- Published 21 Apr 2021
- Updated 23 May 2021
This post is part of a series on common myths and misconceptions about charity. Taking time to learn the facts will help prevent the spread of misinformation and inspire more people to use their resources effectively to improve the world.
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.
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.
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 more examples of effective altruist individuals and organisations working towards systemic change.
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.
There are many highly effective charities that advocate 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.
You can help improve — and even save — lives by donating to one of many highly effective organisations. Consider making a giving pledge and joining our worldwide community of like-minded people who are working to make the world a better place.
This post is part of an update of our "Myths About Charity" page. Multiple authors contributed.
See, for example:
Boey, G. (2015). Effective Altruism And Its Blind Spots. 3 Quarks Daily, [online].
Cough, E. (2015). Effective Altruism's Political Blind Spot. Boston Review, [online].
Deaton, A. (2015). The Logic of Effective Altruism. Boston Review, [online].
Srinivasan, A. (2015). Stop the Robot Apocalypse. London Review of Books, 37(18).
Wells, T. (2021). Effective Altruism is Not Effective. Quarks Daily, [online]. ↩︎