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Grassroot initiatives, emotional appeal, and EA

by Davin Singh

During the fifth week of my Fellowship, I volunteered at a homeless shelter. The act of giving made me feel good, and yet I felt that our collective efforts were akin to a drop of water in the ocean of global poverty. I thought to myself, we are only providing the homeless with one meal, to which they will continue starving tomorrow, and the next day, and so on. This begets the question if Effective Altruism is the most cost-effective, utility-maximizing, low hanging fruit of a solution, does it invalidate the efforts of smaller, less effective charities, and should we feel complicit in not doing all that we can?

In my opinion, throughout the Fellowship, I felt a global connectedness to my Fellows, and this disconnect that exists between the general population and global-minded citizens is what leads to individuals donating to less effective charities. However, I choose not to dismiss this as choosing poorly and chalk it up to a lack of knowledge, rather, the on-the-ground, grassroots, bottom-top initiatives allow society to embrace the act of giving, to which in and of itself is valuable. As a volunteer before this Fellowship, the transition from the physical act of giving to meta-analyses of doing the most good, to think more critically on investing in the future so that our next of kin may reap the rewards of long-term thinking, felt natural to me. In my opinion, we have to provide room for society in exploring “less-effective” grassroots charities, as it culminates to the perspective of “I’ve done a lot, how can I do all I can?”. From that point onwards, people will naturally be drawn and funnelled to EA as a means to do so. However, this is contingent upon society looking beyond borders, and understanding that the social construct of a country is second to being a human being existing on Earth.

The next natural progression would be, how can EA package itself as a vehicle to do the most good, better? The viscerality of which society feels towards giving has to be carried over when they make donations to charities such as GiveDirectly. To contextualize this, the cost-effectiveness model is insufficient to provide the donator with a tangible, observable outcome of their good. For instance, the Malaria Consortium requires $3000-$5000 to save a life. That in itself should justify and urge donors to put aside some of their income. In my opinion, however, it is not enough to intrinsically impact the donors as compared to giving a meal to a homeless person, given that cost-benefit analysis objectively favours the former.

Given this lacuna in emotional satiety, I don't believe it unjust to persecute people for giving to feel better, we would be better off with the money spent compared to the diametric perspective of not giving at all; it is not our place to judge the morality and reasoning behind a person’s actions. As such, I believe a deeper impact would occur when we provide footage of the family we helped save, or even a photograph of the life saved, with a video thanking the donor for saving their life, as would occur when giving a homeless person food. The value gaps that exist between in-person giving and giving through a computer has to be filled if we want to look at EA as a feasible and attractive alternative to giving, as a global community.


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