Partnering with the CNAM (Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers), Effective Altruism France is organizing a publicly accessible conference and round table on May 23rd in Paris named “What Ethics, Action and Measurements to do the most good”. Guillaume Vorreux, the Director of Effective Altruism France, shared insights into what is effective altruism, and how the movement evaluates interventions for maximum impact of social and humanitarian projects.

How does effective altruism assess and prioritise interventions from various aid sectors to select and ensure the greatest impact?

In the face of a terribly unjust world, with countless fights to be fought but limited resources, effective altruism asks “How can I best help others?”.

This is a complicated question: multiple examples show that some actions have a much greater impact than others, as this picture shows:

Source: JPAL, 2011 – Comparative Cost-Effectiveness Analysis to Inform Policy in Developing Countries

Source: Dean Jamison, et al. (eds.), 2006. Disease control priorities in developing countries, 2 nd edn., (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press).

Effective altruism promotes the use of evidence-based approaches to assess and prioritise interventions across various causes. When applied to the aid sector (the movement embraces multiple causes), this process is deeply rooted in health economics research, usually focusing on the counterfactual impact of interventions —what would happen if the intervention did not occur— as well as their historical effectiveness. 

This comprehensive evaluation often includes:

– Literature review of existing research and reports to understand the effectiveness of different interventions. This helps in gathering insights on what has worked in the past and under what conditions.

– Cost-benefit analyses: by comparing the costs and benefits of different programs, determining which interventions will help the most. This involves not only financial costs but also considers the broader impact on community health and well-being.

– Experimental studies: to address gaps in existing data and test the efficacy of newer approaches, additional experimental studies can be supported. This helps in validating approaches before recommending them for wider implementation.

In addition to these specific methods, EA encourages ongoing discussion and debate about the systemic issues surrounding aid and poverty alleviation. Questions such as the overall effectiveness of aid, the potential for systemic change at the state level, and other strategic considerations are explored. This debate takes place in open, online spaces like the EA Forum, where experts and interested parties can exchange ideas and update their strategies based on new evidence or perspectives.

Two of your guiding principles are “open truthseeking” and “impartial altruism”.

Could you elaborate on these principles and explain why they are fundamentals for effective altruism?

Good question! Effective altruism is a bit unusual because it does not start with a “preferred problem to solve”. This is clear when you look at the wide range of interventions and problems the effective altruism community works on – international aid, animal welfare, moral philosophy, pandemics prevention, international governance on social risks from emerging technologies. This diversity sometimes confuses people, but it comes from the fact that the “EA movement” is a large group of people united by the desire to find the best ways to help others, following a few principles. People choose to work on a variety of projects.

Open truth-seeking is the commitment to rigorously and honestly investigate the effectiveness of different actions and interventions within the framework of effective altruism. It embodies a dedication to adjust one’s perspectives in light of new evidence or compelling counterarguments, striving to disprove rather than merely confirm existing beliefs. This approach not only facilitates clearer thinking but also mitigates cognitive biases that can cloud judgement and decision-making.

The principle of impartiality insists that all lives—regardless of geographic, temporal, or species differences—have inherent value. This means we must direct resources and efforts to where they can achieve the greatest measurable impact without bias towards proximity or emotional closeness. It can often lead to prioritising support for underrepresented groups, such as individuals in low-income countries, future generations, and non-human animals, particularly when these groups are neglected or underserved by mainstream philanthropic and societal efforts. Impartiality in altruism ensures that actions are grounded not in parochial or insular preferences but in a universalistic ambition to do good.

Could you give one example of an organisation aligned with effective altruism and your values, their purpose and their impact?

Many organisations endeavour to use careful analysis, reasoning and data to try to help the most individuals and do immensely beneficial work all around the planet. One prime example of an organisation that embodies the principles of effective altruism is GiveWell. This non-profit organisation is dedicated to analysing the effectiveness of other charities and directing funds towards those that save or improve lives the most per dollar spent. Through rigorous, data-driven research, GiveWell assesses and compares the impact of global health and development programs to provide clear, transparent recommendations to donors.

For instance, GiveWell highly recommends the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF) for their outstanding impact. AMF focuses on distributing insecticide-treated nets to combat malaria, a major health challenge that results in over 200 million cases annually and was responsible for approximately 600,000 deaths in 2022 according to the World Health Organization.

In 2023, AMF estimated that their efforts prevented around 20 million malaria cases and 40,000 deaths. Historically, GiveWell has directed about $90 million per year to AMF, attesting to its commitment to funding interventions that offer significant, measurable benefits in terms of lives saved and improved health outcomes.

In the aid sector, another organisation whose approach is definitely evidence-based is GiveDirectly. Although their estimated impact is not as high as AMF, this innovative nonprofit focuses on making unconditional cash transfers to the poor in developing countries. Unlike traditional aid models that dictate how funds must be used, GiveDirectly trusts recipients to use the money in ways that best suit their needs. This method has been supported by rigorous research, showing impressive results on poverty reduction, household income, food security, health, and education outcomes among recipients. Research indicates that cash transfers are not only cost-effective but also empower individuals to make investments that can lead to sustained income improvements and greater economic autonomy.

How does your organisation enable people to learn about effective altruism, to foster connections and to take action?

Altruisme Efficace France is a France-based nonprofit aiming to help people have more impact through their career or their donations. Our activities include educational programs, individualised career and donation advice, meetups and social platforms for community engagement. 

We also contribute to the public discussion on the importance of impartial and research-based decision making in the public and philanthropic spheres. For example, on May 23rd, 2024, we are partnering with Cnam (Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers) around a publicly accessible conference and round table, with renowned philosopher Peter Singer and other researchers interested in social impact. All readers are invited to participate!