SJ + EA: Extreme Poverty as a Social Justice Priority

Cullen O’Keefe, President

The pursuit of social justice was the central theme of my undergraduate experience. In my classes, campus involvement, and nascent career, I dedicated my time to fighting oppression, especially oppression based on gender, sex, sexuality, and race. I came to law school expecting to dedicate my career to these struggles by working for a non-profit. However, I have since become convinced that I should prioritize combating extreme poverty instead. In this piece, I hope to convince you that, if you value social justice and some of the common core beliefs that undergird it, you ought to focus more on global poverty, too.

NB: This post represents my personal views and not those of HLS Effective Altruism.

Cause Prioritization as a Social Justice Concept

On June 26, 2015, I joined thousands on the steps of the Supreme Court to celebrate the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage. But, as many rightfully pointed out, that victory had immense cost: the LGBTQ movement had limited political and financial resources, so to prioritize marriage equality was necessarily to divert resources away from issues like homelessness, sexual violence, transphobia, and employment discrimination.

Since I’m committed to equality, I obviously think that a world with marriage equality is better than one without it. And I also know that marriage equality does not exist in a vacuum: it has positive effects on the health and general social standing of LGBQ people. Still, it seems to me that the time, effort, political capital, and money spent advocating for marriage equality would have done more overall good if it had been dedicated to eliminating LGBTQ homelessness, for example.

The same principle can be stated more generally: given that, tragically, there is more injustice in the world than we can immediately solve, we ought to allocate our limited resources to the most important causes. To fail to allocate these resources optimally (or as close thereto as we can get) is to leave the world worse than it could otherwise be. Anyone who values justice should find such needless suffering disturbing.

Some might find the idea of ranking injustices disquieting, or even heartless. But, given the gap between our resources and suffering in the world, we have little choice: the alternative is to allocate resources uncritically, which cannot possibly be better.

Effective altruism (EA) provides a framework for prioritizing causes. That framework identifies three characteristics that make a cause a good candidate for prioritization: importance (or, as I’ll refer to it, magnitude), neglectedness, and tractability.

Magnitude can be decomposed into two factors: scale (i.e., how many individuals the problem affects) and severity (i.e., how bad the problem makes the lives of the affected individuals). I hope that the idea that we should choose causes with especially large magnitude needs little justification.

Neglectedness is an important consideration because, just as money has decreasing marginal returns for individuals (i.e., an increase of income by X dollars improves the welfare of a rich person less than it improves the welfare of a poor person), additional charitable dollars given to (the right) underfunded charities (and the causes they tackle) do more good than if given to well-funded ones.

Finally, those who care about actually effecting positive change cannot ignore tractability: the extent to which definite, evidence-based interventions exist for the problem.

This framework adequately explains, I think, why prioritizing marriage equality within the universe of issues affecting LGBTQ people was sub-optimal. To see why, let’s compare the issues. About 1 million Americans are currently in a same-gender marriage. By comparison, about 320,000 to 400,000 American LGBTQ youth experience homelessness each year. The scale of marriage inequality (while it existed) may therefore have been greater than the scale of LGBTQ homelessness. The great severity of the latter however, makes its overall magnitude greater: though both are bad, being homeless is much worse than being unable to enter a same-gender marriage.[1]

LGBTQ youth homelessness was, and still is, a highly neglected issue. While the campaigns for marriage equality raked in tens of millions of dollars, shelters for homeless LGBTQ youth continue to struggle with underfunding.

Comparing the tractability of marriage inequality and homelessness is difficult. Great evidence (e.g., meta-analyses, randomized controlled trials) on the effectiveness of homelessness interventions is lacking, but there are some evidence-supported practices. Of course, there were no randomized controlled trials on proposed interventions to end marriage inequality when that struggle began, and little anecdotal evidence existed until the late 1990s.[2] In hindsight, it is perhaps clear that proponents of equality had the law and social trends on their side, but the prospect was less than certain even on the eve of Obergefell. What’s more, opponents of marriage equality were willing to spend tens of millions of dollars fighting against equality; one struggles to imagine similar political and economic mobilization against LGBTQ homeless shelters. This suggests to me that homelessness was, at minimum, equally tractable as marriage inequality.

In sum, then, EA principles affirm the intuition (which I share) that resources allocated to marriage equality would have been better spent fighting LGBTQ homelessness. Homelessness is a larger problem, was more neglected, and was at least as tractable as marriage inequality. It therefore deserved prioritization.

However, it makes little sense to me to prioritize the various issues within a cause (e.g., homelessness within the cause of LGBTQ equality) without also comparing issues across causes. Just as there are limited resources for promoting LGBTQ equality, there are limited resources for promoting justice generally. So, we must prioritize generally.

Why Prioritize Extreme Poverty

I focus on ameliorating extreme poverty because I believe it has high magnitude, neglectedness, and tractability.

The scale and severity of extreme global poverty makes it a worthwhile cause. Approximately 802 million people live in extreme poverty, according to the World Bank definition[3]: a cost-of-living-adjusted income of <$1.90/day. Given that there are only roughly 323 million Americans, this is a good reason to believe that extreme poverty is a greater problem than any (purely) domestic problem.

The severity of extreme poverty is almost unimaginable for those of us fortunate enough to have never experienced it. Extreme poverty means the lack of consistent access to the most basic healthcare services (such as insecticide-treated bednets or deworming drugs, both of which are incredibly cheap), primary education, potable water, toilets, food, and housing. Of course, many Americans struggle with these same problems. But the number of people living in extreme poverty worldwide is far greater, and American poverty, though horrible, is usually not as severe as extreme poverty.[4] Given its magnitude, your charitable dollars have the power to significantly improve the lives of those in extreme poverty by, for example, stopping young children from dying of easily preventable diseases. This has the added benefit of aiding the economies of affected regions. In the right hands, your donation can do an incredible amount of good.

Extreme poverty is also a highly tractable issue. The interventions we recommend—providing insecticide-treated bed nets, unconditional direct cash transfers, and deworming, for example—make demonstrable and significant positive impacts on the lives of people living in extreme poverty.

Extreme poverty is highly neglected. All of our recommended charities could effectively use much more money. Sadly, this need is currently not being met by aid from the West for a number of reasons. The US allocates less than 1% of its budget to foreign aid each year. President Trump wants to cut this even further and eviscerate other programs that ameliorate global poverty. Americans do no better in their private giving: the overwhelming majority of our charitable dollars are given to domestic organizations. While disheartening, this gives donors like you and me an incredible opportunity to fill this gap and give much-needed resources to people living in extreme poverty.

In sum, global poverty is a large, highly tractable, and highly neglected issue. This means that your charitable dollars will do a lot more good if given to organizations fighting global poverty than they would if given to a domestic cause.

Extreme Poverty as a Social Justice Issue

Although I think the above considerations make a sufficient case for giving to charities that work to ameliorate extreme poverty, I think the case is even stronger for those who, like me, value social justice.

Core SJ Values: Autonomy, Equality, Anti-oppression

While certainly not a complete ethics, my own social justice philosophy is well captured by a combination of these three values. Much could be and has been written in an effort to define and defend them. I won’t try to do that here, but will instead assume that you agree that they are valuable and briefly sketch what I mean by each for the purposes of the rest of this post.

By autonomy, I mean, roughly, the ability to form genuine personal desires and goals without coercion or other interference, and access to the circumstances—such as freedom, health, and resources—necessary to pursue those goals. My concept of autonomy is closely related to what others might call liberation.

By equality, I mean a situation that reflects the truth that individuals have equal moral worth and therefore have equal moral claim to various essential ethical goods, like autonomy, longevity, pleasure, and freedom from suffering.

By oppression, I mean consciously maintained large-scale and gross inequality between equally deserving groups, wherein one maintains power and/or access to ethical goods at the expense of the other(s). Anti-oppression, therefore, is work that aims at eliminating those inequalities.

Extreme Poverty as Heteronomy

Using the above definition, extreme poverty clearly impedes autonomy. The most obvious way it does this is by causing death. 6.3 million children under five die every year (17,260 every day; 12 every minute; one every five seconds). 80% of these occur in Sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia. Half are due to undernutrition. About three in ten are due to pneumonia (13%), diarrhoea (9%), or malaria (7%). Each of these is a preventable tragedy, and a lost opportunity to raise a young child to a fulfilled adulthood.

Those who must constantly worry about accessing the basics of survival cannot easily pursue the long-term and higher-order goals necessary for a fulfilled life. For evidence of this, look at the GDLive feature from one of our recommended charities, GiveDirectly (GD). GD provides unconditional cash transfers to people living in extreme poverty, and GDLive shares recipients’ unfiltered experiences. Transfer recipients use their money to improve their housing, invest in their businesses, and pay for schooling. The differences GD’s transfers make show how severely autonomy is limited under extreme poverty—and how our donations can support others’ liberation.

Disease severely curtails autonomy, too. Malaria sharply diminishes reproductive autonomy, causing over 10,000 maternal deaths and 200,000 neonatal deaths each year. Parasitic worms limit children’s educational achievement and cognitive development. 2 billion people suffer from iodine deficiency, which has an array of negative health consequences. Each of these is easily preventable, yet they are major burdens worldwide.

Extreme Poverty as Inequality

Global income is extremely unequally distributed. The median American household income per person is more than 6x greater than the global median, and almost 46x greater than the median of the world’s poorest countries. And, of course, people living in extreme poverty are far more likely to be affected by easily preventable diseases like malaria, diarrhea, and schistosomiasis. Such stark inequality is impossible to justify.

Extreme poverty interacts with nearly all other forms of inequality. Extreme poverty disproportionately impacts women. It disproportionately affects people of color, especially those in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. It disproportionately affects indigenous people. It disproportionately affects people with disabilities. It is therefore an inescapable social justice issue.

Extreme Poverty as Oppression

We have a choice over whether to allow extreme poverty to persist. Rich people (including most Americans, as compared to the rest of the world) have the power to end extreme poverty in our lifetime. When Americans choose to live in relative luxury when only modest reductions in our quality-of-life can dramatically improve the lives of people living in extreme poverty, we choose to maintain massive inequalities and overlook gross injustices. As beneficiaries of this unjust distribution of wealth, the global rich have a duty to engage in anti-oppression work aimed at eliminating extreme poverty: through giving, social influence, and political action.

Common Objections within Social Justice

Social Justice Starts at Home

Many people I know believe (or act as though they believe) that we ought to focus primarily on local injustices. I understand this sentiment, and indeed at one point shared it. However, I no longer believe that it is reconcilable with my commitment to equality. We live in a world in which suffering and injustice are unevenly distributed over communities, nations, and continents. Focusing on local injustices is therefore bound to result, more often than not, in sub-optimal resource allocation.

Americans routinely grossly overvalue American lives in our military, energy, health, diplomatic, and trade policies. This is, of course, outrageous. But our preferences as donors are apparently no better: 94% of our donations stay within our borders, despite the fact that we make up less than 8% of the world, and despite the fact that it is far easier to save non-American lives. We can no longer tolerate this disparity.

Colonialism and Imperialism

I also think many Westerners in social justice spaces are reluctant to combat extreme poverty because, historically and still today, many have attempted to justify the horrors of colonialism and imperialism on the grounds that they “improved” the lives of colonized people.

As a white Westerner, I must take this concern seriously. I also know that, for the same reason, I am not an expert on these concerns and am therefore receptive to new criticisms. However, I must also decide whether to (attempt to) ameliorate extreme poverty. Total indifference to extreme poverty cannot possibly be the more just path, even given the histories of colonialism and imperialism. The question, then, must be how to engage with extreme poverty.

Again, I think effective altruism provides a good answer. EA charities demonstrably and dramatically improve the lives of people living in extreme poverty. With one notable exception discussed in the next paragraph, they provide basic healthcare services to people living in extreme poverty. They do this unconditionally and without trying to impose a particular ideology or political order upon recipients. Unless Westerner-funded provision of necessary basic health services is necessarily colonial, then, it seems to me that EA charities avoid, as much as possible, colonial or imperial implications.

Still, any lingering skepticism would have ample justification in the historical record. If one wishes to avoid even a whiff of colonialism, then, one should consider the aforementioned exception: GiveDirectly. GD transfers donations directly to Ugandans and Kenyans living in extreme poverty. The transfers are unconditional: recipients may spend (or save) their money however they choose. Recipients’ experiences (including any criticisms) are available, unfiltered and unedited, through GDLive. I hope that even the biggest aid skeptics will agree that GD is an exemplary charity.

What Next?

I hope that by now I have convinced you that extreme poverty is an important social justice cause, and that you are willing to join me in working to end it. If you have the money to, the best thing you can do is to give to one of GiveWell’s top charities. Those charities, to which I have referred throughout this piece, are exceptionally cost-effective, transparent, and supported by rigorous evidence. Even small donations to them make a big difference. If you want to make a lifelong commitment to fighting global poverty (as I have), consider pledging part of your income to global poverty charities through One For The World (1%), The Life You Can Save (income-dependent), or Giving What We Can (10%).

If you are not currently in a position to donate, I’ve also detailed some low- and no-cost ways I practice effective altruism here. I especially hope that you will consider joining the EA movement and working with us, in whatever way you can, to end extreme poverty.

If you have any questions about the views I outline here, or my journey to becoming an EA, please do not hesitate to contact me.


[1] I could not find data on the comparative severity of these problems in my preferred method of comparing the severity of problems, quality-adjusted life years (QALYs), though some work has been done to evaluate the badness of homelessness using QALYs. However, it seems right to say that experiencing homelessness in a given year is at least 3 times as bad as being unable to marry for that year. Marriage does appear to improve happiness and, as mentioned, has some positive health effects. However, the effects of youth homelessness are many and severe. Given all this, I feel relatively confident asserting that youth homelessness, especially for LGBTQ youth (who are at higher risk for many of the problems generally associated with homelessness generally), is much worse than marriage inequality.

[2]  For a good account of the legal and political struggle for marriage equality, see Michael Klarman’s From the Closet to the Altar.

[3] Which is not beyond criticism, but which is nevertheless the standard measure of global extreme poverty. Of course, living just above the World Bank line is still very difficult, and I am by no means suggesting that we ought to care only about persons below the World Bank poverty line.

[4] For example, an American living at the poverty line is still wealthier than 86.2% of people.

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