Many anti-racists are rightfully leery of intervention in the developing world. Historically, the consequences of white people lifting up the white man’s burden have not exactly been great. Slavery was justified on the grounds that it civilized black people. Europeans inflamed racial tensions, sometimes tragically leading to genocide. Boundaries were drawn more for colonialists’ convenience than based on the actual tribes that lived there, causing conflict even today. And of course all that colonization began with wars with the people of color who impertinently seemed to feel no need to be saved.
In the modern day, the developed world has mostly managed to avoid conquering places. Instead, our current hobbies include screwing up the developing world’s economies with the International Monetary Fund, propping up dictators and training their militaries in torture, encouraging people to imprison gay people, and committing war crimes that involve the murder of children.
I think effective altruism, however, is not white-saviorist or neocolonialist. Indeed, its success in avoiding these failure modes is striking, given that its membership is overwhelmingly white and from the developed world and has a collective racial politics that can be best described as ’embarrassing.’
I think effective altruist thought has two key points that keep it from becoming colonialist.
First, effective altruists tend to emphasize evidence. It’s all too easy to make assumptions that people in developing countries really want what you think they ought to want, regardless of their stated preferences. It’s all too easy to blunder into some complex system you don’t understand and mess everything up, because you have a PhD and none of these people have a fourth-grade education and how could they possibly know more than you do? It’s all too easy to tell yourself a beautiful story about the grateful natives and ignore the facts on the ground. It’s all too easy to decide that clearly what would really benefit people in the developing world is whatever benefits you.
The corrective to these tendencies is a radical insistence on figuring out what things work and doing them. Not what things sound nice to rich white people half a world away, not what things make you feel warm and fuzzy inside, not what those smart people in very good suits said totally ought to work, but what things actually work. And then you keep tracking what things work and when the situation on the ground changes or it turns out you’ve made a mistake, you don’t double down. You do a different thing that works.
The other corrective, frankly, is a hefty dose of humility. There’s a reason that a lot of recommended effective altruist charities are in public health. Economic development involves a host of assumptions about how economies work and how to trade off different values and so on, any of which can be mistaken and then you have an utter disaster on your hands. Deworming only requires the assumptions that deworming medicine works the same in Africa as it does in Europe and that most people do not like being infested with worms, both of which seem to be on fairly firm ground.
Second, effective altruists care a lot about autonomy. Give Directly does what it says on the tin: it gives poor people in Africa unconditional cash transfers. Much to the surprise of burden-carrying white men everywhere, it turns out that if you give people money they make basically reasonable decisions about what to spend it on: they buy livestock, furniture, and iron roofs. It turns out that people generally know their own needs better than you do, and you should generally trust them instead of assuming that you know better. Consider the effective altruist proverb: if your intervention cannot outperform giving poor people cash, you should just give them the cash. This sort of essential respect for the preferences of people in the developing world speaks well for our ability to actually improve things, instead of just making ourselves feel better.