Ana Mundaca: EA’s Systemic Bias against Recognizing Systemic Bias

If you look at the emphasized cause areas on the Effective Altruism (EA) website, the cause areas are all large in scale and mostly focus on public health and poverty in underdeveloped parts of the world. EA prioritizes evidence-based and cheap approaches with quantifiable results, leading it to often ameliorate the side effects of a systemic issue rather than the root of the problem itself, as fixing systemic geopolitical is time and resource intensive. This results in a bias towards what is easily quantifiable and against problems that are arguably more deadly, such as misogyny and racism. Not only does this decrease EAs long-term effectiveness, it also decreases the effectiveness of the solutions it does implement in its public health and poverty work.

Women make up a little less than half of the population. All countries are patriarchal in nature aside from pockets of indigenous populations in Tibet and some areas in South America. Patriarchies inherently devalue women, and even in countries considered more progressive, women’s health and education are often times underprovided or entirely denied. Not only does this lead to premature death (see maternal mortality rates in all countries, especially to the high rate in the United States) but it also leads to slower innovation as a large chunk of the population is systematically relegated to an inadequate education and standard of living. 

The same can be said for the status of people of color internationally. The legacies of colonialism are strong in the global south, with governments in disarray directly due to foreign intervention by the United States or Europe. There is an incredibly amount of utility lost from the oppression of people of color, with evidence pointing the quality of life in post-colonial states being low directly due to colonialism and to racism shortening lives in the United States. Not only is there lost utility from early death and mental and physical suffering due to racism but also from the devaluing of education for people of color (which is disproportionately levied on women worldwide, therefore linking these two cause areas). 

I don’t quite understand why EA has not put more emphasis on these cause areas, as uplifting people of color and women worldwide would lead to more innovation and less economic cost for government and charities which could refocus on the larger cause areas EA emphasizes. Overlooking the living conditions of people of color and women also throws a wrench into EA’s calculations of utility derived from each altruistic cause area. For any cause area that affects women or people of color in any capacity, the returns to investment are lower than calculated because of the conditions explained above. This is not to say investment should be diverted from these areas, but only to appeal to the utilitarian side of EA in emphasizing how utility is lost from these externalities. Another point on the purely utilitarian view is that the returns on investment in these areas is quite high as they have not been prioritized before, meaning there are large strides to be taken in improving many people’s lives by investing relatively little. 80,000 Hours’ blog lists applying your skills to a niche problem is a great way to maximize the utility derived from your career, and much of the discussions in our fellowship revolved around using our own skills in overlooked areas to bring about as much positive change to the world as possible. My point is: EA’s framework is completely in line with the recent movements to reduce racial and gender bias worldwide, especially considering most biases can be largely reduced by as little as a single re-education course or training

EA’s goals focus on saving as many lives as possible, which is great, because for most people life is good and worth living. However, I wonder if a shift in EA ideology towards moving us closer to improving the quality of life and standard of living internationally could generate even more utility than saving new lives. There are 7 and a half billion people on the planet right now, all of which are affected negatively in some way by racial or gender prejudice. That’s a whole lot of utility to be gotten from just a few basic changes in how we think and treat each other.

Barron Wei: Picture This

Picture this. 

Four friends. One room. Amazing ideas flying around. 

Hours of brainstorming pass until that one idea that we all believe in fills the room with excitement — excitement that eventually has to fade. This familiar scene is the thought process that we inexperienced builders go through and seasoned entrepreneurs know better than to sit through — focusing on the extraordinary product that nobody actually needs and wasting hours of valuable time. So, how do we avoid this trap?

In the popular handbook for entrepreneurship, The Lean Product Playbook, Dan Olsen, an entrepreneur and consultant, points us to two areas where we should search for our great ideas: the problem and solution spaces. The problem space is essentially the long list of pain points that remain to be solved, or the unfulfilled desires and needs in our world. For example, Venmo solves the previous problem of the difficulty behind transactions between peers. The solution space, on the other hand, contains the areas of improvements for existing solutions. Startups that spring from the solution space tend to focus on user experience and differentiated features. The solution space tends to lack the defensibility that exists in the problem space, which generates new solutions in order to solve new problems. So, how do we find ideas that exist in the problem space? One way is to talk to people. Another way is to pursue effective altruism.

At the heart of effective altruism lies a parallel to entrepreneurship: the drive to solve pressing problems with limited resources. Coincidentally or perhaps not, areas in which venture capitalists assess the potential of startups such as scale, traction, and competition resonate well with the areas in which effective altruists assess the priority of focus interventions. Entrepreneurship pushes us to find problems that affect a wide range of people and solve these problems in a resourceful and unique way. And, this attitude lies within Effective Altruism, which I would encourage aspiring entrepreneurs to consider learning about and subscribing to. Within the problem space, Effective Altruism provides a list of unsolved problems that affect a wide range of people — a perfect starting point to finding a solution that solves an important problem. 

With Effective Altruism in mind, perhaps we no longer have to worry about brainstorming or building a useless product because we would know that our problem is scalable, tractable, and neglected. And, we can still have: 

Four friends. One room. Amazing ideas flying around.

Picture this.