Christiaan Broekman

Institutions: EA’s blind spot?

Christiaan has been interested in international economic development and poverty alleviation since the start of his studies. However, it was only during his first ethics course that he started reflecting more on questions in moral philosophy more broadly. In order to further inform his views, Christiaan did two masters: one in international economics and one in philosophy and economics. Studying philosophy has helped frame his thinking on how to do more good, and in particular The Effective Altruism mentality has been an immensely useful framework for systematically thinking about such questions. Moreover, he has been interested in different methodologies in economics to evaluate impact of different interventions, particularly in poverty alleviation.

During his studies, he also became more interested in the importance of institutional factors, which are by many economists considered to be at the root of poverty in the developing world (in particular, Daron Acemoglu, Douglas North and Dani Rodrik). However, with on the one hand the complexity of accurately describing the institutional environment and its link with economic development, and on the other hand the deterministic nature in institutional literature, it is difficult to align this literature with EA values focusing on handling in such a way to achieve probable beneficial consequences.

One line of criticism of EA, the institutional critique, mentions that EA has a blind spot for the way institutions work (see https://faculty.wharton.upenn.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/The-Institutional-Critique-of-Effective-Altruism.pdf for an overview and response). In this roundtable discussion, I'd like to discuss whether or not EA has disregarded institutions excessively, whether it could direct more attention towards understanding institutions and setting off institutional change, and what this may look like. To avoid having too broad of a topic, there will be a higher focus on global poverty and institutions which (are said to) contribute to poverty. The institutional critique can take several forms; one of which is roughly the following; individual action to combat poverty or poverty-related issues (such as GiveDirectly or Against Malaria Foundation) can erode the role of the government in taking on such responsibilities (see https://bostonreview.net/forum/logic-effective-altruism/daron-acemoglu-response-effective-altruism). Another form, which may or may not be consistent with the first, is the one outlined by Amia Srinivasan, who argues in the book review of William MacAskills book that effective altruism tends to embrace global capitalism as it is, rather than fighting it, as the marginal value of becoming an anti-capitalist revolutionary does not fit into the simple calculus of EA (see https://www.lrb.co.uk/v37/n18/amia-srinivasan/stop-the-robot-apocalypse. We will discuss both of these lines of criticism and their implications for EA.