EA for Jews

Effective altruism for jews

The importance of effectiveness

EA for Jews

Effectiveness: why does it matter?

History has many examples of people who have had a huge positive impact on the world.
  • Irena Sendler (pictured below) saved 2,500 Jewish children from the Holocaust by providing them with false identity documents and smuggling them out of the Warsaw ghetto.
  • Norman Borlaug’s research into disease-resistant wheat precipitated the ‘Green Revolution’. He has been credited with saving hundreds of millions of lives.
  • Stanislav Petrov potentially prevented all-out nuclear war simply by being calm under pressure and being willing to disobey orders.

These people might seem like unrelatable heroes, who were enormously brave, or skilled, or who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. But many people can also have a tremendous positive impact on the world, if they choose wisely.

Irena Sendler

EA for Jews

You can save lives

Imagine if, one day, you see a burning building with a small child inside. You run into the blaze, pick up the child, and carry them to safety. You would be a hero. Now imagine that this happened to you every two years – you’d save dozens of lives over the course of your life.

This sounds like an odd world. But current evidence suggests it is the world that many people live in. If you earn the typical income in the US, and donate 10% of your earnings each year to the Against Malaria Foundation, you will probably save dozens of lives over your lifetime.

But the world appears to be even stranger, because many people have opportunities that look even better than this. How? First, many people can have a greater impact by working directly on important problems than by donating. Second, other causes might prove even more impactful than global poverty and health, as we’ll discuss below.

Ea for jews

Many attempts to do go fail, but the best are exceptional

In most areas of life, we understand that it’s important to base our decisions on evidence and reason rather than guesswork or gut instinct. When you buy a phone, you will read customer reviews to get the best deal. Certainly, you won’t buy a phone which costs 1,000 times more than an identical model.

Yet we are not always so discerning when we work on global problems.

Below is a chart using data from Disease Control Priorities in Developing Countries (second edition), showing the number of years of healthy life (measured using DALYs) you can save by donating $1,000 to a particular intervention to reduce the spread of HIV and AIDS. The chart shows figures for five different strategies.

The first intervention, surgical treatment, can’t even be seen on this scale, because it has such a small impact relative to other interventions. And the best strategy, educating high-risk groups, is estimated to be 1,400 times better than that. While it may not be wise to take these estimates completely literally, they are just one example of surprisingly large differences between the effectiveness of different interventions.

We suspect that the difference in intervention effectiveness is similarly large in other cause areas, though we don’t have as clear data as we do in global health. Why do we think this? Partly because most projects in many domains for which we have data don’t appear to have a significant positive impact. And, more optimistically, because there appear to be some interventions which have an enormous impact. But without knowing which experts to trust, or which techniques to trust in your own research, it can be very hard to tell these apart. Which interventions have the highest impact remains an important open question. Comparing different ways of doing good is difficult, both emotionally and practically. But these comparisons are vital to ensure we help others as much as we can. This content is adapted from this article. To learn more read these sequences of articles in the EA handbook, and/or contact us if you’d like to discuss!

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