ETA: Evidently FTX Future Fund is funding a talent search project in the developing world to help address the diversity problem. What else can be done?
ETA#2: "Social justice is a matter of life and death. It affects
the way people live, their consequent chance of
illness, and their risk of premature death. We watch in
wonder as life expectancy and good health continue
to increase in parts of the world and in alarm as they
fail to improve in others. A girl born today can expect
to live for more than 80 years if she is born in some
countries – but less than 45 years if she is born in
others. Within countries there are dramatic differences
in health that are closely linked with degrees of social
disadvantage. Differences of this magnitude, within and
between countries, simply should never happen." WHO Closing the Gap in a Generation
Taking the question literally, searching the term ‘social justice’ in EA forum reveals only 12 mentions, six within blog posts, and six comments, one full blog post supports it, three items even question its value, the remainder being neutral or unclear on value.
Social justice – as defined by Oxford Reference – is the “objective of creating a fair and equal society in which each individual matters, their rights are recognized and protected, and decisions are made in ways that are fair and honest”. The term ‘social justice’ has evolved to become adversarial, but for my purposes here, I am referencing the Oxford definition.
Being relatively new to EA (I had not heard of it before June 2021, although since then I have consumed all the books, and many of the podcasts, as well as the websites of each organization, and have benefitted from the career counselling), I believe I can still take an outsider’s perspective. As a newcomer to EA, I have nothing to gain or lose, and am only interested in improving what I see as a fundamentally good social movement.
When I discovered EA, I believed I had found my community. Coming from a generally utilitarian viewpoint, valuing efficiency and evidence, and wanting to make the world a better place, I was excited to finally find a school of thought which aligns with my own. However, the more I learn about the people of EA, the more I worry EA is another exclusive, powerful, elite community, which has somehow neglected diversity. The face of EA appears from the outside to be a collection of privileged, highly educated, primarily young, white men.
I don’t believe EA’s oversight of diversity has been deliberate. I just think we (I include myself because, apart from being female and mid-career, I otherwise identify with the EA stereotype) start in a place of such privilege as to have the bandwidth to concern ourselves with making the world a better place. People who live in impoverished countries, work three jobs to make ends meet, are food insecure, or are struggling against the glass ceiling of structural power do not have the time to consider improving the lives of others. Or if they do, they do not have the means by which to do so.
I hope to appeal to EA’s core identity of welcoming constructive criticism in asking EAs to reflect on the social justice in the following spheres:
• The EA community is exclusive based on country of origin. Most leaders and founders seem to hail from the global north, more specifically, Europe and its colonies. As a white settler in Canada, I know the structural privilege of colonialism has afforded me success – my level of education, comfortable income, and respectable career - although I would like to believe it was entirely my talent and hard work which made me successful. As a woman, if I had been born in Afghanistan, I would be neither literate nor educated, let alone employed. We EAs start with privilege of country of birth.
• The EA community is exclusive in the decision-making. The EA organizations now manage billions of dollars, but the decisions, as far as I can tell, are made by only a handful of people. Money is power, and although the decisions might be carefully considered to doing the most good, it is acutely unfair this kind of power is held by an elite few. How can it be better distributed? What if every person in low-income countries were cash-transferred one years’ wage? It would give them a buffer to think about doing good better.
• The EA community is exclusive by level of education. I have seen much written about how EA considers itself merit-based, however, to be recognized for epistemic merit, one would need to have at least a post-secondary education to achieve a reputable job. Most EA leaders seem to have at minimum graduate degrees, if not tenured professorships. Do high school dropout, blue-collar working-class people have good ideas about doing the most good for the world? How would we know?
I have four questions:
1) Am I wrong in my stereotype of the average EA? I would be interested to learn if the rank-and-file EAs are a more diverse group than those who present a public face. However, even if true, I suspect the diversity within EA could still be improved.
2) Is my interest in greater diversity within EA misguided? If you think it is, please reply in the comments, rather than simply downvoting the post.
3) If I am right about the lack of diversity in EA, is it something the EA community is working towards improving? I have seen EA forum comments refute equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives as not being merit-based, but as I argued above, the merit you are identifying is fostered by privilege; the privilege of education, country of birth, the ability to attend an elite university, etc. Therefore, selection is not based on merit, but privilege. Bright Malawian girls would achieve the same merit if provided with the same privilege.
4) If diversity should be increased, how can it be accomplished? Although I dislike the term, “giving a voice to the voiceless” because in practice we should be passing the mic, one idea is to have advisors from marginalized communities to all the EA decision-makers. Another idea, borrowed from the psychology term “contact hypothesis”, is the EA leaders could go to the marginalized people to get ideas, for example at soup kitchens, immigrant and indigenous communities, detention centers, or in low-income countries, refugee camps, or in impoverished global south villages.
I do not believe EA has been deliberately exclusionary, but I am concerned that if concerted efforts are not made to include marginalized people within EA and in the distribution of billions of dollars, it may become an echo chamber of epistemic elite.