X-Risks and RCTs: Opposite ends of a spectrum?

I’ve been reading Caroline Fiennes’ book “It ain’t what you give, it’s the way that you give it” (which I highly recommend!), and I came across a very interesting chart that has gotten me thinking about the spectrum of activities (especially of X-risks) in the EA movement. The chart, which was originally developed by New Philanthropy Capital, focuses on the implications of the scope of a charity’s work. I’ve adapted it a bit (i.e. just changed the examples on the left) so that it more readily applies to EA concerns below:

The Pyramid of Charitable Work: Certainty, Return, and Attribution


Essentially, at the top of the pyramid, you have direct support programs – things like direct provision of medicine, cash, etc. For most of these programs, you can be pretty sure they work, they have reliable returns, and they’re pretty easy to test via evaluation. Importantly, it’s also relatively easy to compare the effectiveness of them. As you go down the pyramid, you start getting further removed from the individual, and focus more on the systems that impact the individuals. Efforts closer to the base of the pyramid are more uncertain (how do you know you’ll be able to change that law, or norm, etc.), are often very difficult to test, but since they focus on a systems-level they tend to (when they succeed) have large and sustainable impacts. Further down the pyramid is often high-risk, high-reward work.

The original bread-and-butter of EA is usually the programs that are most testable and easiest to estimate the effectiveness of – these are concentrated overwhelmingly at the top of the pyramid. Some in EA mention the importance of changing laws and other system-level changes – although it has started to get a lot of traction lately, such as during EA Global 2016 – but it’s not yet given quite as much mention as more test-able work. As such, system-level is sometimes neglected in EA discourse (Fiennes argues that system-level work is neglected among donors broadly – something that EAs arguing for system-level work have noticed as well).

If we go really far down the pyramid, we get X-risks (which weren’t in the original chart, but it works pretty well in this metaphor). Work on X-risks is hugely uncertain – there’s a very high chance that the work will amount to nothing. Also, when they do succeed, they have high returns – saving the human race, basically. Lastly, they are the least testable, for obvious reasons. These are portrayed as high-risk, high-return, and neglected within the EA community – perfect for investment by EAs.

However, EA seems to be bifurcating itself, which is worrying – all in all, the main discourse seems to concentrate on either very testable work (very top of pyramid), or on very high-risk high-return work (very bottom of pyramid) – but what about the rest of the pyramid? Work focusing on changes to laws and norms is getting some traction, but what about charitable work that is just a little bit more difficult to evaluate, because it focuses beyond the individual level, such as at the community level or includes diffuse and varied effects? Examples could include governance work, efforts to change norms surrounding violence in homes or schools, and so on. These are important, and are also often neglected.

So how would we attempt to fill out the middle of the pyramid? One way of doing this could be linking up with other social movements aiming for systems-level change (something I’ve argued for in this post), or exploring new ways of valuing programs that aren’t amenable to normal evaluation methods (such as those that have diffuse and varied impacts). Either way, it’s something we need to explore more in the movement, especially if the evaluation and logical tools we use prove to be insufficient for work in the middle of the pyramid.

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