Blog post

Don’t we need political action rather than charity?

3 min read
21 Apr 2021

This article is part of a series addressing common concerns about charitable giving.

Don't we need political action rather than charity?

A common criticism of effective altruism is that it neglects political action and institutional change in favour of philanthropy, which can't solve the world's most fundamental problems on its own. Many argue that, rather than giving to charity, we should focus on achieving systemic change through political action.1

It's true that political action can be an important step towards achieving meaningful, lasting change. However, the dichotomy between political action and philanthropy is a false one. Both play an important role in improving the world, and they can be mutually beneficial.

The Importance of Political Action

Giving What We Can appreciates the important need for political action. In some circumstances, political action is more appropriate and effective than donating to charity. For instance, regarding the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015, Giving What We Can Co-Founder Will MacAskill argued that lobbying for changes in immigration policy was the most effective way to help refugees. "Donations can be helpful but are unsustainable in this instance," he wrote, "whereas political action could bring about real change." On the 80,000 Hours blog, Director of Research Rob Wiblin provides nine examples of effective altruist individuals and organisations working towards systemic change.

The Importance of Charity

Charity, however, can also play an important role in improving the world. It can help improve lives directly by, for example, providing support to low-income communities. There are some highly effective charities that alleviate suffering, reduce the burdens of disease, and help children receive an education. These are amazing giving opportunities, and many of them will have a lasting impact.

In order to advocate for political change, basic needs must first be met. In communities suffering from poverty and/or disease, political action is unlikely to be a priority. Donations can lift individuals out of dire circumstances, giving them greater autonomy and enabling them to play a larger part in their community's politics, if they so desire. Indeed, many of the outcomes we associate with political action can be achieved by increasing the health and well-being of low-income communities.

In addition to directly helping individuals and communities, giving to charity can also support political or institutional change. Donations to advocacy organisations or campaigns, for instance, can play an important role in changing public opinion, which is frequently a necessary precursor to political mobilisation. And donating to charities that focus on public health can also have more systemic consequences, since issues with class mobility, educational access, and other similar problems are often symptoms of public health failings.

Effective Giving Opportunities

In addition to the systemic effects of supporting poverty-alleviating interventions, there are many effective charities advocating directly for institutional change. For instance, the Clean Air Task Force engages in legal and legislative advocacy to support climate-friendly policy change. The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security works with policymakers to prepare for threats to public health. The Nuclear Threat Initiative works with political leaders across the world to improve global nuclear policy. The Good Food Institute, in addition to developing and promoting alternatives to animal products, is working to secure fair policy and public funding for research to develop a more sustainable global food system.

This post is part of our Common Concerns About Donating to Charity page. Multiple authors contributed.