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This anonymous essay was submitted to Open Philanthropy's Cause Exploration Prizes contest and published with the author's permission.

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You can only protect your liberties in this world by protecting the other man’s freedom. You can only be free if I am free” - Clarence Darrow

There’s only one basic principle of self-defence. You must apply the most effective weapon, as soon as possible, to the most vulnerable target” - Bruce Lee


Cause areas across the Effective Altruism spectrum, and indeed the entire breadth of human struggle against suffering or disaster, vary widely but have one unifying thread - it is the vulnerable in our society who suffer first and most. Increasing use of AI and algorithmic decision-making overwhelmingly impacts the vulnerable and minority groups from moneylending to law enforcement to automation. As ocean levels rise it is the poor who bear the brunt of rising flood waters whilst the privileged move further inland. As pandemics are unleashed upon populations, it is the medically vulnerable and the disabled who are at greatest risk. Time and again when human populations, whether a community, a nation, or humankind itself, face off against the greatest risks it is these people who are the first casualties and who fall in by far the greatest numbers.

What is most backwards about all of this is the fact that it is these sections of society who have the least ability to leverage impact both locally and on a greater stage. The poor, the disabled, people in minority communities, and other groups have barriers placed in their way professionally, academically, and personally to ensure that the people with the most to lose from failure, with the most to gain from success, and in many cases the most inside knowledge of humanity’s greatest risk areas are all systematically denied access to the very tools to save themselves. Instead, we frequently find that the people working on cause areas typically come from the groups least impacted by them.

This essay poses that a cause exploration area worthy of investigation is the removal of barriers to people seeking to work on existing cause areas, from communities certain to be affected. Removing these barriers would greatly increase the ability for vulnerable demographics to protect themselves rather than rely on outside help, and as a result add a cumulative effect to cause area investment. This is not a specific category but could be a wide variety of examples. For clarity, I will provide some examples of these barriers here:


Example 1

In the United Kingdom, society tends to be divided along class-based lines. There are a wide range of procedures in place to prevent those in poverty or in lower classes addressing their own issues. Perhaps the best example of this is in legal education. Even if someone managed to get the funds together to pass law school, in order to qualify as a solicitor to embark on legal endeavours they must take an SQE examination. This is made up of two exams. The first is a multiple choice computer test which takes 1 hour. The second is a face to face interview which takes several hours. The cost of these exams, per attempt, is around £4000 (~$4900) for both. There is no reason for the £1,558 fee to take a multiple choice exam (Exam 1) other than to ensure that only certain demographics of society are able to enter the legal field. Legal aid has also been slashed in the last decades. These two factors mean that those in poverty are unable to access their own legal education or legal advice, and are unable to defend themselves against the predations of their government or other sections of society, are unable to advocate for their own interests effectively, and are less able to support interventions to reduce both s-risk and x-risk at a law and policy level. The Social Mobility Commission[1] has found that only 6% of lawyers come from working class backgrounds. As a result, issues affecting these groups are much harder to advocate for effectively.

Example 2

Again using the UK as an example (given most of my experience being there), people from marginalised backgrounds are less able to try and make their voices heard in government policy and in government itself. Conservative candidates reported spending an average of £121,000 in their campaigns when running for MP, with the lowest range of average personal cost amounting to £11,118 according to one survey. Labour sat at an average spend of £19,022 and for Liberal Democrats it is £26,608[2].

As a result, government decision-making is typically made by those with the most money in their pocket and not necessarily the most capable candidates. This is not a new problem for society, but in the 21st century these barriers are solvable for the right candidates. Candidates from lower socio-ecomonic backgrounds are completely priced out of politics, and so it is generally the viewpoints of the wealthy which carry the day. Wealthy people’s viewpoints seldom match the viewpoints expressed by current cause areas.

Example 3

There are considerable challenges to those from lower socio-economic backgrounds embarking on careers in medicine, which is highly linked to multiple existing cause areas. Long unpaid placements which require registration and parking fees among others, low levels of bursaries, miscellaneous professional charges, and longer than average course lengths all mean that working class and poor potential students are priced out of the profession. The Social Mobility Commission[3] reported that only 4% of doctors come from working class backgrounds.

Doctors in both practice and research who come from lower socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to work in practices serving vulnerable communities, more likely to apply for specialties where there are shortages[4], and a wider mix of medical student backgrounds also helps reduce diversity-related issues and understanding amongst peers.

So what?

In essence, this cause exploration idea is to reduce the financial barriers for vulnerable communities to engage meaningfully in careers which have significant impact on cause areas. These would likely take the form of bursaries and scholarships run by Open Philanthropy for exceptional students or potential students from these backgrounds and cover things like exam fees or stipends. The direct effect of this would be to allow disadvantaged communities most at risk from traditional cause areas to advocate for themselves.

Who is already working on it?

Very few people. Many areas have bursaries or such available, but these are small, unreliable, and swiftly declining. For example, Student Finance England stop paying students maintenance loans in fifth year and they are instead paid by the NHS Student Bursary Scheme which is a significant pay cut and coincides with when most students are expected to go on placement - creating travel, parking, food, and equipment costs.

The UK is also in the middle of a major cost of living crisis, meaning that the numbers of people from disadvantaged backgrounds being forced out of higher education are higher than ever[5]. As a result, many EA-aligned scientists, lawyers, and doctors are being barred from the workforce due to existing people working on this issue, such as university bursaries, being slashed. This means fewer people from the affected communities working on related cause areas.

What could a new philanthropist do?

A new philanthropist could help remove financial barriers to effective participation for individuals in impactful fields who have an interest in solving problems for the future at scale. There are small, disparate, existing funds for this (for example the early careers fund) but these are small and have a very low acceptance rate.

A philanthropist could also apply political or social pressure for governments and organisations to reduce or waive senseless examination fees.


This is an important area of investment because a lack of representation amongst both research staff and decision-makers means that those who are best positioned to understand and most motivated to act against threats to humanity’s future are given the tools they need to utilise this as leverage.


This issue is relatively neglected because though there have been attempts to reduce barriers, these have been ad-hoc by individual fields instead of focusing on reducing challenges to demographics. Existing efforts typically focus on tokenisation for statistical purposes instead of enabling meaningful contribution.

Possible Interventions

Grants for students

New grants available for students from disadvantaged backgrounds could be made available, where those interested in impactful careers in neglected areas could apply for things like school fees, exam fees, or stipends. Existing grants offer some element of this, but typically tied to existing projects and tend to go to privileged people due to extra opportunities for CV padding. These grants, however, would be focused on equalising the socioeconomic divide and enabling vulnerable communities to take power over their own fates and contribute meaningfully to existing cause areas.


Funding could be diverted to lobbying efforts to increase stipends, reduce exam fees, and remove barriers to participation to vulnerable communities. As a result, those communities would be better able to engage with cause areas and would be more motivated to do so.

Sources of Uncertainty

Though statistics on demographic divides are stark, there is less direct evidence that this correlates to a significant loss of manpower or motivation towards solving problems. Also, though in theory people with the most to lose or gain from a cause area’s success or failure would be the best contributors, this is unproven.

Additionally, many of these are considerable social and systemic issues, and so it could be debated as to whether the funds would make greater impact elsewhere, and whether this is a case of treating a symptom rather than a cause.


With existing cause areas generally affecting vulnerable populations the most, and with those populations systemically prevented via financial barriers from being a part of their own rescue, it makes cause areas much harder and more expensive to undertake. By enabling communities to be part of the solution and by removing these barriers, this cause area could be a supporting tertiary role for all other cause areas, helping to increase the pool of available talent with both the skills and lived experience to make meaningful contributions.


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