How to Be an Effective Altruist

While it’s true that the World, in general, has improved under numerous aspects, such as the fall in global poverty and child mortality, many issues remain growing and unresolved: the disparity between males and females, the enormous inequality between the super-rich and the poor. Consider that the richest 26 people own as much as the bottom 50% of the global population. Other pressing issues include climate change and animal suffering in intensive farms. Climate change will cause hundreds of millions of climate refugees and record deaths and damages from extreme weather events.

Donating effectively vs emotionally

It becomes a moral imperative in our times to help such causes, as all these issues cause staggering amounts of pain and might spiral out of control. The way we can help best is through effective altruism. Imagine Paul and Amanda. Paul sees an ad showing a poor kid suffering in Somalia, so he decides to donate some money to the charity. He then forgets about it and goes on with his life, sometimes donating to a wide variety of causes. Amanda, instead, does research on which solutions are most effective in solving global poverty and chooses a charity that best focuses on cost-effective solutions. She knows that her money is being put to good use, so she donates a significant share of her income every month. As you can imagine, Paul represents the majority of donors, as 2/3rds of people never research before giving money to charity.

Donating to developing countries is more effective

But how do we choose the most effective charities? In general, donating to developing countries is much more cost-effective than at home. You’re much richer than you think: income of €2,500 per month places you at the top 1% of the World by income (Check out Global Rich List to see where you stand). Today, more than 700 million live in extreme poverty — less than $1.90 a day. So a relatively-modest amount for you can make an impactful difference for someone living with $1 a day.

Not all causes have the same impact

It’s not only about donating to the right regions, but also the most cost-effective causes. While it costs as much as $40k to provide a blind person with a guide dog in the U.S., it costs around $20-$100 to avoid someone going into trachoma, the most common preventable blindness. Therefore, if you decide to donate to training guide dogs for the blind, you implicitly value 1 happier blind person as more important than saving at least 400 people from going blind in the first place. So donating to the right cause can improve your impact by hundreds if not thousands of times.

How to pick the most effective charities

To help you select the most effective charities, GiveWell and Animal Charity Evaluators are research organisations that select the best charities to donate to. While GiveWell selects charities that “save or improve (human) lives the most per dollar”, Animal Charity focuses on reducing animal suffering.

While these charity evaluators facilitate the research process of selecting an effective charity in a defined sector, many problems remain. If I wanted to mitigate climate change, would it be better to plant trees, support an animal charity that reduces meat consumption, or educate girls thus reducing the number of children they have? Honestly, I don’t know. And if you also consider other factors, like that preserving forests increases biodiversity, reducing meat consumption reduces animal suffering and educating girls empowers them, the answer becomes even trickier.

Why donate to animal charities

Egg-laying chickens can live more than a decade but are slaughtered after 2 years because they become unprofitable

Image source: The Independent

While it’s important to donate to cost-effective charities, at some point you will have to decide a cause based on your personal preferences. I like animal charities as they tackle both global warming and animal suffering. Animal farming produces 15% of global carbon emissions, uses roughly 70% of agricultural land and is one of the main contributors to deforestation, biodiversity loss and water pollution. Also, the suffering we inflict on animals would have shocked even the most perverse Nazi in Auschwitz: we slaughter 70 billion land animals and at least 1 trillion fish every year for human consumption. And the overwhelming majority of land animals are raised in intensive farms, where you wouldn’t wish that your fiercest enemy lived in for even one day. Even in animal charities, we face a daunting question: is it more effective to donate to charities that improve conditions of farm animals, like the Humane League, or to a research institute that develops competitive alternatives to animal-based meat, like the Good Food Institute?

Earning the most to Give the most

One more dilemma in maximising your positive impact. Is it better to work for a traditional investment bank, such as Goldman Sachs, or for an impact fund, whose objective is to invest money responsibly and do good? If you were to work at the impact fund, as an employee you would be marginally better than the second-best candidate, thus not generating excessive impact, and would earn less money than at Goldman Sachs, which means you can donate less. If you take the position at Goldman Sachs, you are contributing to steer the corporate culture towards sustainability and can donate a larger share of your income to charity, thus having a greater impact. Of course, the choice of the company should mostly depend on your vocation and how well you could perform in each work environment. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, for example, mostly do not consider social/environmental impact when making investment and business decisions, yet they are the greatest effective altruists of all time. Warren Buffett pledged to donate more than 99% of his wealth and is already the largest philanthropist in history.


The Most Good You Can Do, by Peter Singer

World’s 26 richest people own as much as poorest 50%, Oxfam –

70 billion land animals slaughtered every year, FAO –

Estimating the Number of Fish Caught in Global Fishing Each Year -

10 percent of global population lives in extreme poverty, World Bank –

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