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The Importance of Effective Altruism – Part Two

Posted 16th January 2017

Last week I published the first half of the speech that I delivered at the Effective Altruism Global X (EAGx) conference in Prague in December, where I offered my personal perspective on ‘effective altruism’ and reflected on the progress that has been made in recent decades towards improving the lives and the wellbeing of the world’s most vulnerable people.

In the second half of my speech, posted below, I spent time talking about what I believe we must do differently if we are to continue to meet the world’s greatest development challenges long into the future: to make genuine social impact a reality going forward, we must all embrace our inner ‘effective altruist.’

– Alix Zwane

What is next?

The next thing I said I would talk about is: what next?

If we only invest in what we know works today, how will we find the solutions of tomorrow?

There is an increasing recognition that the next 50 years of challenges will need new and different approaches from the past fifty years.

Yes, people on average are better off. But many people continue to live on the margins of subsistence, often close by to others who are much better off.  We have amazing cell phone networks and penetration, but users may be illiterate.

There are challenges that require global, trans-national coordination, like climate change. These complex problems won’t have simple solutions. Rather, we’ll need solutions from unlikely sources, collaborations that extend beyond traditional headlines like health, education and the environment.

And for this we need smart bets on innovative approaches. We need to be able to take risks, because it is only through trying something radically new that we can stand to find the big wins of tomorrow.

The Global Innovation Fund does precisely this.

GIF is designed to operate beyond the traditional grant-making approach of its donor governments, taking a venture capital approach to investing in innovation that has the potential to affect hundreds of millions of the world’s poor.

Why do we act like venture capitalists, led by entrepreneurs toward ideas rather than leading ourselves?

If you were to think about how best to improve education policy in Kenya, it is unlikely you’d think about running a health campaign.

And yet, at a cost of just $4 per additional year of schooling, it appears that mass deworming can be one of the most effective approaches to get kids in school.

Let’s take another example.

When you think about leading causes of death in Africa, what do you think about?

You’re probably thinking about HIV/AIDS, or maybe tuberculosis, or Malaria.

What you’re probably not thinking about are traffic accidents. Yet deaths related to road transport exceeds each of those more commonly thought of public health crises.

The causes of road related deaths are multiple, but one is the poor road safety practices. In Uganda, for example, only 1% of motorcycle drivers wear helmets and the rates of injury and death are shocking. More than 60% of the surgical budget at the main Kampala hospital is spent on treating motorbike crash injuries.

Boda boda motorcycle taxis are immensely popular and the lifeblood of most cities in Africa but their safety record is woeful. It was against this backdrop that a group of entrepreneurs saw the opportunity to bring a new, safety-first business to the streets of Kampala – Uber for Uganda, if you will.

SafeBoda is a community of professional, trained motorcycle taxi drivers. On the streets of Kampala you can’t miss them: they’re brightly branded in orange, they can be hailed or booked via a mobile app.

With SafeBoda you know what you’re getting: a trained driver and helmets for driver and passenger. SafeBoda means a primary school girl gets safely to school every day. It means a mother doesn’t need to worry.

If you were thinking about a public health strategy for Uganda, you wouldn’t think about road safety. Even if you did think of road safety, you’d probably start by thinking about new laws and regulations to mandate safe driving—some of which may never be enforced.

You wouldn’t think about setting up the Uber for East Africa. That’s the importance of a bottom-up open innovation platform. New ideas can come from unlikely sources.

One more example: when you think about seasonable hunger, you don’t think about buying bus tickets – you probably think about food aid, or agricultural extension services.

Yet, a fascinating experiment in Bangladesh showed that by helping landless farmers to get into urban centers where their labor is in much more demand during the time before crops are harvested can dramatically reduce rates of hunger and improve overall household wellbeing.

Just like in ORS and deworming, the magnitude of these benefits far outweighs the costs, as well as the cost of the traditional alternative: in this case, emergency food aid.

Now, to be fair, we’re not sure if SafeBoda or seasonal migration for rural workers will actually work when you take the promising experiment to a larger scale. Will users sign up for the Safe Boda platform? If they sign up will they wear helmets? Will SafeBoda be able to train and have drivers retain safer driving practices?

Each of these are unanswered questions. But that’s what makes Safe Boda so interesting.

By investing in them to learn and generate evidence about these questions, tomorrow we’ll have a better idea of whether innovations like SafeBoda can save millions of lives.

It may be that SafeBoda can’t reduce traffic deaths. That failure, however, is a feature of the system not a bug.

Only by taking smart bets — some of which may fail — can we fundamentally change the way the current system is set up, and tackle some of the biggest and most persistent social problems that have been so resistant to progress until now.

A Call to Action

Peter Singer, one of the founders of the effective altruist movement, often relates the following story. Imagine you’re walking and you come across a small pond.

You look in the pond and a child has fallen in. You know how to swim and you can save the child from the pond, but then you realize you have a brand new pair of $100 shoes on. If you jump in your shoes will be ruined. What do you do?

For most of you, the answer will be obvious.

Today, millions of children each year are struggling to swim in that metaphorical pond.

My message to you is to jump in—with a hard head. And a soft heart.

Thank you.