Do you also want to change the world? Be sure to check out the philosophy of Effective Altruism.

in OCD11 months ago


Let me start with a simple multiple-choice question. Which of the following two statements is correct? Here is the first statement: "There is a lot of misery in the world." And the second, "Never before has there been so little misery in the world as today." Do you think the first statement is correct? Or do you lean more towards the second statement? I'll give you the answer. It's a trick question, a false dilemma. Both statements are 100 percent true.

Let me explain that paradox with an example. According to the World Bank, 800 million people today live in extreme poverty, which means they earn less than $2 a day. These are people who have no roof over their heads, no clean drinking water, no shelter from the wind and weather, no access to medical care. Who have to wonder every day whether they will find food, whether their children will get sick and die. And yet, if you look at the percentage of poor people on our planet, you see a spectacular improvement. For a very long time, actually most of human history, more than 90 percent of all people lived in extreme poverty. Today we talk about 8 percent. The ratio between rich and poor has been completely reversed. And that despite the strong population growth of the last two centuries.

One more example: 15,000 children die every day. Imagine the terrible grief of the parents and the suffering of a dying child. An incomprehensible amount of suffering. And yet... In the past, 4 out of 10 children died before they could celebrate their fifth birthday, today the global average is 4 out of 100. Thus our children are a hundred times more likely to grow up.


There is a lot of misery, and there has never been so little misery. It sounds contradictory, but it is not. Both statements are true at the same time. We may pay tribute to past progress, but we cannot rest on our laurels. The fact that, despite everything, there are still poor people and dying children is a real shame, which we must erase as soon as possible. Because poverty is not an inevitable fate, and children do not have to die. The good news is: the opportunities to improve the world have never been greater. Thanks to the power of science and technology, and thanks to our unprecedented prosperity. In a few simple clicks, you can help suffering people on the other side of the world. But how? We already give a lot to charity.

I want to make a case for the philosophy of Effective Altruism. Almost no one knows this school of thought. That is not surprising: the school is still relatively young, at the most 10 years. Effective altruists are people who want to improve the world, but who want to work as rationally and thoughtfully as possible. For that, you have to look at scientific research: what works and what doesn't work?

That is not always obvious. Things that sound good on paper often don't work. And things that seem crazy at first, sometimes do the trick. How do you ensure better education in poor countries, for example? Now you can think of some solutions yourself, like building schools, sending textbooks, training teachers. That sounds good, but it doesn't always work. Harvard University economist Michael Kremer studied early school leaving in Kenya and found that the traditional approach had almost no effect. Good science always starts with acknowledging your own ignorance. Why was there such a high school dropout rate? The major culprit turned out to be Schistosoma, a nasty parasitic worm. No textbook can cope with that. The most effective means of helping children turned out to be: handing out deworming tablets. Absence from school immediately fell by 25 percent...

I find such research extremely inspiring. This is just one example, but it illustrates the approach to effective altruists: how can we alleviate as much suffering as possible? First, you will measure and compare, then you will use money and resources. But should we all do our own research? We don't have time for that, do we? The independent organization GiveWell maintains a ranking of the most effective charities. You can see it as a kind of consumer association for world improvers.


You have to start thinking like an economist: which charities yield the most return? Which donations offer the best value for money? The great thing about Effective Altruism is that they are constantly updating their recommendations in the light of new findings. Research has shown that there are enormous differences between charities: some are 100 or even 1,000 times more effective than others. The goals ranked highest at GiveWell are not the classic NGOs that everyone knows, such as Unicef or Oxfam or Doctors Without Borders. They are often noble strangers who do not run large media campaigns or recruit on the street.

Let me briefly mention two examples:

  • The GiveDirectly organization gives money very specifically to the poorest people, via mobile phones. Without conditions, without agreements. It sounds deceptively simple, but scientific research shows that it really works. Give poor people money and they will send their children to school, start their own business, invest in the future. Only a small minority is going to squander the money.
  • The Against Malaria Foundation distributes mosquito nets in areas affected by malaria. There are still NGOs that do such a thing, but the AMF is particularly good at it. Research shows that their work is extremely effective: one mosquito net costs only 1 euro, and it can protect a child for one year. If we are serious about it, we can completely eradicate malaria within a few years.

Many of you may already be giving money to charity. Because we all want to contribute to a better world. But actually we don't always know if that money is being spent well. Maybe those goals are not as efficient, or the interventions are useless, or money is stuck along the way. Classic NGOs often do many things at once, making it difficult to measure their effectiveness. But what if you have the guarantee that you can really save lives per donated dollar?

If you ask me, that's a reason to give more. Because make no mistake: progress doesn't just happen, it's human work. There is no guarantee that the world's misery will continue to decline. It is perfectly possible that we mess it up again. But it is also perfectly possible that we eradicate poverty once and for all, even within a few years, and that infant mortality is becoming as rare everywhere as here in Western Europe. There is a lot of misery, and there has never been so little misery. Let's examine yesterday's progress and work on tomorrow's progress.