Why develop national-level effective altruism organizations?

byJan_Kulveit 10mo17th Oct 20181 comment

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This is the first part of a two-part document on why and how to develop national-level effective altruism organizations. If you are generally convinced that creation of country-level effective altruism organizations is a positive development, you may want to skip this part about motivations and background: more specific suggestions are in the second part.

Status: This document was created mostly during my summer internship at CEA. It is a result of many discussions with people both from CEA, other central organizations, and EA community builders working in national and city level effective altruism organizations. The opinions expressed are often an attempt to find something which can be broadly supported - but should not be understood as an official position of CEA (or any other organization).

Sometimes, recommendations are based on experiences of several organizations, sometimes on my personal experience working in Czech EA Association, sometimes they are guesses based on research in relevant fields.

Motivations & background

National effective altruism organizations, with one exception, are a relatively new phenomenon in the effective altruism organizational landscape. This document focuses on how to increase the expected value of such organizations and decrease associated risks, rather than on the question of whether such developments should be promoted, or the question of whether to localize effective altruism to new languages. However, let's ask the latter question first.

Thoughts about national organizations are closely related to thoughts about medium-sized effective altruism hubs, so it is useful to briefly define and disambiguate both terms.

From a legal and funding perspective, national and regional EA organizations are usually independent legal entities incorporated in different countries or regions, supporting the effective altruism community in their respective territories. From a functional perspective, they fulfill a variety of roles such as translation, localizing effective altruism in their country, creating talent pipelines, representing effective altruism in interactions with local institutions and media, and incubating EA-aligned projects. From a structural perspective, in some cases, they form a layer in between central organizations and local groups.

Hubs can be defined in many ways, which are usually highly correlated. In this case, we will consider hubs in physical space - places with a high density of highly connected effective altruists in general, effective altruism aligned organizations, and effective altruists employed in such organizations. These metrics seem to be predictive to actual outputs, either in the form of knowledge, influence over the movement, or actions directly changing the world.

The relation between hubs and national and regional organizations is probably such that some national organizations will tend to support the formation of medium-sized hubs. Also, national organisations will be most valuable when they are connected to thriving hubs. On the other hand, especially in English speaking countries, growth of hubs will often not lead to the creation of such organizations.

Currently, effective altruism as a broader movement has a structure with 2 large hubs in the Oxford / London area and the Berkeley / Bay area. If we take the number of people working in effective altruist organizations as a proxy for hub size, a rough analysis of the location of full-time jobs in EA organizations reveals this distribution of hub sizes

>5 ... 2 places

>10 ... 2 places

>20 ... 1 place

>40 ... 1 place

(with all smaller hubs falling in the <5 bin)

Compared to distributions of hub size in many research fields, political movements, or professional niches, this is slightly unusual: activity happens in mainly in two places. While there are very many small places, there are few medium-sized hubs.

How the effective altruism network structure eventually should look is an interesting and open question, beyond the scope of this document. We will try to answer a simpler version: what direction from the current state will effective altruism take by default, and what direction should it take? Should effective altruism develop more secondary hubs?

When answering the first question, it seems some potential hubs are developing even in the present, in part with support from CEA in the form of community building grants.

Also, from a rough analysis, it seems such change is robustly positive with a broad range of initial assumptions on the condition that hubs themselves are positive.

Even if we take the pessimistic assumption that all high-impact opportunities are in the two largest hubs, and it is beneficial if all the people working on big problems move to one area because of possibilities of high-bandwidth communication and safe sharing of underdeveloped or risky ideas, it seems a network of smaller hubs would be still instrumentally useful for acquiring and routing talent. With more optimistic assumptions, it could be argued that a structure with secondary hubs is more healthy. For example in many non-EA research fields, secondary hubs usually provide these valuable functions

  • training people
  • better selection of people moving to the main hubs. people are evaluated more on their actual performance rather than proxies and signals
  • working on sub-questions or lower-priority problems
  • exploring new directions. If these prove to be important, they are picked up by the large hubs
  • training people with leadership skills

In general, when answering such questions about expected value mainly based on theoretical considerations, the uncertainties are very large, so it may be worth to look at the existing medium-sized hubs, and evaluate whether their existence seems positive. This might be significant evidence about whether or not we have a positive expectation from creating more of them.

Switching focus to national organizations, it is important to recognize that they currently develop mostly “organically”, based on the needs and ideas of local effective altruism communities in different countries. It is also important to recognize the effective altruism movement has neither highly centralized governance structure, nor a unified comprehensive strategy, so there is not any single person or organization which could easily decide that some organization will be or won’t be created. Coordination in this area must be mainly based on shared understanding, arguments and models. (This does not mean the central organizations do not have a lot of influence, or important role in the process, as explained later.)

Some current arguments for why to create national or language based organizations are:

  • they seem the best suitable body for localizing effective altruism in new countries and cultures
  • they fulfill a natural role in supporting local groups in non-English speaking cultures
  • they attract talent from a broader geographical basin
  • some of them will lead to the creation of medium-sized hubs

In particular, the first justification will raise a question if localizing effective altruism to new countries is desirable. The answer elaborated upon in this document is “yes, if done carefully”; however, we hope even someone who would answer “mostly no” will agree with the models and suggestions of “how to do it” which comprise the second part of this text.

The answer for “is it desirable” depends on examining counterfactuals, and thinking about concepts such as value of information, option value, and time-consistency of preferences.

From a value of information perspective, knowledge of how to localize effective altruism seems to have high value - as a movement with global ambitions, effective altruism will eventually need to have a global presence, and will need to learn how to localize. (Balancing value of information and risks would be a reason for attempting translation in smaller countries first, where the information value may be large, but opportunities at stake and risks are small.)

Switching to reversibility perspective - one key limit to reversibility is, it is very difficult to prevent memes from spreading. The irreversible, initial large-scale efforts to spread effective altruism memes have already been done: books are published, TED talks are on Youtube, etc. Effective altruism has spread to many places in the world without much outside translation or outreach efforts.  

An ambition to shape such development and try to make sure up-to-date, deep understanding gets to new effective altruists in places where the memes are already spreading, seems more realistic than an ambition to decide on the question of whether we want the memes to spread or not.  (Reversibility would still be an important concern when deciding on any new efforts broadly in the category of mass outreach.)

The correct counterfactual to not trying to shape the spreading of effective altruism likely isn’t a “steady state”, where things are the same and effective altruism is limited to Anglosphere, but rather a world where the most memetically fit parts of effective altruism are spreading, communities in whole countries have partially outdated and distorted perspectives, and in some cases people act on unfortunately limited understanding.

From a regret perspective, decisions “not to act” in this sphere may not be as reversible as they seem. Successful localization of effective altruism likely depends on the local availability of some critical mass of resources (mainly people and knowledge). It seems plausible that in some cases, if such critical clusters are not utilized, they will just dissolve - by people moving to other trajectories or to other places.

Switching from models to data, it seems existing national organizations are mostly successful, are involved in valuable career changes and projects, and are endorsed by CEA and other organizations in the form of funding, affiliation or joint projects.

On the downside, there are risks associated with national organizations

  • having more organizations may make coordination harder
  • increased cultural heterogeneity may make coordination harder
  • national organizations may lead to spreading of an erroneous understanding of effective altruism
  • people can get stuck in local roles, when they could have had more impact in a large hub
  • effective altruism may interact with local cultures in hard-to-predict ways

The main (second) part of this guideline is aimed at mitigating these risks.

Answering the question “To what extent should creation of national organizations be encouraged or prioritized?” depends on an important asymmetry in tractability:

  • if there is a group of people in some location wanting to work on this, supporting them seems tractable and relatively cheap.
  • on the other hand, trying to cause such development to happen in a place without “grassroots support” seems much less tractable, and would likely have to involve sending highly experienced, highly capable professionals.

The difference in tractability between the cases is probably large enough that it is decisive for prioritization: without grassroots support, only one or two places may so important as to try external interventions. With a motivated grassroots group above reasonably high standard, efforts should be supported (even if just for the information value). What we consider a reasonably high standard is outlined in later part of this document.

Efforts of this kind in locations with huge potential long-term effect are high priority, and if already happening, should warrant close collaboration with central organizations, and more efforts or funding should probably be invested in them.

As a rough threshold to what constitutes huge potential long-term effects, we propose these criteria:

  1. Efforts which include localization to the top 10 spoken languages (other than English). These include Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, Arabic, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, Japanese and German
  2. Efforts which cover top global centres of economic or political power. Compared to the above list, this would include e.g. Singapore, Belgium/Brussel or France.

Intent of this document

The primary intent of this document is to increase the expected positive impact of national organizations in formation, and decrease the risks of negative outcomes as much as possible. That is, to make the development of national EA organizations more robustly positive.

The intent is also to help solve a coordination dilemma between aspiring group builders, and central organizations. The decision aspiring organization founders face is basically to move forward with the project (scale up), or not to. The decision the central organizations are facing is to support, or not to support.

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The desirable outcomes are in the first and fourth quadrants. In a situation where the central organizations would like to see some activity in some place, but there isn’t the local component, what possibly may be done are gentle interventions like inviting people to EAG conferences.

Outcomes in the third quadrant, where the local group moves on with creating the organization, but does not get support, should mostly be avoided. This document can help in this by giving aspiring group builders some guidelines, and recommend minimum resources which should be present before proceeding. This should give a clearer understanding on what is highly likely to get support.

An important caveat: existing knowledge (mid 2018) about national-level organizations is based mainly on experience with organizations in European countries, founded relatively recently, and experience with several places where a transition to national-level organization did not happen.

It can be expected that with increasing distance from the US or UK, the challenges of creating effective altruist organizations will grow - the most important axes seem to be a cultural similarity, economic development, and political system. We believe these guidelines are generic enough to provide useful inputs even in very “far” cases, but caution will be appropriate.

The model presented here is also not intended as a definitive answer. It is possible some alternatives, e.g. strong, institutionalized city-level local organizations, and very lightweight national organizations, could be more effective.