Center for Global Development: The UK as an Effective Altruist

post by Dale · 2020-08-10T19:29:22.607Z · score: 15 (16 votes) · EA · GW · 9 comments

This is a link post for

A long piece by Ritchie and Mitchell at the Center for Global Development examining UK Foreign Aid policy through an EA lens:

The prime minister’s most influential advisor, Dominic Cummings, is a champion of “effective altruism [EA · GW]”—the use of evidence and careful reasoning to work out how to maximize the good with a given unit of resources (with “the good” understood in impartial welfarist terms), and applying the findings to improve the world as much as possible. Michael Gove, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, has spoken on similar lines about public servants’ need to avoid group-think and the government’s need to be “rigorous and fearless in its evaluation of policy and projects.” He’s urged the government to prioritise “what works” and to counter a bias against doing things differently, ideals reflected in the effective altruism movement.
With the UK government in the midst of a major “Integrated Review” of its foreign, development, and defence policy—and the recent the formation of a merged Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office confirming it isn’t afraid of change—now’s a good time to consider whether the effective altruism movement can or should find great traction in UK aid programmes.
In this note we briefly explore the key tenets of effective altruism, consider where the UK government aligns with these tenets in its aid programme, and identify five ways the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office could move further in that direction. Finally, we look at how a government differs from most effective altruists. In essence, effective altruism is about evidence-based approaches to maximise the expected value of an impact. But if a government took this approach seriously, it would also exploit opportunities that smaller individual donors may not have—thinking bigger and pursuing more systemic change where even if success is uncertain, the potential returns are huge.


The Foreign Secretary has confirmed that the UK will retain its commitment to the poorest and conflict-affected countries and ensure that aid is “invested in a way that can deliver the most effective results for the strategic objectives of alleviating poverty for the most vulnerable and delivering on climate change and on the wider international agenda
If the UK is going to spend aid effectively, then it should move further in the direction of effective altruists: responding to evidence about where and how aid is best spent and by which agencies, focusing on issues of scalability, and thinking about where its unique strengths lie, instead of trying to do everything everywhere. Crucially, a government can act at much greater scale than most altruists—it can avoid the caricature of focussing only on randomised controlled trials—and use its scale to lead systemic change.


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comment by smclare · 2020-08-11T14:50:34.772Z · score: 32 (16 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

The FCO-DFID merger seems pretty anti-EA to me. The stated motivation was to allow the government to leverage the UK's aid budget to advance British interests. In contrast, presumably, an independent DFID was more free to pursue poverty allevation and development as an end goal. It's odd to me that this angle isn't really discussed in the piece.

I also think it would probably be really bad for Cummings to become associated with EA given that he's such a controversial and disagreeable person. And while I've seen him linked with us multiple times, I can't actually find any material where he's discussed, supported, or even mentioned EA.

comment by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2020-08-12T13:21:34.757Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Cummings is known to be a fan of Yudkowsky/SSC, which the media tends to lump together with effective altruism. He's also written about AI safety before.

comment by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2020-08-10T21:27:43.428Z · score: 5 (8 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Could you please use a more descriptive title for this post? 

I think this line from your introduction would work as a title: "UK foreign aid policy through an EA lens"

comment by james_aung · 2020-08-10T22:49:09.436Z · score: 12 (5 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

The title of the CGD article is "The UK as an Effective Altruist"

comment by Linch · 2020-08-10T23:41:00.430Z · score: 8 (6 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I concur with Aaron that the title was insufficiently descriptive for this forum, even if the ultimate failing was due to CGD rather than Dale. "Center for Global Development: The UK as an Effective Altruist" would be reasonable.

comment by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2020-08-11T01:36:16.317Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Well, that explains the original title! I still think a title change would be helpful; I had to read this title a few times to make sure I hadn't missed a word.

comment by Dale · 2020-08-16T02:41:16.139Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I made the requested change.

comment by SammyDMartin · 2020-08-14T10:48:51.114Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I thought that this post would make a bigger deal of the UK's coronavirus response - currently top in the world for both vaccine development and large-scale clinical trials, and one of the leading funders of international vaccine development research.

comment by Louis_Dixon (bdixon) · 2020-08-14T19:08:08.821Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think this piece gets a number of things wrong.

1a. The title of your original article is misleading, as you're only looking at foreign policy, and also only looking at the current government, rather than the other 60M+ people living in the UK.

1b. The UK is currently presiding over the highest mortality rates in Europe from Covid-19, which many people are blaming on the government's policy.

2. Dominic Cummings is not a vocal advocate of effective altruism, he's mentioned LW/Yudkowsky but to my knowledge I've never seen him use the terms 'effective altruism'.

3. The DFID and FCO merger has left many civil servants unhappy, and has had the explicit objective of linking up British business objectives with aid, rather than targeting the most deprived places where donations would go the furthest.