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.