Thursday, September 3, 2015

Luck of the draw

Seeing stories about the horrifying conditions Syrian refugees face, I’m thinking once again about how lucky I am to have been born in this country.

As a social worker, some of the clients I work with are immigration detainees waiting to find out if they will be deported.

The descriptions they give of their journeys to this country are harrowing. “I spent three days walking through the mountains. There were snakes.” “In the desert it was freezing at night and hot in the day. We got surprised by immigration officials at night and ran off without our water. My neighbor died.” “You pass corpses in the desert.”

What exactly would make a person take those kind of risks? Sometimes it’s a very specific fear: “After my brother got shot, my parents scraped together the money for the trip and told me to come here.” But often it’s simply to avoid grinding poverty. One man explained the life he left as a corn farmer in Central America: “I think I could make about $8 a day. What kind of life can you have? I can’t get married on that, I can’t raise kids.”

Some of them speak of the difference they were able to make to their families: “My mother depends on money I send her for insulin. I don’t know how I’m going to be able to afford it if I have to go back.” “I’ve been keeping my children in school. School there isn’t free like here: you have to buy uniforms and books.” “When I visited my cousins, I left my clothes with them because they didn’t have decent clothes. That’s how poor they are.”

In short, they’re normal people who want normal things and have gone to extraordinary lengths to get them.

Source: Branko Milanovic, PovcalNet (World Bank)

An American at the poverty line ($11,770 a year) is richer than 85% of the world, even after accounting for different costs of living. You can play around with the “How Rich Am I?” calculator.

This is why the idea of prioritizing one’s own neighborhood or nation over others has never made sense to me. No one would choose to be born in the murder capital of the world, or a country undergoing civil war, or a community where people can’t afford to send their children to school. I didn’t do anything to earn my American passport except be born. I didn’t earn the right to be white, or healthy, or from an upper-middle-class family.

And that’s why I want to use my good fortune to make a difference for people who didn’t get so lucky.

Two new roles

I'm excited to be starting some new things:
  • In June I joined the board of GiveWell.
  • I'm joining the Center for Effective Altruism's Outreach team. I've wanted to work for them for years, and I'm so glad it became possible without moving to another country! I'll still be doing some social work part-time.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

EA organizations doing policy work

A lot of people, myself included, have felt conflicted about the choice between doing direct work (like health interventions) and trying to change systems. Everyone agrees that well-done policy work can have big impacts, but there's less agreement about how to tell if your work is actually good at changing policy.

At the EA Global conference in California, I was excited to hear more about three EA organizations doing policy work, two of which I hadn't heard of before.

Open Philanthropy Project

The Open Philanthropy Project, formerly known as GiveWell Labs, is a joint project of Good Ventures and GiveWell. While GiveWell focuses on recommending giving opportunities with very demonstrated impact, the Open Philanthropy Project explores giving opportunities that have higher risks but higher potential rewards, or that may take a long time to have results.

One of the project's focuses is US policy. Some areas they're looking into include:
You can see Howie Lempel's EA Global talk.

At this point they're not asking for more funding and are not yet at a point where they've recommended specific places to give.

Effective Altruism Policy Analytics

Effective Altruism Policy Analytics is a really interesting shoestring operation run by students at the University of Maryland and economist Richard Bruns. Its goal is "to bring non-partisan, cause-neutral improvements to regulatory action in the United States."

This summer, they've been working on policy comments. The US Government has a comment period on new regulations during which anyone can submit comments and suggestions for change to proposed regulations. The government agency in question must respond to each comment, and may change its regulation if it hears suggestions it likes. EA Policy Analytics has been looking for regulations with room for improvement, but which are cheap to implement and aren't controversial, and submitting comments on them. Some of the topics they've addressed include:

  • improving compliance with motorcycle helmet laws
  • reducing paperwork burden on immigration applicants
  • correcting a faulty formula used in funding home weatherization

This is definitely in the "experimental" category, but I like it. It's in everyone's interest to have a bunch of slightly better policies, but it's not enough in anyone's interest to do this kind of work for selfish reasons. In other words, it's a perfect project for altruists.

Because they just started, they've only heard back about one of their suggested changes (their suggestion was not taken). They're moving toward choosing regulations more carefully and putting more time into each comment, but they expect that the benefit of even one successful regulation improvement would be worth a lot of failed attempts. Here's an example of a case where a regulation was changed based on comments.

You can see Matt Gentzel's EA Global talk.

They're not asking for donations at this point.

Center for Global Development

The Center for Global Development (CGD) is a "think and do" tank founded in 2001 with the goal of reducing global poverty and inequality via policy change in the US and other rich countries. They work on a broad range of topics including aid effectivenessclimate changeeducationglobalizationhealthmigration, and trade.

Some examples of projects:

  • "Cash on Delivery Aid": proposed a program, currently being piloted by the UK Department for International Development, in which the Ethiopian government is paid a set amount for each student beyond a baseline that completes primary school and takes a grade-10 test. Rather than focusing on "was the money disbursed?" or "how many schools/textbooks/etc. did we buy?" as many aid programs do, this puts the emphasis on results. It respects local autonomy, because the Ethiopian government is free to change its educational system in whatever way it finds best. Results seem to be mixed.
  • Popularized advance market commitments for developing vaccines, in which donors make a contract to pay for a successful vaccine if it is developed, providing pharmaceutical companies with financial incentive to develop vaccines. The major success here seems to have been the 2010 pneumonococcal vaccine.
  • After Haiti's 2010 earthquake, one of many voices advocating for increased number of Haitian guestworkers to be admitted to the US. Remittances (money sent home) make up 20% of Haiti's GDP.

It's a lot harder for me to tell what's going on here, since it's a much more established organization with a lot more projects than the above two. Because they've tried more things, they have some failures as well as successes on their record.

As with much policy work, it's hard to tell how much success to credit to any one organization. E.g. if they're one of several actors calling for a particular change that is made, would it have happened anyway without them?

You can see Rajesh Mirchandani's EA Global talk (though it is more about policy change in general than the organization in particular).

Unlike the other two organizations described, CDG is actively taking donations. GiveWell has recommended a grant to them in the past.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Recommend reading

Greetings from the Effective Altruism Global Conference in California!  I just got a copy of Will MacAskill's new book about effective altruism, Doing Good Better.

I haven't finished it yet, but I'm finding it enjoyable, with sound advice on career choice, what kinds of causes can do most with your donation, and other steps you can take. You should get a copy! Even if you're already persuaded of everything Will has to say, the examples and the ways he lays out arguments may be helpful in thinking about how to present these ideas to others.

More thoughts about the conference coming soon.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Bread and roses

Both advocates and critics of effective altruism like to contrast arts charities with public health charities. Peter Singer writes on art auctions:
In a more ethical world, to spend tens of millions of dollars on works of art would be status-lowering, not status-enhancing. Such behavior would lead people to ask: “In a world in which more than six million children die each year because they lack safe drinking water or mosquito nets, or because they have not been immunized against measles, couldn’t you find something better to do with your money?”
This sometimes strikes art-lovers as harsh. After all, they point out, life is about more than just surviving (although this always seems backwards to me, because surviving is obviously a prerequisite for any sort of higher enjoyment, and the unspoken implication is that some people should be left to struggle so others can enjoy the ballet).

But I think one of our problems is that when we think of "the arts," we think of expensive ones—symphony orchestras playing in concert halls, museums with paintings that cost millions of dollars.

Around the world and throughout history, art has been something more homegrown—people making music in their own families and communities, decorating their belongings and dwellings, composing stories and poetry. There have been many human societies without arts foundations, but none without dance, music, and storytelling.

I was totally charmed to hear some evidence of how promoting human survival also promotes human flourishing: the GiveDirectly theme song. GiveDirectly is a highly rated charity providing cash transfers to poor households in Kenya.

They write: "One of our recipients used part of his transfer to buy instruments and start a band, and wrote this song. We think they sound pretty happy with our service."

A partial translation of the song:

We thank GiveDirectly, the work you are doing in Kenya, Africa is great
GiveDirectly has helped those who were in thatched houses
And now almost everyone is having iron roof house
They have helped everyone who used to sleep in thatched houses,
Now all you see are shining iron roofs.

Another piece from a GiveDirectly worker on the role of celebration in the lives of the very poor:
I recently visited Peter, nicknamed Ous Papa, a 50-year-old man and beneficiary of GiveDirectly. Ous Papa had an accident a long time ago and lost one of his legs; as a result, his wife left him. He therefore takes care of his 80-year-old widowed mother alone. They are in absolute poverty -- he has a small grass-thatched house, with mud walls and floor. 
He has old crutches that he uses to help him walk and do chores. They are quite old, and therefore difficult to work with. In spite of that, he still wakes up early to work on the farm. When we met, I asked him what he was planning to do with the transfer he was going to receive from GiveDirectly. These were his words: “I would buy a leg.” 
I did not understand why he would buy a leg, when he could get a wheelchair that would help him move quickly and easily. He explained that he loves dancing and that he can’t dance in a wheelchair. Furthermore, once he got an artificial leg, he would be able to work, just like anybody else. He said that he would put the rest of the money into his farm, and later get a wife to keep him company and help him take care of his old mother. 
I found it really inspiring that a 50-year-old can be in absolute poverty and still dream of dancing.
To me, the message is that the basics are not just about the basics. Even the very poor want enjoyment and creativity in their lives—bread and roses, as James Oppenheim put it in his 1911 poem about striking millworkers.

And once people have the basics—a decent roof, a leg to dance on—just like anyone, they want to cut loose and celebrate.

Thanks to Catriona for pointing out the song and the connection to the arts debate!

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Most Good You Can Do

I was excited to see Peter Singer's new book, The Most Good You Can Do.

He's letting the internet decide to donate $10,000 of the royalties. Play the Giving Game to vote!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Charity begins at home?

Sometimes people ask Jeff and me if we plan to raise our daughter in some special way as an effective altruist. The answer is “not really.” Some have asked if we consider her a sort of recruit, hoping that her future donations will outweigh the cost of raising her. The answer is “definitely not.”

Of course, we hope that Lily will become a kind and generous person. (Currently she’s at the stage of taking other babies’ books from them at the library, but we trust that will change.) But we wouldn't want to count on her donating a certain amount, or curing malaria, or anything else. It doesn't seem very realistic, and pushing her too hard to be like us might backfire and cause her to reject the whole idea.

Celebrating one year of being neither effective nor altruistic

I've seen some people react with dismay that anyone would give away a large portion of their income while also choosing to become a parent. They don't like the idea of "putting other people before your child."

If Lily really needed anything, we'd do our best to be sure she had it. Even after giving away half our income, we're left with more than the average American family. (And far more than the average world family.) As one friend says, "It's obviously possible to live on this amount of money, because almost everyone does it." So we're at least as able to provide for Lily as most other families you might meet.

And part of raising a child is teaching them that their wants don't always come first. You can't always have the biggest slice of cake, or your friend's toy, or the first turn on the swing when other children are waiting. Learning to share and to prioritize others' needs as well as your own is an important part of learning to live in human society.

I hope that giving will be a normal part of family life as Lily grows up. My mother grew up in a household where her parents tithed 10% of their income, and none of them considered that remarkable. My grandmother taught her children to allocate their 20-cent allowance with "a dime to spend, a nickel to save, and a nickel to give away." There are some attractive children's banks out there with different compartments for saving, spending, investing, and giving. I've also seen homemade ones if you're galled by the idea of paying for a piggy bank.

We hope to teach Lily to be kind in her personal life, and also to think of herself as part of a larger world in which she can help many people (even if she doesn't know them personally).

I like the idea of charity beginning at home. I wouldn’t want it to end there!