How effective are effective altruists?

14 Mins read

In Conversation with Samuel Hilton, Executive Director of Effective Altruism London


Effective altruism (EA), dubbed by the New York Times as the crossroads between charity and rationality, is challenging preconceived notions about what it means to live an ethical life.

Similarly, philosopher Peter Singer, one of the founders of the movement, describes EA in his TED Talk as a combination of “the heart and the head”.

I had first heard about the movement from a friend attending University College London.

She’d come across it after discovering there was an EA student society established at the college, and like me, couldn’t shake her overall skepticism surrounding it.

For one, the society’s diversity numbers were lacking.

For an organisation whose focus is charity and philanthropy, this threw up immediate ‘white saviour’ red flags.

Still, the idea of combining analysis with quantitative data to assess and evaluate one’s charitable efforts to better improve them was a difficult notion to argue with—in theory.

From a philanthropic standpoint, what this idealistic balance accomplishes is a most effective way to benefit others.

Using evidence and analysis to determine which causes and charities to work on, effective altruists believe they can maximise the good of one’s charitable efforts.

Samuel Hilton is one such effective altruist.

More specifically, he’s the Founder and Executive Director at Effective Altruism’s London chapter.

Working out of Google’s Campus London in Shoreditch, I sat down with the charity entrepreneur in the campus’ basement cafe, a workspace dedicated to other start-up entrepreneurs, to acquire some insight into the ins-and-outs of the organisation.

The setting was no coincidence given the movement’s popularity amongst tech giants like Elon Musk and Google.org director, Jacquelline Fuller, and I wondered if any of the surrounding voices that filled the room considered themselves effective altruists, too.

After watching Peter Singer’s TED Talk on EA, and after reading all the articles supporting the movement in big name publications like the New York Times and The Atlantic, I still felt mostly in the dark when it came to how the movement actually organises itself on a micro-scale.

In practice, how effective are effective altruists?

When looking for the most effective way to make a positive impact, was charity even the most effective way to do so? What about impacting policy?

Or shifting oppressive narratives such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia—narratives that structurally keep populations oppressed and living in poverty?

As Sam would soon inform me, EA does extend their practice beyond charity work;

“It’s not just about charities. There’s three areas: charities, like which are the most effective, careers, like how to have a career path which has the most positive impact on the world, and then the third thing that the effective altruism community has done a lot of research on is what are the most important causes.”

This was created by Will MacAskill, he was the philosopher that started this whole thing and invented the idea that effective altruism was more of a philosophical, moral movement to want to do better in the world.

Yes. It kind of grew off that accidentally.

Different organisations all around the world thinking about how to do good effectively, a few of them facing Oxford were bundles under the same roof.

As a sort of backend name they decided to call themselves the Centre for Effective Altruism, just for operational purposes or registering to be a charity, and then the word effective altruism got applied to two of these organisations.

Other groups started using the title as well, and it caught on.

It’s not the fact that EA is a philosophy or a movement or a community, rather than an organisation.

It’s less of any sort of deliberate decision from any particular individual to the best of my knowledge, but more of just what happens around the world where people are starting to think, “Hey, we’re living in a society where we can have a big impact from the rest of the world and in a society where we’ve got the tools and the resources around the world  to make a difference and let’s see how best we can do that”—and it turns out that those groups work best together.

What about the viewpoint that, well, I suppose effective altruism accomplishes this by also evaluating which careers are the most effective, but there’s the idea that charity or aid in general is counterproductive. That it creates this cycle of constantly having to rely on aid. Africa has found itself in this cycle. How does effective altruism consider this when assessing which charities they should or should not donate to?

It’s obviously more nuance than ‘all aid is good, all aid is bad’. It’s not that simple, in the same way you don’t say, ‘everything the government does is good, everything the government does is bad,’ you say, ‘hey, some things are bad, some things are good, could be better, could be worse.’

You look at the history of aid and development, like international aid grew a lot after the second world war in a sense of, “Hey, we’ve got this grim community, we’re trying to fix it, there’s a lot of problems with it.”

The aid skepticism movement blew up a few decades after that, a lot of people saying, “Hey, we’ve been doing this for awhile, it’s not really working.” In the, I think 1990’s, people really started to do the sort of research about what actually does work.

The Disease Control Prevention Society started to quantify different health interventions.

Economists were thinking about what interventions work, how you can move long term impacts, how you can think about the economic underpinnings to avoid a situation where your aid money is leading to dependency or inflation or any of these kinds of factors.

I think this comes in quite strongly when you’re evaluating any charity to the point where to some degree, when you’re trying to choose what metric to start evaluating them on, there are some things that seem to be more dependent than others.

A lot of this research has led to the Centre for Effective Altruism to make some informed choices.

They do not support donating money to governments, due to the corruption involved, and therefore have shifted their focus to NGO’s.

To evaluate which NGO’s are the most impactful, EA uses data from randomised controlled trials (RCT’s) in field experiments, which isolate the effects of a particular intervention in any given social setting.

RCT’s, however, possess a handful of ‘political blindspots’, as Emily Clough points out in her criticism of EA,

“RCT’s only capture a narrow view of impact. While they are good at measuring the proximate effects of a program on its immediate target subjects, RCTs are bad at detecting any unintended effects of a program.”

Despite a few rebuttals surrounding specific examples of where this could take place, Hauke Hillebrandt, in his response to Clough’s essay, states, “the positive benefits of ODA vastly outweigh the cases in which it had negative consequences (compare disease eradication and the effects of social and economic assistance).”

Still, the measure of the extent of these negative consequences remains unclear, and perhaps even impossible to quantify through numbers.

Angus Deaton, a professor specialising in economics and poverty at Princeton, dubs this the ‘aid curse’:

“Development is neither a financial nor a technical problem, but a political problem, and the aid industry often makes the politics worse.”

There’s a few articles like, “How not to be a white in shining armour” about this topic and how one of the big charity organisers focused on managing health interventions because creating a healthier community empowers people to go out and be educated and get jobs and be healthy—a very high level area of intervention to focus slightly more on.

It’s certainly the case that if you care about impact, if you do this research, you can find charities where there’s very strong evidence that they’re not having negative economic effects.

Anyone who says ‘No, all charity is useless’, has got an incredibly basic view of the world.

There is a book called Dead Aid, written by Dambisa Moyo. She’s an economist, Harvard educated, and from Africa (more specifically, Zambia). The position in this book is that aid and charity are not doing Africa any good. You could make the argument that emergency aid was one type of aid that could, but she’s very much on the end of the spectrum where Africa needs absolutely no aid.

I would accept that perhaps most charities aren’t doing much good. I would believe that.

Not ‘no good’. There are some out there that are actively harmful.

Will MacAskill in his book talks about a charity called ‘Play Pumps’ which put water pumps in little villages which were attached to roundabouts.

When kids played in the roundabouts, they pumped water. The pumps weren’t free-spinning, people had to spend their day pushing this roundabout pump around.  They were much harder to repair and generally made things worse.

The most shocking thing about this is I looked up the charity today and you can still donate, they’re still out there collecting money and going out and making the world worse.

How common it is that aid makes the world worse, even on a micro or macro scale—I don’t know.

That all aid is bad, I strongly disagree with that. You can find ways of helping.

Although Sam was not familiar with Dead Aid, I did come across a blog entry on 80,000 Hours, an organisation under EA that provides research on the most impactful career paths, which reviewed the arguments set fourth by Moyo.

Now considered a major body of work under foreign aid skepticism and decolonial perspectives, Dead Aid discusses the cycle of relying on aid that African governments fall into, and that by cutting off these sources, governments would be forced to search for other modes of finance.

By observing that economic growth has stayed constant despite an increase in foreign aid in African nations, Moyo proposed replacing foreign aid with other sources of finance that would come from opening up countries to foreign capital markets.

David Leon argues against this in his review, pointing out that the 2009 release date of the book was “colossally ill-timed” (given the economic collapse of 2008) and relies too unquestionably on outmoded neoliberalism.

“Moyo would have us replace foreign aid as a source of finance for poorer countries with increased access to global capital markets. But the events of 2008-2009 have brought into question the wisdom of relying on such a volatile a thing as financial markets.”

Leon also highlights the book’s focus on criticising financial aid pumped solely into governments, which as discussed, EA consciously works to avoid for reasons pertaining to corruption that both effective altruists and Moyo could certainly agree on.

At the same time, it is possible that Moyo’s evidence on the negative long-term social and political consequences of aid can still be applied to NGO’s and the blind spots of RCT’s, as previously pointed out by Deaton and Clough.

Moreover, the generalising perspective through which the entire continent of Africa is constantly boxed into translates one of the many overarching negative socioeconomic impacts of aid perspectives.

Each country in Africa faces its own unique set of financial, political, and social obstacles of which most in the western world are unbeknownst or disillusioned to; and are therefore unaware of how impactful or harmful a charity may be in one African country compared to another.

Not all African countries are in dire need of water pumps, mosquito nets, and deworming initiatives, though mainstream charity discourse would have most believe these issues are equally as urgent throughout the entire continent.

What sort of initiatives is EA London involved in?

We mostly run events. We do networking and social events where people come and chat.

We do workshops where people engage with a particular useful skill set that would be better at helping them do good, we have taught some speakers.

Why do we do this? We do this because we want to change how people act in the world.

Are there any examples of anyone who has come up to you and said they’ve changed their career path at one of these events?

All the time. 

We did some career workshops. We had hundreds of people go to those career workshops this year. 

I think roughly 50 percent of them make a change to their career path as a result.

So what has been the most attractive career for people? What do they think makes the biggest difference?

There’s no single answer to that.

Does anything come to mind, maybe for you?

I like the idea of what I’m doing now, which is charity entrepreneurship. So setting up organisations I think can be highly useful for the world.

I think that there’s not enough focus on the third sector, on creating new institutions for point of view of what’s most effective.

In ‘The Logic of Effective Altruism’, Peter Singer is not to shy to point out, “They [effective altruists] are pragmatic realists, not saints, so very few claim to live a fully ethical life.”

I was in agreement with Sam on the perspective that there wasn’t enough focus on evaluating different points of view for what was most effective.

For example, Deaton’s advice on effective modes of action differ widely from Singer’s.

Shifting the focus from causes such as bed nets and worms, he instead advises:

“…go to Washington or London and work to stop the harm that rich countries do; to oppose the arms trade, the trade deals that benefit only the pharmaceutical companies, the protectionist tariffs that undermine the livelihoods of African farmers; and to support more funding to study tropical disease and health care.”

I think certainly, when I say what’s most effective, people choose a cause and set up an effective institution to do that. And there’s, I don’t think, enough people being innovative in the areas based upon that.

So charity entrepreneurship, and also my background is in policy, so working in the policy field.

Would you include careers that tackle policy-making as the careers that are the most effective at instigating change for the better?


One of the things that’s come out of how to choose a career is that the people who have the biggest impact on the world are the people who get to the top of what they’re doing, and the people who enjoy their jobs the most are the people who are really good at what they’re doing.

All in all, your personal fit for a career path should be the most important thing deciding what you work on. And there’s going to be certain pushes and pulls for better careers and worse careers.

The career advice on 80,000 hours is amazing and in-depth and genuinely incredibly useful and I’m really impressed by it.

Amongst some of the most recommended careers on 80,000 Hours are jobs in banking and finance because they draw in a lot of money.

The logic behind this being, the more money you earn, the more you have to give.

Money is power, as the saying goes.

The inconsistencies apparent here, however, are glaring.

If the point of having a careers sector is to extend the impact of EA beyond charities, then why label the most impactful careers as those which draw in the most income—income that would just be redistributed back into charity?

Again, we find ourselves running into the ‘aid curse’ dilemma; aid does not exist in a financial vacuum—its implications are social and political.

What happens when there’s a gap? Is anyone interested in helping out with Black Lives Matter, (BLM) or is anyone interested in refugees?

So, effective altruism, like I said before, very much focuses on how you as an individual can do good. So far, that’s been the focus.

For example, someone asked me recently, does EA work with companies to help companies do good? We’ve not done that.

What we are doing is creating guides for people who are in companies to engage with their own corporations, to make sure they’re acting ethically, to engage with their colleagues, to engage with CSR, (Corporate Social Responsibility) and the places they work.

So once again, the point isn’t to find the companies but to find the individuals who want to interact with their own organisations.

This means that when you think about where you want to do good, the question is where can you, or even potentially the EA community, do good on the margin. Which means looking at what other people are already doing, and thinking about where your impact is going to be.

So, on the one hand, looking for the most neglected issues is super key for doing that. If there’s a really important issue that no one is putting any time into, then grab that one.

Simply welcoming ‘someone who cares enough’ with open arms to come forward and fill the gap is, quite frankly, an inadequate proposed solution.

Oftentimes with poverty as a result of racial and structural oppression, those who care most and are most educated regarding their situation (likely due to firsthand experience) face certain socioeconomic barriers that would make it difficult for them to carry through with the demands that EA would entail.

Effective altruism could certainly benefit from positive discrimination to diversify perspectives surrounding which issues are deemed the most impactful, which metrics are used to determine proposed solutions, and to hold ill-informed white narratives accountable.

Are there any initiatives for refugees or BLM within EA going on right now?

I’ve not heard of anything related to Black Lives Matter, but then I do focus a lot on London. So potentially it’s a bigger deal in the United States, so I can’t comment for the global effective altruism community.

As for refugees, I’ve definitely heard of people talking about it, there was someone recently on our online community in London looking for translators for a project they were working on to do for refugees.

How big is the community in London?

It’s hard to judge. We have an email list of about 3,000 people. We have a Facebook group with about one and a third thousand people.

The last event we had was a social event, so just, ‘Hey, come to the pub’, that attracted about 50 people, which implies the community is decent-sized.

It’s hard to know other than that. I reckon it’s probably less than 150 people that have attended two events in the last 6 months.

But it’s a growing movement, you were saying.

We have a regular social for the London community every month. It was bigger this month than it’s been previously. The previous month was bigger than the previous month’s, so yeah it’s a growing movement.

Has there ever been an incident where you were donating to a charity and you realised that the charity was more harmful than it was good, and you had to reassess your charities and causes?

I reassess which charities I’m giving to all the time.

I don’t think I’ve ever given to a charity that I’ve found out to be more harmful than good, but part of growing as a person who tries to help others is to practice.

Sam splits the money he donates between global poverty causes and causes involved in building the effective altruism community in order to do good more effectively.

In terms of specific global poverty causes, his focus is mainly on how improving health can alleviate global poverty.

“The two charities I’ve given the most money to would probably be The Against Malaria Foundation, and the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, which deals with intestinal worms.”

In terms of ranking the effectiveness of both charities, The Against Malaria Foundations leads to a life saved in every two and three thousand pounds going to it, as well as preventing hundreds of cases of non-fatal malaria.

The deworming charity, admittedly, has slightly less obvious impacts.

“They mostly map on certain late in life benefits, potentially because people who are young can get dewormed which should expect to save some lives, but mostly they’re growing and becoming healthy and being able to have an impact on society.”

The question, however, still stands—what would be the most effective way to do so?

Besides donating to pre-existing charities recommended by EA’s online resources, I was not convinced that much original or revolutionary work was taking place amongst EA’s London chapter, particularly in a city as resourceful as London.

With the focus of the organisation appearing so dependent on the interests, abilities, and choices of the individual (where the individual here tends steeply towards the white demographic), gaps in knowledge pertaining to perspectives on the most important causes and their impacts are all too evident.

That this focus remains the chosen operative force in the face of founding group principles is an irony hiding in plain sight.

Authors note: If any students at UAL are interested in forming an EA student society, they can get in touch with Sam at sam@ealondon.com.

Featured images by Janay Baade.


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