PSA – Effective Altruism

The Old State of Giving

At some point in our lives, we want to do better.

Maybe we take a look back and realize that what got us to this point, successful or not, has to do with luck. Perhaps we have felt the air-conditioning in our home, or apartment, and we have decided that it would be painful even to imagine having to live in the heat of a climate-changing world. In our thoughts about Bangladesh’s continued flooding, or in the state of palm oil plantations in Papua New Guinea, or in the continued plight of Malaria in sub-Saharan Africa, we have come to the conclusion that while we are so lucky to be alive, the opposite of that, that of pain, is asymmetrically distributed.

Many people in the Bible belt, people I know personally, have wanted to do good with offering 10% of their income to churches or missionaries. Their idea is that by spreading the word of God, a new mindset would allow people to realize their place in the great majesty of the firmament. Is it possible that, coupled with this, there is the Protestant work ethic? A little, “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality? Who’s to say? For the longest time, I persisted in the belief that giving was giving, and although yes at times we would hear about breaking news stories of embezzlement within non-profits, for the most part we could rest easy with the idea that we were doing good all-around.

And then came an idea like the Roundabout PlayPump.

Giving Poorly

It was an idea that seemed like gold at the start. It was an actionable item to be built in sub-Saharan Africa, attracting the heartthrobs of the left. It offered a method for displaced work among communities that allowed them to pull themselves out of despondency with clean water, attracting the mentality of the right. It was a merry-go-round for kids, who would be able to turn the roundabout, and while they were playing and building relationships, their play would pump fresh water out of a reservoir. Beyonce and Jay-Z were in on this. Laura Bush was in on this.

What could go wrong?

Well, for starters, the pump wasn’t a very good pump. The amount of torque required would mean that kids would need to turn the playpump 27 hours each day (an obvious impossibility) in order to meet water needs.

Because of this, the child labor seemed ill-fitting as a vision for bringing fresh water, yet relegating the work then to elderly women seemed equally awful. Just imagine old women rotating this poor pump all day and we can only begin to see the Sisyphean moral tragedy of the thing.

So it was a failure, both a moral failure and a practical one. It’s a shame considering the millions of dollars that went into the venture that could have gone to other things.

The lesson is that wanting to do good simply isn’t good enough. We have to be willing not just to go into the prospect of altruism with good intentions, but we must also be clear-eyed and coldly calculating on just what the action is, so that we can be most beneficial to communities.

Effective Altruism

Luckily, Will MacAskill is able to help. Author of the above book, Doing Good Better, he is the founder of Effective Altruism, which aims to find the processes that do the most amount of good for the largest amount of people per dollar. Organizations like Give Well seek to do the hard research for you of what charities offer the best chance at saving lives.

This is all new for me, within the past month or two. I am in a place of affluence. Despite the fact that I am a teacher, the reality is that I am a teacher in a developed nation, with a washing machine and dishwasher and other labor-saving devices, and the sheer amount of wealth I am sitting on with just the assumed amenities of our home means much more than I ever thought. Recent books like Factfulness have reminded me that while we are doing much better for the world compared to the recent past, we can still do better.


It can be easy in 2020 to pull everything apart into stable binaries. Giving and not giving, developed and developing, health and sickness. Even now, with coronavirus, people assume that you either recover or die, yet growing evidence suggests that there is a middle ground to coronavirus, one of paranoid delusions and increased risk of depression. We have to be better at processing the nuance of topics, and altruism is no different.

I’ll have more to say on the matter I’m sure when I have learned more about the movement. Suffice it to say, I wanted to get this newly acquired change in perspective out as soon as possible so that I could assist in making big differences that could save more lives and make more of a difference in what will hopefully be a new era of philanthropy.

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