Examining the impulse to give locally helps us better understand — and navigate — our moral intuitions.
A principle tenet of effective giving is that your money can often do more good when you donate it to the world’s poorest places. For example, Will MacAskill, a co-founder of effective altruism and Giving What We Can, estimates that your money will do about 100x more good to “benefit the extreme poor” than to “benefit typical citizens of the United States” (MacAskill 22) due to the stark income differences between lower and higher income countries. And the charity evaluator GiveWell agrees that each dollar has more power when donated internationally.1
Yet this analysis is sometimes met with resistance, with questions like: Shouldn’t you help out members of your own community first? or Don’t you have a special obligation to the people near you?
It’s understandable that some of us may feel a strong pull to give locally. After all, while higher-income countries don’t face poverty on the same scale as lower-income countries (in which it’s far more extreme, and far deadlier)2 there is no shortage of suffering, inequality, and illness in high-income countries. And these are the problems that are right in front of our eyes; we may even know people affected by them.
But I think it’s worth more closely examining the idea that our obligations to people in need change based on our proximity to them. Where does this pull towards giving locally come from? How do we weigh it against the desire to maximise our impact and do the most good we can? Is there room for both types of giving within the effective altruism framework? These are some of the questions I’d like to explore.
For much of history, our world was limited to those who were in the same location as us. Humans have been living in permanent settlements since the Agricultural Revolution, which happened a little more than 12,000 years ago. While the jury is out as to when exactly globalization began, many place it around the time of Columbus’s voyage to America (only about 530 years ago), and others date it much later, starting in the 1800s or even after World War II! (Of course, some also date it earlier, but National Geographic considers “the most well-known early example” of globalization to be the Silk Road, which still dates to less than 3,000 years ago.)
So it seems likely that for the vast majority of our time living in communities, we certainly didn’t know much about what was going on outside our local bubbles.
And even when we started to, we couldn’t do much about it. Only very recently have we developed the infrastructure to affect change in other parts of the world. Thus, our acts of “doing good” were limited to helping out those in our immediate surroundings. Since this limitation was lifted only fairly recently, it’s unsurprising that our moral impulses (which likely have at least some basis in evolution) may still be lagging behind.
Now that we can help those in other countries, however, there’s a very good case for doing so. In fact, according to an estimate from The Lancet, it would cost about $9 billion to provide “full coverage of basic WASH and waste services [clean water, sanitation, hygiene, and waste management] in existing public health facilities in the 46 UN designated least developed countries.” That’s under 2% of the total amount Americans donated to charity in 2021. Directing money to high-impact causes abroad can do a tremendous amount of good.
If we are evolutionarily primed to prefer giving locally, though, then why do international disasters strike our moral chords so intensely? In other words, why are many so motivated to give internationally after disasters, but not motivated to fund organizations increasing stability in lower-income countries in non-disaster times? Perhaps we need to examine this disconnect further.
Here’s one possible explanation:
It seems likely that we are more emotionally affected by the unexpected, especially when the unexpected shakes our personal sense of safety.3 This “surprise factor,” along with the sense of urgency and magnitude created by extensive media coverage, perhaps explains why events like the war in Ukraine, Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico, the massive earthquakes in Haiti and Japan about a decade ago, and similarly brutal international disasters often motivate substantial influxes of donations from around the world.
In contrast, extreme poverty in low-income countries is a consistent and ongoing problem. It falls within our paradigm of “normal,” and as such, does not trigger the same type of emotional response (though it should, if we really think about the fact that thousands needlessly die every day from preventable causes, just because of where they happened to be born.)
I would argue that our response to international disasters underscores that we do feel a sense of compassion and responsibility for those outside of our local communities; it’s just that for some, it can take a shock to the system (and/or the sense of extreme urgency/magnitude facilitated by media coverage) to access that compassion.4
When we understand how our psychology works (and that it isn’t always rational), perhaps we’ll be more equipped to extend our compassion to people who aren’t experiencing suffering and risks to their health and safety because of an unexpected disaster, but rather on an everyday basis — simply due to a lack of funding for global health and development where they happen to live.
It is, in a sense, a disaster of the largest scale that the suffering in certain areas of the world is often thought of as “par for the course” when many of us are actually in a pretty good position to prevent it.
Another way to challenge this preference for helping out your “own” community first is to expand the definition of what your “own” community is.
In other words, do you think of yourself as a member of just your particular town, or do you also think of yourself as a member of your country? What about a member of your particular region of the world? Do you consider yourself a member of humankind more generally — a citizen of the world? What about a member of an ecosystem that includes non-human animals as well as humans? Where we decide to draw the borders of what we consider to be “our community” is somewhat arbitrary; there is no clear place to draw the line.
The philosopher Peter Singer popularized a similar idea in his book The Expanding Circle, in which he notes that the project of deciding who warrants our “moral concern” has changed in scope throughout history. He writes:
“The circle of altruism has broadened from the family and tribe to the nation and race, and we are beginning to recognize that our obligations extend to all human beings. The process should not stop there…The only justifiable stopping place for the expansion of altruism is the point at which all whose welfare can be affected by our actions are included within the circle of altruism” (Singer)
This gradual expansion of our altruistic intuitions shows that we are slowly beginning to think of ourselves as citizens of the world — with a responsibility to all we can impact. So perhaps it’s time to expand the definition of community.
In addition to the arbitrariness of deciding where our “own” community ends, let’s also acknowledge the arbitrariness of where it begins — in other words, the “luck” of where (in both time and space) we happen to be born.
In A Theory of Justice, philosopher John Rawls advocated for choosing principles of justice “behind a veil of ignorance.” In essence, he proposed that in order to remove the biases that might negatively affect our ability to reason in a fair and just manner, we should pretend that we don’t know anything about our “place in society, [our] class position or social status, nor [do we know our] fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, [our] intelligence, strength, and the like” (Rawls 11).
So let’s embrace Rawl’s thought experiment and imagine for a second that we don’t know what “community” we will be part of. Will we be born into a high-income country where we won’t have to worry too much about clean water and sufficient food, and where we’ve already largely eradicated killers like tuberculosis, diarrhoeal disease, and malaria? Or will we be born into a place where extreme poverty is common, and where our lives are more likely to be cut short by a whole host of deadly (yet preventable) conditions?5
Now, given that we don’t know where we will end up, would we advocate for setting up society with tightly-drawn community boundaries, where people only help others who are in the same community as they are? And what would be the consequences of such a decision?
It seems likely that if we were born into an impoverished family in a low-income country, any “local” community resources might not be enough to really help us get by. After all, with so many struggling to meet basic needs, who would be left in our “local” community to extend a hand? In contrast, wanting for resources or aid in a higher-income country would be preferable, since many others in the community would probably be well-equipped to help out.
Because of this discrepancy, if everyone was limited to only receiving help from the people directly around them, global inequality would surely worsen. And that’s certainly not the world most of us would choose!
Let me be clear: I’m not trying to advocate ignoring your own community and spending all your efforts elsewhere. I would instead argue that there is most decidedly room for supporting those directly around you and those farther away, even within the effective altruism framework.6 Here’s why:
At its core, effective altruism is about applying more careful thinking to the act of doing good in order to maximise our impact. It’s this commitment to more closely examining how we can best help others — not necessarily the fruits of that analysis — that effective altruists share.
Thus, while some effective altruists might choose to only donate internationally, others might give both locally and internationally, and still others might decide to act locally but give internationally. Being a “good” local community member generally means showing up, not just writing checks, so smaller donations coupled with active participation might be more impactful in a local setting, anyway (depending on the needs of the specific community, of course)! And given that it’s far more practical to volunteer your time and efforts in your local community than to do so overseas, but just as easy to send money overseas than nationally, acting locally while giving internationally isn’t a bad diversification framework.
Regardless of the framework you choose, most people who are passionate about effective giving would likely agree that the current percentage of international giving is far too low — only about 6% of the total charitable donations made by residents of the U.S. are donated internationally. Thus, there is certainly room for us to examine — and perhaps challenge — some of the biases that lead us to deprioritize international giving, especially since it allows us to do more good with every dollar and is so neglected when compared to local causes.
I’ll leave you with this: If you were given the power to (at little cost to yourself) dramatically improve the lives of those whose suffering is too often overlooked, would you do so? Or would you first ask if they lived nearby?
1. Of course, an organization working on a particularly high-impact policy change in a high-income country could do incredible amounts of good, if the change were to be successful. The same is true for organizations trying to mitigate existential and catastrophic risk. The goal here is not to say that giving internationally is always better than giving locally, just that it often allows us to magnify our impact, doing more good with each dollar we spend.
2. For a comparison of global poverty and domestic poverty, see MacAskill’s Doing Good Better, p.184
3. See this 2007 study about how unexpected auditory stimulation provokes increased activation of the amygdala, the part of the brain that regulates emotional response
4. The Center for Disaster Philanthropy’s analysis of 2017 and 2018 disaster giving among U.S. households cites “media coverage as a driving factor for disaster giving.” That said, the scale of the disaster as well as personal connection to it were also top motivating factors reported by disaster relief donors. See: https://www.issuelab.org/resources/34757/34757.pdf
5. We can ask similar questions about the time we are born into. Will we be born into a time where the climate is still livable and nuclear war unlikely? Or will we be born into a time when climate-related deaths are the norm and nuclear war could happen any day? Asking these questions may encourage us to extend our circle of concern to those who will (hopefully) come after us, and to donate to organizations working to safeguard the long-term future.
6. In fact, GiveDirectly, one of the charities our donation platform supports, runs cash-transfer programs both in the U.S. and internationally.