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The Hidden Cost of Shifting Away from Poverty

 

 
The Center for Effective Altruism and effective altruists active in online spaces have for a while now been shifting away from a focus on poverty toward a focus on the far future and meta-level work (and if not that, animal advocacy). Interestingly, the rank and file of effective altruism does not seem to have made this shift (or at least completed it). I generally agree with CEA and the online community on this. I think it's a shift with solid reasoning behind it. I think there's reason to pause, though, and appreciate some of what EA loses by making this shift.

Much of what EA loses by making this shift has been discussed: things become very abstract in a way that may not be compelling to as many people, and there are concerns about an overly speculative cause.

I believe there are other concerns to be had, though. In particular, there is an immense amount that EAs can learn from the global poverty space and apply to other spaces, and I see very few EAs doing that. The things I see EAs missing out on are a drive toward rigor, institutional capital, and organization.

Drive Toward Rigor
 
The "randomista" movement in poverty alleviation illustrated many of the basic concepts that motivate EAs in a concrete and extremely persuasive way. What "randomista" economists such as Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer did in the 1990s and early 2000s was to make rigorous and scientific a field that had been dominated by sentimentality and false hopes. It's easy today to look back and see as obvious the idea of comparing randomly assigned treatment and control groups for poverty alleviation programs, but this was not obvious. This sort of thing was just generally not the way social science was done, because economics is messy, and studying it the way we study medicine would be too difficult. The randomistas blew that idea out of the water.

EAs are increasingly working in theoretical spaces similar to pre-2000s development economics. Animal advocacy, EA movement-building, and cause prioritization could likely learn from the nearly neurotic desire to be empirically rigorous that created the randomization movement in poverty alleviation. Things that appear unmeasurable may actually be measurable with the right amount of determination and inventiveness. Far future causes may be genuinely unmeasurable, although some of the ingredients to improving the far future (such as effectively recruiting technical researchers and persuading others) are not. To learn how to measure those things, though, we need to learn from the greatest, and the global poverty space has a lot to offer there.

Institutional Capital
 
There is a large network of organizations and donors in the poverty space who share virtually all EA values except neutrality with respect to generation and species. Dean Karlan, one of the randomistas, regularly cites Peter Singer in his speeches. The World Bank, the Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and many other powerful bodies are invested in evidence-based poverty work and place high value on shifting their funding based on where the evidence points rather than ideology.

As I said, these organizations do not share values many EAs hold with respect to the far future and anti-speciesism, but they do share most of the values that differentiate EAs from the rest of the world, and maintaining relationships with these organizations offers institutional, intellectual, and human capital.

Organization
 
The evidence-based organizations in the global poverty space now have two decades of experience researching effective policies and putting them into action. Evidence Action has efficiently spread deworming to a number of countries based on a growing body of evidence. There are established academic pipelines to get trained in this space for both research and for effective policymaking.

No doubt the greater amount of money in this area has a large role in its organization, but time plays a significant role as well. Other EA cause areas can speed up progress by learning from the organization that poverty alleviation charities and researchers have developed.

In short, I think that at the very least a larger number of effective altruists interested in non-poverty causes should develop experience in the poverty arena. The level of rigor and institutional knowledge in that area offers something to which other cause areas could aspire.
 
 
(Cross-posted on zachgroff.com)

Comments (5)

Comment author: Tee 10 October 2017 05:26:09PM 3 points [-]

Additional data on EA shifts in cause area preference: http://effective-altruism.com/ea/1fi/have_ea_priorities_changed_over_time/

Comment author: casebash 10 October 2017 06:42:05AM 9 points [-]

I also worried about what the impact will be if too many people stop focusing on poverty despite agreeing that existential risk is much more important.

  • Firstly, I think that successes in global poverty will help establish our credibility. Everyone cares about poverty and if we are having successes in this area, people will respect us more, even if they are skeptical of our other projects. Respect is important as it means that more people will want to join us and that people will provide us with more nuanced criticism.
  • Secondly, some of the people who join the movement initially to have an impact in terms of global poverty will end up being interesting in other cause areas too. We don't want to lose this demographic even if we were to have existential risk as dominating our other priorities.
Comment author: RyanCarey 10 October 2017 02:18:07AM 5 points [-]

Hey Zack,

I agree that we lose a bunch by moving our movement's centre of gravity away from poverty and development econ. But if we do the move properly, we gain a lot on the basis of the new areas we settle in. What rigor we lost, we should be able to patch up with Bayesian rationalist thinking. What institutional capital we might have lost from World Bank / Gates, we might be able to pick up with RAND/IARPA/Google/etc, a rather more diverse yet impressive group of possible contributors. For organization, yes a lot of experience, like that of Evidence Action, will be lost, but also much will be gained, for example, by working instead at technology think tanks, and elsewhere.

I don't think your conclusion that people should start in the arena of poverty is very well-supported either, if you're not comparing it to other arenas that people might be able to start out in. Do you think you might be privileging the hypothesis that people should start in the management of poverty just because that's salient to you, possibly because it's the status quo?

Comment author: zdgroff 10 October 2017 05:23:14PM 2 points [-]

There's definitely general intellectual rigor to be gained in the new areas the movement is drifting for, but it's not applied to doing good. That is, Google has great methods for maximizing efficiency, but thinking rigorously about doing good is different in significant ways, and the poverty world has been diligently working on that for a long time.

Comment author: Peter_Hurford  (EA Profile) 10 October 2017 05:02:03PM 6 points [-]

What rigor we lost, we should be able to patch up with Bayesian rationalist thinking

Can you elaborate more on this?