Philanthropists are failing to tackle the most important problems of our time
By Ollie Base
Around 5.5 million children die each year of easily preventable diseases such as malaria, diarrhea, or pneumonia. Runaway climate change is set to wreak environmental havoc and cost the economy trillions of dollars. More than 3,000 nuclear warheads are in high-alert, ready-to-launch status around the globe.
Philanthropy is not the only way to tackle these problems. But it is a way uniquely free from pressures of government, election cycles and market interests. And yet, only a tiny fraction of the $410 billion of charitable donations are spent on preventing these deaths and mitigating these risks.
Philanthropists are ignoring these problems.
One recent report indicates that, last year, only 6% of gifts over $1 million in the US went to the health sector. Meanwhile, almost half of these gifts, over $9 billion, funded projects in higher education. Funding for the arts and humanities also far exceeded funding for health.
Our resources are scarce so we must make decisions about how to allocate them effectively. Universities and museums make our lives better but they’re expensive and often benefit only the wealthiest in society. In order to make the most of our scarce resources, philanthropists must think carefully about which problems are the most important before giving vast amounts of money to these institutions.
Which problems should we focus on?
At Effective Giving, we encourage our members to take this question very seriously. It’s difficult to work out what to prioritise but our problems are too severe and our resources too scarce not to try.
That’s why we think the effective altruism movement is so important; Effective altruism (EA) is the project of using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible, and taking action on that basis. It is both a research project—to figure out how to do the most good—and a practical project, of implementing the best guesses we have about how to do the most good. The project has attracted both media attention and criticism but the philanthropic sector has so far been largely ignorant of its most important insights.
What can we learn from effective altruism to increase the impact of philanthropy?
A strategy for effective philanthropy
Just like the research and practical aspects of effective altruism, we recommend that philanthropists use a two-step strategy to maximise the impact of their donations; find the most pressing problems and fund the most promising solutions.
- i) Finding the most pressing problems
The world has many problems and many of these are extremely severe. Philanthropists need a framework to help them work out which problems to target first. Researchers and organisations within the effective altruism movement have converged upon a simple decision framework which does exactly this. On this framework, the most pressing problems are Big, Solvable, and Neglected.
- Big: It’s better to target bigger, more important problems because, if they’re solved, the world would be a much better place.
- Solvable: It’s better to focus on solvable problems, because we can make greater progress with the same efforts.
- Neglected: It‘s better to focus on problems that are relatively neglected because the less time and money that has already been invested in a problem, the easier it will be to make further progress.
Three major cause areas emerge when this framework is applied. The first is global health: every year around ten million people in poorer countries die of preventable illnesses and there are many evidence-based opportunities to scale up treatments. The second cause area is factory farming, a problem of unimaginable magnitude and one which is highly neglected. Each year, 50 billion animals are slaughtered in factory farms globally, yet only $130m a year is directed towards this problem.
The third recommended cause area under the three-factor framework is existential risk. Existential risks are risks which could permanently de-rail civilisation or even lead to the extinction of the human race. As humanity has advanced, our ability to build powerful technology has advanced with it. This technology creates risks such as those posed by nuclear weapons and extreme climate change which now threaten the very survival of our species. More risks of this kind are already emerging: deadly man-made pathogens and advanced Artificial Intelligence (AI) now pose a significant threat. These risks have been woefully neglected by philanthropists across the world. The future of humanity could be vast and it could be very, very good. It is therefore a key concern to ensure that the future goes well in the long-term and that means taking existential risks very seriously.
Finding the most pressing problems is only the first step, however. Even when we do focus on the most pressing problems, it’s often hard to find impactful solutions.
- ii) Funding the most cost-effective interventions
Most interventions don’t work.
There is evidence to suggest that almost 2/3rds of interventions have little to no impact. Within education, one of the most heavily funded cause areas, one recent analysis found that 90% of interventions had weak or no positive effects.
However, whilst many social interventions don’t have significant impact, the most effective interventions are over 10 times as effective as the average intervention. This means that the distribution of interventions by effectiveness is ‘heavy-tailed’; in other words, most of the impact comes from only a few interventions. If we think carefully and target the few interventions which generate most of the impact, we can do the most good with our donations.
How can we work out which solutions to the most pressing problems are the most impactful?
GiveWell recommends charities which implement effective interventions in global health. Their top charity, the Against Malaria Foundation, distributes insecticide-treated bednets which have been shown to be highly effective in preventing the spread of malaria. Other effective charities advocate for deworming programs, provide vitamin A supplementation and facilitate direct cash transfers to the poor.
A similar organisation, Animal Charity Evaluators, researches the most cost-effective interventions to reduce animal suffering. Within this cause area, charities which target farmed animals typically have the most impact and campaigns encouraging corporations to use cage-free eggs have been shown to be one highly impactful intervention. On one estimate, cage-free corporate campaigns save 250 hens for every dollar spent.
It’s harder to assess the impact of funding research on existential risks. However, expected value estimates suggest that such research could be 10-100 times more impactful than the most effective charities around today.
This is because the decisions we make now will have a large impact on the trajectory of our future. For example, if we can ensure that powerful Artificial Intelligence is developed for the benefit of humanity, we can vastly improve the wellbeing of the many generations to come. Funding organisations which conduct research into this field (such as the Future of Humanity Institute) are likely to be the best way to understand and mitigate the risks posed by new technologies.
If even a fraction of the $19.3bn spent on higher education last year was re-distributed to the most cost-effective interventions, we could see dramatic progress on these major problems and still keep higher education as a top priority. With just $50m, the Against Malaria Foundation would be able to fund all planned bednet distributions. If just 1% of the higher education budget went to efforts to reduce factory farming, funding in this space would almost double. That same figure is also 20 times the total amount spent on AI safety research last year.
Head of Research