Why Poverty?

post by Michelle_Hutchinson · 2016-04-24T21:25:53.942Z · EA · GW · Legacy · 12 comments


  Standing together
  A robust evidence base
  Well-informed recommendations

This is the second in a series of posts. The first was: Giving What We Can is Cause Neutral.

Given that Giving What We Can is cause neutral, why do we recommend exclusively poverty eradication charities, and focus on our website and materials on poverty? There are three main reasons: the fact that eliminating poverty is morally (relatively) uncontroversial, the robust evidence base for poverty eradication charities, and the importance of thoroughly understanding the charities we recommend. In this post I’ll describe these, and how they impact on our decision making.

Standing together

Giving What We Can is fundamentally trying to establish a baseline for action. Many of the claims effective altruists make seem initially strange and counter-intuitive. But there are some that should be really broadly acceptable: People’s lives and health matter equally whether they are born in the UK or Sierra Leone. We should help people more with our money if we can, even if that means doing the extra bit of research into which charities are the most effective. Those of us lucky enough to be on the median income in the UK have an amazing opportunity to help others simply due to the fact that even when we give away 10% of our income, we’re still in the richest 5% of people globally. We hope that these ideas can bring people with fairly different moral stances together, and can start people thinking both about how to compare the effectiveness of different organisations and about how much they can and would like to help others in their lives.

In order to do this, it’s important to demonstrate the importance of comparing cost-effectiveness within a space that people can broadly agree on. At the same time, we need to weigh that against really making a big difference in getting people to donate more cost-effectively. Some people would likely only be initially interested in hearing about the difference in cost-effectiveness between charities helping people in the UK, for example. But the differences in the good done between charities in the UK and those working in places where people are in extreme poverty seem to be much greater than those between different charities all working in the UK.

We are trying to strike a balance: having enough focus that people can find agreement and are galvanised to act, but being broad enough in the focus area that it plausibly encompasses the most effective interventions. Aiming at eliminating global poverty seems to strike such a balance. Early in our history, we thought that the best way to do this was to focus exclusively on poverty alleviation interventions, and never to mention other cause areas. The more general concept of effective altruism has caught on far more than we expected it to, indicating that people are more open to and inspired by cause neutrality than we had thought. We have therefore been increasingly highlighting areas other than just global poverty.

A robust evidence base

Another consideration for us in which charities to recommend and publicise is riskiness of charities: it doesn’t just matter what the expected value of a donation to a charity is, but also how likely it is that the donation might have no impact. Many people are disillusioned with charities in general, after the horror stories they’ve heard about charities wasting money that was entrusted to them. An important element of our work is persuading people that there are charities that are well-evidenced out there, who will definitely do good work with the money they are donated. Providing that thorough evidence base is important in encouraging people to donate in the first place – all the more so given that we are asking people to donate significantly. Making sure that people’s donations do in fact have an impact is important in making sure that they don’t get disillusioned later. We hope to normalise significant giving throughout people’s lives, not just in the short term.

Well-informed recommendations

Given the significant ask we make of members, they reasonably expect us to have a really thorough understanding of the charities we recommend. Our historical expertise has been in global health, though we have been increasing our scope (including for example climate change), and expect to continue to do so as we increase our research capacity.


These reasons together have meant that we have historically focused entirely on global poverty, and expect to continue doing so for the most part. That’s not to say we will continue with just the same approach. For example, one possibility we’re currently considering is developing an online platform that would allow people to input their preferred risk profile and how inclusive their moral system is, and would make donation recommendations based on that. 


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Gleb_T · 2016-04-24T23:04:51.724Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think all the points made make sense, but I would have liked to have heard a little bit more about outward-inward orientation.

Giving What We Can has to balance its messages both toward the EA movement, and externally outside the EA movement. By comparison to an organization like The Life You Can Save, GWWC is more inward-facing, meaning more of its messaging focuses on people who are members of the EA movement. Still, GWWC has a lot of messaging oriented outward, toward non-EA members. Doing so requires the messaging to be more broadly acceptable, and poverty issues totally make sense here.

Replies from: richardcanal
comment by richardcanal · 2016-04-25T01:32:04.808Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hi Gleb_T, Are you arguing that the "inward" message shouldn't be be so slanted toward poverty issues? To me it makes sense that both inwardly and outwardly GWWC should be focused on eliminating extreme poverty, as the "best" example of EA in practice for the reasons stated above by Michelle. Richard

Replies from: Gleb_T
comment by Gleb_T · 2016-04-25T02:29:10.677Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Richard, no, that's not what I'm saying. I guess I was unclear.

I wanted the piece to go a bit more in-depth into the kind of context that GWWC is functioning in, and who it is targeting its messages toward. I then gave my own understanding of what GWWC is doing. I think focusing on poverty is quite appropriate for the reasons Michelle was stating, just wanted more in-depth explanation of GWWC's context.

comment by Carla_Fin · 2016-04-25T18:45:51.684Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Eliminating poverty only works if poor people don't exist. If you want to save lives, as is often said, then eliminating poverty implies preventing reproduction. Otherwise, standard malthusian logic applies.

How are you going to make sure their reproduction will be below replacement? What guarantee do you have that there are no natalist religious cultures which won't undergo such a fertility transition with increasing wealth? It seems those cultures are among the worst for welfare, e.g. Islam in its various anti-liberty and pro-suffering variations.

Replies from: Gleb_T
comment by Gleb_T · 2016-04-26T02:47:14.112Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I used to worry about this as well, but this piece was really helpful for me to put such worries to rest.

Replies from: xccf, Carla_Fin
comment by xccf · 2016-04-27T11:38:31.408Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Alarmingly, population growth in Africa is not slowing as quickly as demographers had expected. In 2004 the UN predicted that the continent’s population would grow from a little over 900m at the time, to about 2.3 billion in 2100. At the same time it put the world’s total population in 2100 at 9.1 billion, up from 7.3 billion today. But the UN’s latest estimates, published earlier this year, have global population in 2100 at 11.2 billion—and Africa is where almost all the newly added people will be. The UN now thinks that by 2100 the continent will be home to 4.4 billion people, an increase of more than 2 billion compared with its previous estimate.

If the new projections are right, geopolitics will be turned upside-down. By the end of this century, Africa will be home to 39% of the world’s population, almost as much as Asia, and four times the share of North America and Europe put together. At present only one of the world’s ten most populous countries is in Africa: Nigeria. In 2100, the UN believes, five will be: Nigeria, Congo, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Niger.

Although much could change in the next 85 years, none of those countries is a byword for stability or prosperity. A quadrupling of their population is unlikely to improve matters. If nothing else, the number of Africans seeking a better life in Europe and other richer places is likely to increase several times over.


...even relative to their levels of income, health and education, the countries of sub-Saharan Africa have high fertility rates. That has prompted some scholars to posit cultural explanations.

One theory is that African men want big families to enhance their status; another that communal land-holding makes them economically beneficial, since resources are shared according to family size. Without dismissing these arguments, John Bongaarts of the Population Council, an international non-profit group, suggests a third: relatively low use of modern contraception. In many places, after all, vigorous campaigns to disseminate contraceptives and discourage big families have contributed to sudden and deep falls in fertility. Such a drive in the 1970s in Matlab, a district in Bangladesh, saw the share of women using contraceptives increase six-fold in 18 months.


...The UN estimates that there are still 216m married women in the world who would like access to modern methods of contraception, but do not have it. The Copenhagen Consensus, a group of academics which rates development policies, reckons it would cost $3.6 billion a year to provide what they need. The benefits, in terms of the diminished need for infrastructure and social spending, reduced pollution and so on, would be $432 billion a year—120 times more. That is the second-most productive investment the project has identified, after liberalising trade, out of a welter of different development goals. Better yet, it helps with all the others.

The Economist

Note that giving poor people free contraception also provides a nice solution to the meat eater problem.

I'd be curious to hear if anyone has arguments against free contraception as a cause area.

Replies from: tjmather
comment by tjmather · 2016-04-27T13:12:10.659Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm hoping to help fund a randomized control trial (RCT) in Burkina Faso or another very low income area to test whether providing free family planning service vouchers increases uptake.

As discussed in http://www.povertyactionlab.org/publication/the-price-is-wrong , uptake of preventative health products increases significantly when they are provided for free to the poor. It would be interesting to see if the same holds true for contraceptives.

There is a great slideshow on what we have learned from free contraceptive programs.

I plan to post updates on https://www.facebook.com/groups/EffectiveFPCharities/

comment by Carla_Fin · 2016-04-26T05:42:12.560Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

It doesn't address the possibility of differential cultural reproduction.

Specifically, it doesn't address that some religious cultures may retain relatively higher reproduction rates even as mortality falls, without sufficient cultural attrition rates (1) to offset the difference.

If Islamic fundamentalism reproduces faster than other cultures, and the pro-immigration crowd combined with the PC police succeed in stifling criticism, the resulting world will be a global (2) melting pot ruled by suffering-maximizing Shariah law. That's a worse existential risk than pandemics or climate change; in fact it would be worse than human extinction.

EA will not do any good without addressing the problem of religious fundamentalism and the differential growth of morally inferior culture.

(1) The punishment for apostasy under Islam is death. (2) We already have an Islamic rape epidemic in Europe now, see Rotherham and Cologne.

Replies from: kokotajlod
comment by kokotajlod · 2016-04-26T14:41:16.365Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

"the resulting world will be a global (2) melting pot ruled by suffering-maximizing Shariah law."

This seems extremely implausible to me. Historically, assimilation and globalization has been the norm. Also, Shariah isn't even implemented in many Islamic countries, why would it be implemented in e.g. 2050 Britain?

"That's a worse existential risk than pandemics or climate change; in fact it would be worse than human extinction."

Hell no! Standards of living even in Saudi Arabia are probably better than they've been in most places for most of human history, and things are only going to get better.

On a more abstract level: It really seems like you are exaggerating the danger here. Since the danger is a particular culture/religious group, that's especially insensitive & harmful.

You might say "I agree that the odds of this nightmare scenario happening are very small, but because the scenario is so bad, I think we should still be concerned about it." I think that when we start considering odds <1% of sweeping cultural change, then we ought to worry about all sorts of other contenders in that category too. Communism could revive. A new, fiery religion could appear. World War Three could happen. So many things which would be worse, and more likely, then the scenario you are considering.

Replies from: xccf, Carla_Fin
comment by xccf · 2016-04-27T11:56:05.506Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This seems extremely implausible to me. Historically, assimilation and globalization has been the norm.

"Assimilation and globalization" doesn't imply a particular direction of value drift. It's Eurocentric to assume that cultural assimilation always means non-European cultures assimilating in to European ones.

The word "imperialist" is typically used in conjunction with European empires, but the majority of historical empires were not European, and Europe has been a backwater throughout much of history. In particular, Islam already has a storied history of assimilating other cultures.

(I upvoted Carla_Fin's comments back up towards 0 because I thought they explored important conceptual territory, even if they were expressed indelicately. It seems to me that if EA chooses to neglect particular lines of argument because pursuing them makes you seem like a mean person, that will be a failure mode for EA as a movement. As a reductio ad absurdum, how much potential do you think the EA movement would have if we weren't willing to point out that PlayPumps is an ineffective charity, in order to avoid being insensitive to the founders of PlayPumps? Of course we should prevent the forum from devolving in to fruitless flame warring, and I move we all work to be especially collegial when discussing touchy topics.)

comment by Carla_Fin · 2016-04-27T12:18:07.078Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Standards of living even in Saudi Arabia

I'm sure the people whose skin is whipped to bloody shreds are very happy that their tormentors enjoy a high GDP.

A new, fiery religion could appear.

Most religions have historical roots, which are culturally perpetuated. Perhaps new cults can emerge, one might also fear the risk of new brainwashing technology. But why speculate about new religious fundamentalism when the old ones are alive and kicking?

odds <1% of sweeping cultural change

No one said anything about odds this low. They are far higher.

P.S.: A big fuck you to the people who downvoted my comment below visibility AFTER I pointed out the danger of stifling criticism in the name of PC; people like you are the reason why those girls in Rotherham could get raped without their molestors having to fear punishment.