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Tuesday, 15 November 2016 05:36

Effective Altruism: Concerns, Ideas and Suggestions for Strengthening Our Movement

Written by  Jessica Bridgers and Janice Cox

As animal advocates who wake up, go to bed, and dream about how we can change the world for animals, it is undeniable that the one thing that we can all agree upon is that we must strive to be as effective as possible in this work. Without careful consideration, introspection, and strategic planning, our movement will not be able to gain the traction necessary for systemic and lasting change.

pigsThis is why we have taken a keen interest in the “Effective Altruism” movement. Effective Altruism (EA) suggests that we should donate time and money to causes and charities which maximize the reduction of suffering per dollar spent. This sounds very logical and desirable. Peter Singer, a firm proponent of EA, provided a good example of its analytical cost-benefit approach as follows: One could provide one guide dog for a blind American, which is a good thing to do (and this intervention has attracted many donors). Or, for the same amount of money, cure between 400 and 2000 blind people in developing countries. In this case, it makes sense, of course, to use our resources to cure blindness in as many people as possible, rather than helping one blind person closer to home. We appreciate this emphasis on rationalizing giving and charity, where rather than giving based on a gut-feeling approach, we consider where we can reduce the most suffering most effectively.

Another premise we can appreciate is that suffering is considered equivalent among sentient beings. This elevates attention to nonhuman animals within the EA movement and has especially promoted focus on farm animals. For example, Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE) has an especially informative chart on its website, showing the number of animals killed as farm animals, at shelters, for clothing, and in labs on one side, and dollars donated to farm animals, shelters, labs, or other causes on the other. While the vast majority of such animals killed are farm animals, they make up a tiny proportion of donations received (shelters and other causes receive the majority of donations). We are grateful that this perspective can help those working in the field and those supporting the field of animal protection in thinking more rationally and fairly about animals and their suffering, and how best to alleviate that suffering.

However, despite these benefits, we find much to value in the perspectives outlined last year by Marianne Sullivan and Jasmin Singer on Our Hen House, which they presented at an event exploring effective altruism within the Animal Studies Initiative at New York University. The animal protection movement, especially when considered on an international scale, is enormously complex. As Sullivan and Singer point out, where effective altruism can in many ways more easily be applied to human suffering, when it comes to animals, we still face the problem of convincing most humans that the suffering of animals is worth considering at all. In many human-centered interventions, there is a clear benefit to humans. But as animal advocates, we still have constituencies to educate, influence and persuade – and are often asking people to reconsider the way they live their lives and make food choices. Humanitarians are almost universally celebrated. Animal advocates, particularly those who stand up for less culturally-accepted animals, like farm animals, rodents or fish, often face derision. Meanwhile, many countries in various stages of “development” host completely different contexts in which the animal protection movement must strategically analyze how best to gain traction.

We are working on a more extensive analysis that outlines some thoughts about how the EA movement could most effectively expand to embrace more comprehensive strategies to end suffering of animals. We summarize below some of the principal potential risks that have been identified regarding implementation of EA, and then outline related hopes and concerns. We welcome feedback.

  1. The EA movement quickly moves into a narrow issue focus, where it seems there is the greatest potential for quick returns on any given investment. While practical in theory, we worry that this will lead to a lack of both continuity and coverage in the movement as the many existing organizations change focus to vie for the resultant pot of funding. We also worry that a narrow issue focus cannot correct the systemic changes necessary to truly change the world for animals. Even when making major improvements within the status quo, this may leave in place an unjust and broken system. In the words of Liza Herzog: “We must transform the world, not simply make choices that appear to be rational within the current global order”.
  2. The EA movement may emphasize too small a selection of approaches and tactics that have been tried and tested mainly in the U.S., market-driven context. Other countries and regions are very different and the selected approaches successful in the U.S. cannot necessarily be generalized to other regions or an international level. Furthermore, it can reasonably be argued that the U.S., market-driven context is a main contributor to the systems responsible for international animal welfare problems, and working within this existing paradigm may reinforce, rather than reduce, this paradigm’s influence. On a grassroots level, we worry that promoting only a small selection of approaches will discourage would-be advocates who are not comfortable with a given approach (for example, leafleting), or have tried an approach and found it didn’t work in their own context, but who could contribute significantly to the movement in their own way based on their own talents and strengths.
  3. Focus on interventions rather than systemic change can lead to a reductionist understanding of a situation wherein unintended consequences are likely. To be effective, we must continually dig to identify the underlying, systemic problems. While it is necessary to soothe symptoms in the meantime, without working on the underlying causes we will not see adequate change and risk perpetually working on symptoms, with no end in sight.
  4. Preventative approaches may currently be overlooked within the EA movement. For example, in many regions, industrialized animal production does not yet have a stronghold. However, there is plenty of evidence from other regions where industrial farming has existed for decades that from an environmental, social, public health, and of course, animal welfare perspective, these systems are not desirable. Thus, we stand to make great strides in putting resources towards preventing these systems from taking root where they are not yet entrenched. However, impacts of that approach are more difficult to quantify in terms of animals saved per dollar, and so prevention may not garner the support it should within the EA movement. We believe further research should be carried out to identify and consider such approaches.
  5. The animal-focused EA movement does not yet have sufficient breadth and depth to consider international contexts and international and regional policy frameworks. While there are some examples of international cooperation, these have not yet taken full advantage of regional and international policy opportunities and networks. A recent EA assessment considered whether there were any exceptionally effective programs or interventions, which weren't being pursued by existing groups. This acknowledged that due to the state of research on animal advocacy, no such programs had been identified (but it was recognized that this could be due to the current research focus on observations of organizations' existing programs). However, a deeper and broader exploration of policy, policy processes and social change movements does indeed identify a number of important gaps. We feel this is an area that is ripe with opportunity for the achievement of lasting societal change. Whilst part of the picture concerns social change movements (see Module 1 of our Effective Advocacy course), the other aspects that needs to be fully studied and understood is the animal protection movement itself, and its history and experiences internationally. We would be more than happy to share our thoughts and experiences on this further.
  6. Also, we note that in this post about organizations they would like to see, numerous staff at Animal Charity Evaluators indicate they would like to know more about organizations working in China, India, etc., but they are unable to do so because of language and information barriers. Investigation of different social and cultural contexts is vital to effective international strategies, and there are many animal protection organizations with such knowledge and experience who would be more than willing to assist in such research.
  7. The EA approach could become unnecessarily divisive, ranking organizations among one another on seemingly objective criteria that in reality may have more to do with what is easily measurable in the short term. What is needed is movement-building, coalition building, identification and filling of niches, and cohesive short and long-term strategic planning.
  8. This leads us to a related concern of “measurability bias.” Not all advocacy outcomes are easily measured, which may cause an unnecessary “demotion” in priority to organizations using methods which may be effective, but happens to be more difficult to measure or have not yet been measured at all.
  9. The work of meta-charities, those that serve other charities, may be especially hard to quantify, and yet have a multiplier effect - as these organizations empower many other organizations to be more effective.
  10. We have concerns with any theory that one may do more good by obtaining a high-paying job, for example, as an investment banker, and then donating excess salary back into the animal protection movement. Many of the high paying positions that one can obtain, investment banker included, are playing directly into the same system that has created the problems we seek to solve. Plus, we worry about the talent wasted in these positions that could have propelled the movement forward.
  11. And lastly, we worry that the focus on numbers in EA overlooks the importance of strategic planning and “coalescing events” which propel social movements forward, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech. In a breakdown of the numbers, a speech in general may not be deemed to be an effective strategy when considering the number of lives changed per dollar used to host a speech. However, it is inarguable that this strategic speech changed the landscape and future of the civil rights movement.

Overall, we think that the EA movement brings a refreshing perspective to the animal protection movement, and appreciate the prioritization of farm animals. However, we hope that as this field continues to develop, it will strive to gain a more comprehensive picture of this complex movement and its broader environment, and engage and consult with the animal protection movement itself, which has decades of experience in all areas of animal protection advocacy in all countries and contexts. Ultimately, we hope that together as a movement, we can build each other up, cover existing gaps, improve our strategy, and bring an end to the very systems that promote the suffering of animals in every corner of our world.