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Effective Altruism: Where Charity And Rationality Meet

FLI Viktor Zhanov

Viktor Zhdanov in 1964. In 1958, Mr. Zhdanov, then the deputy minister of health for the Soviet Union, persuaded the World Health Assembly to undertake a global initiative to eradicate smallpox. The success of his visionary plan saved the lives of millions who would otherwise have died of the illness. Credit Ria Novosti/Science Photo Library

You are lucky enough to have some money to give away: It could be $100 or $1 million. Whether you are prepared to make a small donation or a big one, you would like to accomplish something good with it.

But how do you evaluate the best way to deploy your money? Alas, economic research until now has offered little guidance. Nonetheless, a new intellectual and social movement — a loosely affiliated group of people who call their effort effective altruism — is encouraging donors to think more scientifically about philanthropy.

From the standpoint of effective altruism, the problem behind a lot of charitable giving is that individuals often make donations without doing much analysis. They simply think the best of charities that interest them and accept at face value that these charities are doing a terrific job. Accountability is never considered.

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