This post summarizes some of my conclusions on things that can make EA outreach to progressives hard, as well as some tentative recommendations on techniques for making such outreach easier.
To be clear, this post does not argue or assume that outreach to progressives is harder than outreach to other political ideologies. Rather, the point of this post is to highlight identifiable, recurring memes/thought patterns that cause Progressives to reject or remain skeptical of EA.
My Background (Or, Why I am Qualified to Talk About This)
Nothing in here is based on systematic empirical analysis. It should therefore be treated as highly uncertain. My analysis here draws on two sources:
- Reflecting on my personal journey as someone who transitioned from a very social-justice-y worldview to a more EA-aligned one (and therefore understands the former well), who is still solidly left-of-center, and who still retains contacts in the social justice (SJ) world; and
- My largely failed attempts as former head of Harvard Law School Effective Altruism to get progressive law students to make very modest giving commitments to GiveWell charities.
Given that the above all took place in America, this post is most relevant to American political dynamics (especially at elite universities), and may very well be inapplicable elsewhere.
Readers may worry that I am being a bit uncharitable here. However, I am not trying to present the best progressive objections to EA (so as to discover the truth), but rather the most common ones (so as to persuade people better). In other words, this post is about marketing and communications, not intellectual criticisms. Since I think many of the common progressive objections to EA are bad, I will attempt to explain them in (what I take to be) their modal or undifferentiated form, not steelman them.
Relatedly, when I say "progressives" through the rest of this post, I am mainly referring to the type of progressive who is skeptical of EA, not all progressives. There are many amazing progressive EAs, who do not see these two ideologies to be in conflict whatsoever. And many non-EA progressives will believe few of these things. Nevertheless, I do think I am pointing to a real set of memes that are common—but definitely not universal—among the American progressive left as of 2021. This is sufficient for understanding the messaging challenges facing EAs within progressive institutions.
Reasons Progressives May Not Like EA
Legacy of Paternalistic International Aid
Many progressives have a strong prior against international aid, especially private international aid. Progressives are steeped in—and react to—stories of paternalistic international aid, much in the way that EAs are steeped in stories of ineffective aid (e.g., Playpumps).
Interestingly, EAs and progressives will often (in fact, almost always) agree on what types of aid are objectionable. However, we tend to take very different lessons away from this.
EAs will generally take away the lesson that we have to be super careful about which interventions to fund, because funding the wrong intervention can be ineffective or actively harmful. We put the interests of our intended beneficiaries first by demanding that charities demonstrably advance their beneficiaries' interests as cost-effectively as possible.
Progressives tend to take a very different lesson from this. They tend to see this legacy as objectionable due to the very nature of the relationship between aid donors and recipients. Roughly, they may believe that the power differential between wealthy donors from the Global North and aid recipients in developing countries makes unobjectionable foreign aid either impossible or, at the very least, extremely difficult. They may therefore prefer aid frameworks in which parties approach each other more as equals or in which there is high-context transfer of feedback from recipient to donors. Of course, these heuristics will tend to privilege interventions within existing communities, and be harder to deploy internationally—hence progressives' skepticism of foreign aid. The fact that this in effect entirely cuts off the world's poorest people from aid at all counts for very little in the progressive worldview, probably as a result of the act-omission distinction: the bad to be avoided is paternalistic international aid, and simply abstaining from international aid is an easy way to do that.
The Oppression Worldview
Modern progressivism focuses a lot on oppression, which may be defined (from their perspective) as social systems that cause equally-worthy groups to receive preferential treatment or receive disparate rewards.
For reasons that elude my comprehension, many progressives do not seem to conceptualize the current assortment of economic and legal policies that cause some countries to be ~100x richer than others to be a relevant form of oppression. If they do, they are unlikely to give it as high a priority as, e.g., within-country racial disparities or within-country economic inequality.
A full analysis of why, exactly, global poverty is often not treated as a leading form of injustice by many progressives (as evidenced by the comparatively few progressive resources that go towards it) seems very valuable, and I cannot yet provide it. But I do feel confident in saying that to many progressives, global poverty is apparently a non-central example of oppression, or a lower-priority one.
Many progressives are skeptical of the tools of modern economics, believing them (inaccurately, in my view) to play a central role in legitimating domestic income inequality and other maladies. This is probably due to domestic political tendencies for the right to emphasize the value of markets and economic growth more than liberals (who tend to focus more on economic equality). Thus, they may tend to have a negative reaction to EAs relying on economic concepts and tools, including things like cost-benefit analyses, marginal thinking, and QALYs. They may also distrust interventions that leverage market forces or promote economic growth as such. They may tend to believe, despite evidence from economic history, that extreme poverty is solely the result of past injustices, which may have implications for how we ought to understand our moral obligations to the global poor. They are also very hesitant to accept that global poverty is much worse than domestic poverty in extent and severity, which leads to a larger focus on the latter.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Issues
Progressives see shared identity as very important to understanding and advocating for the interests of a group. If a group claims to be advocating for some group X, but lacks a member of X in its leadership, this will make progressives very suspicious. Specifically, when EAs purport to advocate for members of the global poor, but our leadership lacks people from the world's poorest countries, they are immediately skeptical that we actually do have their best interests in mind, or can effectively advocate for them. This and the Legacy of Paternalistic International Aid (see above) reinforce each other.
Incompatibility Between Intersectionality and Prioritization
Intersectionality is one of the dominant frameworks on the progressive left for understanding and advocating for social change. The academic and popular uses of intersectionality differ, but the slogan "[t]here is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not live single-issue lives" captures much of how this is currently understood and used in progressive spaces.
Intersectionality thus implies a strong anti-prioritization framework—or at least a hesitancy to engage in prioritization. Intersectionality implies that narrow prioritization (e.g., an AIDS charity prioritizing education and condom distribution over ART) is pro tanto objectionable insofar as it fails to consider, and allocate equal resources to, the differing needs of all members of a population.
Systemic Change and a Preference for State Action
Seasoned EAs will no doubt be aware that our critics on the left are some of the biggest proponents of the systemic change objection to EA. Progressives seem more likely to believe that major problems can or should only be solved through dramatic restructuring of society, in ways that EAs may be skeptical by default of for a variety of reasons. And when both agree on the need for some form of systemic change, they may often disagree on what that should look like.
Some people on the progressive left (especially in the US, it seems) are averse to animal advocacy due to what I will call "ordinal speciesism": the belief that prioritizing animal welfare over human welfare is objectionable. Consider the following quotes from this article (which I just selected arbitrarily because it seemed pretty representative of views I see):
White vegans’ priority is the top layer of veganism–animal exploitation, but they ignore the socio-economic impact that comes from the movement becoming more popularized. Some white vegans even go as far to compare historical genocides that have affected BIPOC to the workings of the meat and dairy industries. . . . Veganism can only be about the liberation of animals when it also stops the oppression of people.
The idea that the two can be meaningfully analyzed separately, and that it may be appropriate to prioritize animal welfare over human welfare, is anathema to this worldview, apparently.
EAs tend to reject person-affecting views of population ethics. This, however, has uncomfortable implications for some hot-button issues on the left, like reproductive rights and environmental ethics.
Guesses at How To Improve Messaging to Progressives
I am not a messaging expert, and have not had any overwhelming success at getting progressives more interested in EA. With that said, here are some of my guesses at what a more progressive-friendly approach to EA messaging could look like. Of course, this does not consider important tradeoffs, such as the potential for alienating other audiences. This will therefore be most useful to people whose primary audience is progressives.
I would consider progressive-friendly messaging from the outset of any public-facing communications, not as a band-aid to be deployed in response to criticisms from the left. First impressions are really important, and so starting messaging with things that are, at the very least, not off-putting to progressives should help advance conversation without as much negative reaction.
Develop and Highlight Community Feedback Mechanisms
As a fairly welfarist and quantitative bunch, internal EA discussion on charity evaluation focuses a lot on cost-benefit analyses and much less on qualitative factors that either inform or complement such analyses when making final recommendations. I don't think this is substantively wrong, but I do think it can give the impression that EAs care a lot about quantified spreadsheet inputs and not human factors like recipient's assessments of charities. The latter should not be simply treated as a "nice to have": if CEAs and users' assessments of a program differ dramatically, we can suspect that something has gone wrong, and end-users/recipients can be extremely valuable sources of feedback and suggestions for improvement.
I am not an expert on GiveWell's evaluation process, and am aware that they do do some of this already, but I still think EA as a community could benefit from maybe roughly doubling(?) our cultural attention to the existence and performance of community feedback mechanisms for human-facing charities. This has been a philosophical commitment since the early days of EA, yet information on how we (or the charities we prioritize) actually confirm with recipients that our programs are having the predicted positive impact on them receives, AFAICT, little attention in EA. It may also be that many top charities simply don't have good user feedback mechanisms because donors don't demand them, in which case we should probably encourage more charities to develop them anyway. Mechanisms like accessible feedback hotlines and recipient ombuds may be worth exploring further.
A Digression on GiveDirectly
GiveDirectly is often highlighted as a standout charity on this point, for good reason: features like GDLive and their customer support centers (and, of course, their general model), generally make clear that they care deeply about trusting and receiving honest feedback from end-users. But to the extent that EAs point to GD when this objection is raised without caring about whether other GiveWell charities (which generally receive more funding) have similar mechanisms in place, it feels like a bit of a motte-and-bailey.
Use the Right Words/Framings
Many EA actions can be accurately framed in ways that are more palatable to a progressive worldview. I often remember this quote from a Yale EA as an example:
For me, taking the Giving What We Can pledge was an expression of my commitment to using my class privilege to contributed to a movement towards a more equitable world for current and future generations
Note how this isn't framed in terms of maximizing QALYs/dollar or generalized impact, but rather as "using class privilege" to achieve "a more equitable world." Not only is this still quite faithful to EA principles, but it's also much more palatable to a progressive audience. Similarly, EAs can reconsider framing global health/development work as working towards "global health justice," "global income inequality," or "global healthcare access" while also highlighting the tools we use to prioritize between interventions in those cause areas.
While I think it's very easy to focus too much on DEI efforts at the expense of impact, I also think that improving DEI in leadership at global health charities—and especially inclusion of people from the recipient countries—can send a good signal about the relationship between the charity and the populations it intends to serve. Such leaders can probably also provide valuable perspective about the communities in which the charity is operating. At the very least, I think it poses a huge communications liability for a lot of these charities among Western progressive audiences.
Bring Policy In Earlier
A common way to communicate about EA is to first talk about "finding the most cost-effective charities" or something similar, then explaining the true scope of our ambitions (including policy goals) only later. This mirrors its internal evolution from global health prioritization to the inclusion of animals and ultimately future generations. Policy interventions came pretty late in this evolution.
But as policy becomes an ever-larger part of the EA portfolio, this message makes less and less sense, and reinforces the perception of EA as averse to enacting systemic change. EA should figure out catchy messages about the types of policy work we support, as we have done for our charitable work.
There are a lot of topics on which EA will have shared interests with typical progressive causes, like environmentalism, climate change, tax justice, welfare spending, immigrants' rights, incarceration reform, and pacifism. Where possible, EA groups should consider showing up for and helping to promote and organize events with common interests. This should enhance our credibility in those spaces.
Things We Shouldn't Do: Reduce Intellectual Rigor
I think there are serious problems with a lack of intellectual rigor and openness in many progressive spaces today. Despite being quite liberal, this is one reason I prefer EA spaces more to typical progressive ones. I think intellectual rigor remains vitally important to the project of EA, and nothing in this should be used to suggest that we should reduce our emphasis on that.
As measured by revealed preferences in the form of comparative resource allocation. ↩︎
Audre Lorde, Learning from the 60s, in Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches by Audre Lorde 138 (2007). ↩︎
As an example, after ten minutes of searching I could not find information on GiveWell's overall view on this subject on their website. ↩︎
E.g., as far as I can tell, there's not a single person from sub-Saharan Africa on AMF's current staff, trustees, or Malaria Advisory Group. I think this is a pretty big optics liability for them among progressive audiences, independent of its substantive importance. ↩︎