Together with gbs Switzerland, the Giordano Bruno Stiftung Germany has now launched a project on Effective Altruism.

The basic idea of Effective Altruism is to use one's own resources to generate the greatest positive impact. For example, "smart donations" are about the cost-effectiveness of aid organisations, i.e. how much good is done per unit of money, how many lives can be saved for instance. This question has been intensively researched in recent years: economists, mathematicians and philosophers of relief organisation evaluators such as "GiveWell" have scientifically investigated hundreds of relief organisations and have come to the conclusion that there is no evidence at all for the effectiveness of many relief measures and that some relief organisations are several orders of magnitude more effective than others.

More and more people realise that even with an average income they have a real opportunity to save hundreds of people and help thousands and thousands more. Therefore many people join EA-organizations such as "The Life You Can Save", founded by gbs award winner Peter Singer. Some donate 5% of their income, others 10, 20 or even 50%, and yet others donate whatever exceeds a certain threshold.

Even small donations can have a big effect. Even a donation of 200 euros can protect several hundred (!) children from serious worm diseases, which has a demonstrably positive effect on education and the economy - even more positive than direct educational interventions. Or you can use it to help a progressive NGO create an additional job. Such "meta-donations" to NGO offices may have more impact than "direct donations", since effective NGOs eliminate the political, social and economic causes of suffering and can also motivate many more people to donate.

Donations as a rational choice

If we donate 10% of our income as average earners, we still belong to the select circle of the richest people who have ever lived on this planet. In addition, psychological studies suggest that donating is a form of spending money that makes the donor happier. Most importantly, our losses seem insignificant when compared to what is at stake on the other side: Do I prefer a world where I have 10% more money and hundreds of people die due to lack of basic supplies - or a world where I earn 10% less and hundreds of people are saved from suffering? When I spend money or create my monthly budget, I choose between these future worlds.

Peter Singer drafted the "drowning child" thought experiment: Suppose I walk past a pond and notice that a child is about to drown in it. Furthermore, I notice that the (non-)rescue of the child depends on my decision: I can safely wade into the pond and pull the child out. The only complication is that the 500 euro suit I happen to be wearing would be ruined - I would have to replace it, i.e. spend 500 euro that I would otherwise have spent on additional personal luxury. Do I forgo 500 euros and save the child - or not?

Most people would (fortunately) not hesitate to save the child. This reflects a humanistic judgement that 500 euros of one's own luxury are less important to us than saving a child. But if this is our judgement, then it would be logically contradictory and irrational to reach a different conclusion on the question of donations. Here, too, the question arises as to what is more important: preventing the suffering and death of others, or additional sums of money for ourselves, which we do not actually require to meet our own needs.

EA organisations and projects

The goal of the Effective Altruism (EA) project is, among other things, to promote the idea of donating effectively and to build an EA movement. For this purpose, the project supports cost-effective aid organisations and altruistic meta-projects. Currently the following EA organisations are supported:

GiveWell (GW)

GiveWell is a meta relief organisation that evaluates the cost-effectiveness of relief organisations that fight world poverty. GiveWell's best rated aid organisations are transparent, scientifically validated and have "room for more funding", i.e. they can make effective use of further donations. With its more recent project GiveWell Labs, GiveWell has expanded its field of activity and is also researching ways of helping outside the sphere of world poverty.

Deworm the World (DtW)

DtW has performed over 600 million deworming treatments on school children in 27 countries. Deworming not only has a direct positive impact on health, it also increases the number of children attending school who would otherwise have to remain sick at home, leading to sustainable progress in education and the economy (treated children are less illiterate and later have 23% higher incomes). DtW is currently one of GiveWell's best rated charities.

Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI)

The effectiveness of the SCI is very well documented by large studies and national control programmes. They work in the field of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) and set up management programmes to organise broadly based low-cost treatment options (mostly deworming). Like other deworming agencies, the SCI not only promotes health, but also indirectly increases the presence of children at school. It is currently also one of GiveWell's top-rated aid organisations.

GiveDirectly (GD)

GiveDirectly transfers money directly to extremely poor people in Kenya and Uganda, who then use it for purposes most important to them. The data suggest that remittances to beneficiary households lead to large increases in income. The money is invested e.g. in accommodation, important equipment or in the education of children. GiveDirectly is currently one of the relief organisations that GiveWell considers to be particularly cost-effective.

Against Malaria Foundation (AMF)

Malaria kills more than a million people every year. AMF distributes insecticide-treated bed nets to protect families at night when mosquitoes are most active. Last year, GiveWell temporarily withdrew its donation recommendation for the AMF because it was no longer able to use additional donations effectively. However, as the AMF has recently concluded contracts for further network distributions, it will be resumed in the next update of recommendations.

Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE)

ACE is the equivalent of GiveWell for the animal sector, evaluating the cost-effectiveness of animal charities and advising donors, relief organisations, professionals and volunteers on effective animal rights engagement. Based on their research, they are currently reaching the conclusion that the most effective way to prevent suffering is to use a unit of money to combat livestock farming. While certain forms of animal rights work cost hundreds or thousands of dollars per animal saved (e.g. animal shelters and graveyards), it only takes a fraction of the cost to convince people to eat in a more animal-friendly way and thereby save hundreds of lives. In this context, ACE has also shown that irrationally, almost all animal donations go to pets, while almost all animals that we unnecessarily damage are "food animals".

The gbs itself has already developed projects that are probably very effective altruistically. These include the Great Ape Project and the "Sentience Politics" project of gbs Switzerland.

Sentience Politics (SP)

Sentience is politically committed to the welfare of all sentient beings. "Sentience" refers to consciousness or sensitivity - and in particular the ability to feel happiness and pain, joy and suffering. Besides humans, non-human animals also have this ability. This is a key reason why we can benefit from rights and be harmed in their absence. The basic aim of the Sentience Politics project is to change structures that create unnecessary suffering. Because livestock farming is one of the biggest sources of suffering on our planet - around 60 billion animals are slaughtered every year, most of them after a painful life in an animal factory - Sentience is currently launching political initiatives to increase the number of vegetarian and vegan menus in public cafeterias. They are likely to be effective because of their subject matter (in the culinary field, much suffering can be reduced with comparatively little effort), the considerable media attention they generate and the leverage effect of politics. The Sentience Politics project is supported in Switzerland by numerous personalities from society and politics, including several federal parliamentarians and a former government member.

gbs-Switzerland has been able to inspire a group of people for the idea of Effective Altruism, who in their professional careers pay particular attention to the rational use of resources, i.e. professional poker players. Together with them, gbs-Switzerland founded the meta aid organisation REG (Raising for Effective Giving).

Raising for Effective Giving (REG)                                                     

REG is an organisation co-initiated by gbs-Switzerland for professional poker players who want to donate a significant part of their winnings to the most cost effective charities. REG's goal is to spread the idea of effective donation within the poker community (and beyond). The poker world is particularly promising in this regard, as poker professionals realise that the rationality skills needed to maximize the expected monetary value of poker can be perfectly transferred to maximizing the expected altruistic impact of donations. Around 50 poker professionals have already joined REG. The project was launched in July of this year at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas and has made a great impression in the poker playing world. Daniel Negreanu, the most successful live poker player of all time, has expressed his appreciation in several tweets - referring to the fact that many of the poker players involved are German - as follows: "Couldn't be more impressed with the consciousness of 'The Germans'. They really get it and are starting something big with REG."


Organisational information (UPDATE: December 2015)

Effective Altruism (EA) was originally a joint project of the Giordano Bruno Stiftung and gbs-Switzerland. In the meantime, the "Stiftung für Effektiven Altruismus" (EAS - Foundation for Effective Altruism) has emerged from gbs-Switzerland. Information on how you can donate effectively and altruistically is now available on the EAS homepage: