Which causes should we focus on?

A cause is likely to be high impact to the extent that it is:

  • Great in scale (it affects many people’s lives, by a great amount)

  • Highly neglected (few other people are working on addressing the problem), and

  • Highly solvable (additional resources will do a great deal to address it).

Given the evidence currently available, the following areas represent our best guesses about where we can have the most impact.

1. Fighting Extreme Poverty


About 900 million people live under the World Bank’s poverty line of USD1.90 per day. Diseases associated with extreme poverty, such as malaria and waterborne illnesses, kill millions of people every year. Poor nutrition in developing countries can lead to cognitive impairment, birth defects and growth stunting.

Much of this suffering can be easily prevented or mitigated. Antimalarial bednets cost around USD2.50 each. With technical assistance, countries can fortify staple foods like flour with essential micronutrients (like iron, iodine, and vitamins) incredibly cheaply. Treating a child that has a parasitic worm infection costs less than USD1.50.

Mass-media campaigns to drive behaviour change are a promising way of improving health and wellbeing, and may significantly improve the effectiveness of other healthcare services. And simply transferring money to people who are very poor provides direct economic empowerment, giving recipients more control over their lives.

Not only does improving health avert the direct suffering associated with sickness and death, it also allows people to participate more fully in education and work, and consequently earn more money and have more opportunities later in life.

Photo source: Against Malaria Foundation

Photo source: Against Malaria Foundation

2. Animal Suffering
Many people in the effective altruism community believe that we should be concerned about the welfare of nonhuman animals.
In particular, the advent of industrialized agriculture means that billions of animals each year are kept in inhumane conditions on factory farms. Most have their lives ended prematurely when they are slaughtered for food.
Advocates for their welfare argue that it is relatively cheap to reduce demand for factory farmed meat, or enact legislative changes that improve the welfare of farmed animals. Because of the huge numbers of animals involved, making progress on this issue could avert a very large amount of suffering.
Given the scale of the problem, animal welfare seems extremely neglected. Only 3% of philanthropic funding in the US is split between the environment and animals, while 97% goes toward helping humans. And even within the funding spent on animal welfare, only about 1% goes towards farmed animals, despite the extreme suffering they endure.

3. Improving the Long-term Future


Most of us care not just about this generation, but also about preserving the planet for future generations. Because the future is so vast, the number of people who could exist in the future is probably many times greater than the number of people alive today. This suggests that it may be extremely important to ensure that life on earth continues, and that people in the future have positive lives. Of course, this idea might seem counterintuitive: we don't often think about the lives of our great-grandchildren, let alone their great-grandchildren. But just as we shouldn't ignore the plight of the global poor just because they live in a foreign country, we shouldn't ignore future generations just because they are less visible.

Unfortunately, there are many ways in which we might miss out on a very positive long-term future. Climate change and nuclear war are well-known threats to the long-term survival of our species. Many researchers believe that risks from emerging technologies, such as advanced artificial intelligence and designed pathogens, may be even more worrying. Of course, it is hard to be sure exactly how technologies will develop, or the impact they'll have. But it seems that these technologies have the potential to radically shape the course of progress over the centuries to come. Because of the scale of the future, it seems likely that work on this problem is even more high impact than work on the previous two cause areas.

Yet existential risks stemming from new technologies have been surprisingly neglected - there are just tens of people working on risks from AI or pathogens worldwide. US households spend around 2% of their budgets on personal insurance, on average. If we were to spend a comparable percentage of global resources on addressing risks to civilization, there would be millions of people working on these problems, with a budget of trillions of dollars per year. But instead, we spend just a tiny fraction of that amount, even though such risks may become substantial in the decades to come. If we value protection against unlikely but terrible outcomes individually, as our insurance coverage suggests we do, we should also value protection against terrible outcomes collectively. After all, a collective terrible outcome, like human extinction, is terrible for everyone individually, too. For this reason, it seems prudent for our civilization to spend more time and money mitigating existential risks. (You can find more detail here.)

It’s likely that we have overlooked some very important causes. So one way to have a huge impact might be to find an opportunity to do good that’s potentially high-impact, but that everyone else has missed.

4. Other Causes


There are many other promising causes that, while not currently the primary focuses of the effective altruism community, are plausible candidates for having a big impact.

These include:

  • Improvements to the scientific establishment, such as greater transparency and replication of results

  • Researching mental health and neurological disorders, particularly depression and anxiety, and improving access to treatment in low-income countries

  • Tobacco control

  • Prevention of road traffic injuries

  • US criminal justice reform

  • International migration and trade policy reform

  • Global priorities research