This profile is part of the "People of Giving What We Can" series by Alexandra Heller.
Jo Duyvestyn is a Research Assistant at the World Mosquito Program, a research program at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. This not-for-profit aims to protect the global community from mosquito-borne diseases such as Zika, dengue, and chikungunya by introducing a bacteria that reduces the rate of viral replication in affected mosquitoes. After they are released into the wild, the mosquitoes with the bacteria reproduce with and replace the natural mosquito population.
While the bacteria appears to be effective, the World Mosquito Program doesn’t know exactly how it works. So Jo and her team are working to discover the mechanism behind the viral inhibition, and she’s happy with how her job aligns with her EA values.
Outside of work, Jo often uses ideas from effective altruism to put things in perspective. Reflecting on a particularly bad day, she writes: “My bike tire was flat, my drink bottle leaked in my bag, our house flooded in the weekend and is now very stinky… But on the bright side, I'm not blind, soon at least 10 other people won't be either [thanks to the work of organizations like Seva and the Fred Hollows Foundation], and I'm on track for the year with my Giving What We Can Pledge.”
I chatted with Jo to learn what drew her to take the Giving What We Can pledge, the issues she cares most about, and how she thinks about charitable giving.
Why did you join Giving What You Can?
I joined almost immediately after I learned about effective altruism. I was doing some research into morality and ethics (which I had never delved into before) and I came across Peter Singer’s TED talk on effective altruism. That same day, I was talking to my boyfriend about it, and particularly about Giving What We Can because the idea stuck with me. I thought, “It makes so much sense, why doesn’t everyone do this?”
Having just started full-time work, I suddenly had this income that I never had before as a student, and though I was excited about that, it was clear to me I could live happily on less. I told him, “After I pay off my student loan, I’m going to take that pledge.” And almost at the same time, I realised that actually, that’s probably what everyone says — “After I do this, after I pay off the mortgage, after the kids are through school...” — so I pledged that same night. My involvement around EA grew from there.
What are the issues in the world that you care most deeply about?
I think inequality in the world is what motivates me, and is why I'm drawn towards global poverty charities. I just think it’s not right that we have all this money and others don’t and there’s no reason for it (maybe it’s a childish view of the world but maybe I just never accepted that grown-up mantra of "life is unfair, so get used to it"). I don’t understand how people can think it’s more important to have nice things than to be spending their time and money on reducing suffering that we all know exists. I know I'm not doing everything, that I could do more — and I’m learning to find my balance with that. But one of the things I struggle with is seeing people be so extravagant and wasteful when it comes to money, and not valuing it for what it could mean to someone else.
I like the idea of being more rational about my giving, and I’ve definitely done that since joining GWWC, though I think emotions still play into my cause area preference somewhat. In spite of all the very strong arguments and the knowledge that my brain can’t even comprehend all its biases, I still find it harder to care as much about suffering in the future knowing that there’s suffering now.
I guess the other thing that concerns me is that not everyone gets it, not everyone clicks to EA ideas like I did. As soon as I heard about EA, I said, “Oh, this makes so much sense, it’s so obvious.” I wish the whole world could think this way, or that I could understand the difference between people who don’t get EA and the ones that do.
How do you track your contributions vs. your income?
I make monthly recurring donations through Effective Altruism Australia, which is an organization here that lets us give tax-deductible donations to the top recommended GiveWell charities, and then I also make other donations. I started using MyGiving when it was on the Giving What We Can page, but now I’ve been keeping track of it myself.
My 10% comes directly out of my paycheck into a [bank account I've set aside for giving], and then I make donations from there. I do get motivated by talking to other Giving What We Can/EA members and discussing, “How close are you? Have you hit your 10%?”
What organizations do you give to?
Through EA Australia we can reach Evidence Action, Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, Malaria Consortium, and GiveDirectly. I give a large proportion there, letting them distribute funds as they see fit. I also give a percentage to CEA, and usually allocate a portion each year on things like Giving Games or as matching money for fundraisers that our local groups do.
Do you ever find it difficult to give?
I’ve occasionally thought about the savings I could have. There are a few articles online about giving now vs. giving later, but they pretty much say to give now. I’ve never really wished I had it for myself — psychologically I never see it as money that’s mine anyway and I know I couldn’t value it the same way as the people it ends up with. I guess also that giving part of my money away has made me more conscious of the money I do spend. I think I would have not been so aware of my spending without the giving. I don’t really buy new stuff anymore. It’s money that I never had so I don't ever see it as money that I need.
Do you ever talk to people outside of the EA community about EA?
I talked to my family first. They found it strange (maybe a little irresponsible, like shouldn’t I be saving for being a grown-up and getting a house or whatever?), but now my parents and my grandfather donate instead of giving me money and are really accepting, and I think they see the happiness I get from this community.
At the local EA group, we’ve had meetups about how to talk about EA. One of the things mentioned was, “You never really know the impact you have.” I've had people that I broached the subject with and felt they ignored it, but then the next year I got notified by Against Malaria Foundation saying that those friends had donated nets for my birthday, or I got asked a question by someone about my advice on cause areas or where to donate. Despite the fact that I felt the conversation hadn’t had an impact, it had.
Have any books, documentaries, articles, or studies significantly changed the way you see giving?
After Peter Singer’s TED talk, I started researching more online, following blogs, reading Peter Singer’s books, Will MacAskill’s book, and though I can’t think of any pinpoint examples right now, I’m very certain they all impacted the way I think, like the framing of giving as an exciting opportunity. I also like Beth Barnes’ TEDx talk, I think because she has a really passionate and motivating way of really simply sharing all the key ideas of EA, an optimistic outlook.
I like podcast interviews, for example Sam Harris with Peter Singer or William MacAskill (and the one with Nick Bostrom). I don’t know how any of them specifically changed my behavior, but I know they all help coordinate or deepen my thoughts a little more.
I found Julia Wise’s blog, Giving Gladly, really helpful when I was new, and first wrapping my head around spending money when every $4 buys a malaria net. You just need to split your money into money for giving and money for yourself, and still let yourself have ice cream.
I think being a part of the EA community is really important in order to have people to talk to who have similar ideas. I’ve found the community has helped me shape some of my thoughts that weren’t fully articulated: when you talk to people, you can understand more about your own values. I found EA Global X events really valuable to attend the times I’ve been. I was a panelist last year and made good friends through that. I think that’s been pretty important for me to stay motivated with my pledge and keep up to date with EA stuff. Another thing that seems to come up, at least in our group, is being around other EAs is a way to not get frustrated by people who don’t get it. And I like being reminded that there’s emotional reasons that people are part of EA. There’s so much emphasis on the head part, and the rationality defines this movement, but we don’t need to be cold-hearted or robotic—what motivates people is the heart.
This interview is part of the “People of Giving What We Can" series which profiles a selection of the Giving What We Can community. The Giving What We Can is a community of people from all walks of life, with different perspectives and motivations for giving – all united by their desire to make a significant commitment to use their income to effectively helping others. Read more member stories. Share your effective giving story to help inspire others to give more, and more effectively.