There has been a growing movement away from disinterested charity to engaging in rational and effective altruism. I wanted to write this post, because I believe that we, as engineers, should be on the forefront of this movement. This post is not an attempt to persuade engineers that they should give, although generally most engineers are reasonably well-compensated, and have the opportunity to do tremendous good through the generosity. But here I wanted to consider how and where we can give in a way that aligns with the values and principles of engineering.
A good engineer is a peculiar type of person. A good engineer is one who can solve problems and designs solutions by applying a logical, rational thinking, and using careful and clear analysis. Engineers are often not origination of research, but must analyze research to intelligently determine how the research of others applies to solving real problems. Engineers must not operate solely in the abstract and theoretical, as they constantly must solve problems of the real world, and yet they still must integrate abstract theory to create designs that will work beyond just surface level needs, that having enduring and broad application now and later.
Certainly one clear distinction between a poor engineer and a good one, is that the former is content to accept whatever tool, material, or design that is put before him first, perhaps because it is the most popular, or suggested by another, whereas a good engineer is a meticulous critic, knowing how to carefully choose between the bad, good, better, and best option. A good engineer can clearly point to the reasons why a particular component or design is better, and precisely why and how much it will yield better results or performance.
There is no reason we shouldn’t apply this same level analysis and critique to our generosity and giving. Unfortunately, this is not how the world of charity generally works. Money is typically raised by making emotional appeals, and leveraging networks of connections to attract donations. Most donations occur, not as the result of careful analysis, seeking to find the best and most efficient opportunity to deliver a desired good for others, but usually as an incidental response to some plea. Consider if we applied this approach to one of our projects, rather than analyzing our options and rationally choosing the optimum components or design for our project; we just went with whatever advertisement or buzzword we heard most recently. This would represent the epitome of lazy engineering.
As I mentioned before, there has been increasing efforts towards engaging in charity, not just as a capricious way of getting rid of money and creating some temporary emotional satisfaction, but approaching altruism with a clear goal of helping the most people in the greatest way possible with the funds we have available to us. This movement towards effective altruism, points toward the same relentless analysis of different possible mechanisms and the results they achieve, just as we engineers demand in the projects, where we spend most of our energy. This approach demands real research of interventions and the evidence of their efficacy over emotional appeals and marketing.
With this, I want to introduce a couple charities and meta-charities that epitomize effective, rational altruism:
A Charity Based on Research
Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) is a charity founded by some of the best researchers in development economics. This charity has a foundation of research work, focused first on scientifically evaluating different possible interventions to objectively determine the most promising interventions. IPA has been at the forefront of the movement to make extensive use of randomizing control trials (RCT). This form of research has been incredibly promising since it facilitates clear tests of causation. In non-randomized trials, controlling for various factors and establishing causation is incredibly difficult and prone to biases, whereas RCTs give an irrefutable cause (randomized selection) for the basis of tests.
From the results of this research, IPA has developed programs to scale up efforts in proven and promising programs that have been shown to be effective and efficient. IPA has branched off a separate organization, Evidenced Action for the funding and development of these efforts.
Givewell – Givewell is a charity evaluation organization that has begun to receive significant attention for their extremely detailed analysis of a select few charities, and how many lives are saved or impacted for each dollar spent. While their level of analysis is probably not unprecedented (it probably happens within Gate foundation, USAID, and perhaps some other foundations or agencies), but their transparency almost certainly is. They have done very careful and detailed research of top, effective charities. You can visit Givewell’s site for more information, but their current top-rated charity is the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF). From their research, it is estimated that approximately one live is saved for every $2000 donated, a remarkable return on investment, with a high level of research behind it.
For some, even engineers, this might sound excessively cool and calculating. Isn’t giving supposed to be more than just another engineering project, something emotional and/or spiritually satisfying? I don’t believe rational giving is mutually exclusive with these other forms of satisfaction. We often apply the greatest level of rationality and thought to the things we care most about. And spiritually, at least for me, as a Christ-follower, called to care for others, putting the actual result of my giving in terms of impact on other’s lives as the highest goal, is to me the ultimate fulfillment of this spiritual pursuit. Likewise, emotionally, realizing that I have tangibly and realistically saved dozens of real, human lives, probably children who were loved as much as I love my children, is tremendously emotionally compelling. My challenge to engineers: approach giving just like you do engineering, with your best, most rational, careful analysis and concern. The impact you can make is immense.