One thing that this current pandemic has reminded us (often with alarmingly high numbers), is that there is no shortage of suffering taking place, both here and around the world.

Clearly, the effects of Covid-19 and its indiscriminate nature have moved to the front of the line this past year, garnering much of the media attention, and rightfully so. Only now, since vaccines have begun to be distributed, are there some measured amounts of hope for abating this often-deadly virus.

What’s easy to forget is that there are countless other societal issues that, pre-pandemic, required our collective attention, in addition to a significant amount of funding. I recently came across several podcasts and articles that I wanted to share with readers, not only because I found them to be interesting, but also because I hope like-minded individuals might seek to make contributions toward addressing some of our planet’s most pressing needs.

There’s an on-going debate regarding how much money, time and effort is required to eradicate, or at least to some degree, impede the pervasiveness of any given crisis. 

 To what extent do we pause before giving and ask ourselves, “are these indeed the issues affecting the greatest number of people?”

Sam Harris, a popular American philosopher, neuroscientist and podcaster, recently interviewed the young Scottish ethicist Will MacAskill of Oxford University, who has been at the forefront of developing various entities that address the movement referred to as “effective altruism.”  

For those not familiar with the term, MacAskill describes it as  “using evidence and careful reasoning to think about how to do the most good as possible, and then taking action on that basis. The real focus is on the ‘most’ good. People don’t appreciate how great a difference in impact there is between different organizations.”  

He emphasized how vast those disparities can be, with his research often showing a hundreds if not thousands of times efficacy gap that exists from one charity to another. 

He gives the example of Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton University and fellow Oxford grad, who cites a reputable organization, the Against Malaria Foundation. 

The UK-based charity provides and distributes long-lasting insecticidal nets, which have been proven highly effective in reducing the number of deaths caused by malaria, primarily in Africa. Since its inception in 2004, the foundation has committed to delivering some 90 million nets. 

Clearly, earmarking specific organizations that provide direct, cost-effective assistance to the most people is a goal that we can all strive towards, if not financially, then through active participation. One such method that has garnered attention is to enlist large numbers of young people to become significantly involved in the process. 

In a recent brief submitted to the Brookings Institution, Martha Ross and Nicole Bateman of the Metropolitan Policy Program suggest the following: “An expanded national service program can help address these problems. National service programs such as AmeriCorps, Youth Build, and Conservation Corps put young people to work on a variety of socially useful activities — tutoring children, building affordable housing, assisting with disaster response, maintaining public infrastructure and restoring the environment. In return, they earn a modest living allowance and a small educational scholarship.”

Sadly, these programs combined staff a mere 100,000 individuals nationwide. With unemployment rates that have risen significantly since the onset of Covid-19 (younger age groups are taking the biggest hit, according to the latest figures offered by the Bureau of Labor Statistics), now may be the perfect opportunity to address issues that predated the pandemic, while simultaneously providing meaningful employment and impactful life experiences to those involved.

Pete Buttigieg, President-elect Biden’s choice to head the Department of Transportation, in a piece that ran in the New York Times while he was a candidate for President, made a proposal to expand not only the existing government-sponsored programs, but to add new ones that would specifically address climate change, assist the elderly, and treat those suffering from mental health and addiction crises.

When it comes to giving, thankfully there are some real heavy hitters out there from the private sector, such as Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffet, and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott (the former wife of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos), who recently announced that she has donated in excess of $4 billion these past few months to nearly 400 organizations throughout the U.S. and Puerto Rico. This comes after she’d already pledged nearly $2 billion to multiple sources such as historically Black colleges and universities, civil rights, legal defense, and other entities that typically serve those who’ve been marginalized in our society. 

I think we can all agree that whether it’s writing a check to one’s local food pantry or volunteering to mentor at-risk youth, the effective, altruistic choices we make create a better community in which to live. Or as Ms. Scott expressed in a recent interview: “What fills me with hope is the thought of what will come if each of us reflects on what we can offer.” 

Dave Davis
Dave Davis teaches preschool for the Head Start program based at the Children’s Museum of the East End in Bridgehampton, NY. He is also a frequent contributor to “Who Smarted?,” a popular educational podcast for elementary school children.

One thought on “Dave’s Desk@Ditch: Effective Altruism — To Live Is To Give

  1. Dave’s Desk
    Thanks again for your reminder column on how everyone can help others during these trying times. Altruism can be on any scale and I am heartened by the fact that so many well-known individuals have stepped up to help others in need. I am also glad to read how many anonymous folks have donated food and money in this difficult time. Private organizations along with government funds are working diligently in this effort.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please prove you're human: