What can a student do to reduce global suffering? Part I

As a student, it is easy to get caught up in your local bubble and forget the most important issues. And even then, it’s easy to feel powerless to do anything about them because we are poor, busy, and underqualified.

During my first few years at university, I felt like this too. But taking a pragmatic approach to doing good has showed me just how much of an impact you can have as a student.

Maths teacher

Effectiveness: an idea too often left out of altruistic thinking. The most effective ways to reduce suffering in the world are many orders of magnitude more effective than others. It's not sufficient just to think you're making a difference - you must know it, based on evidence, and if there are alternatives which would have a greater impact, you should do that instead.

Here's a list of actions that a student can take to most effectively help make the world a better place.

1. Vote

In particular, vote in general elections and referenda. This might not at first seem like a particularly effective thing to do given that it is very unlikely that your additional vote will actually sway the result. However, the amount of impact that you would have if your vote is the one to sway it is huge!

In the words of the wise Emperor in Disney’s Mulan:

One grain of rice may tip the scale, one man may be the difference between victory and defeat.

If there is a significant difference between the top candidates then this can outweigh the small probability of your vote swaying the decision. In the case of important votes such as general elections it has been shown that your vote can have somewhere between £1,000 and £10,000 worth of expected impact. Therefore, you should invest as much time into deciding which party to vote for as you would when deciding how to spend £1,000 - £10,000 on anything else such as a car, a phone, or a computer. It is worth your time to learn about the candidates, read local and national manifestos, and vote well-informed.

From an altruistic perspective, don’t just vote for a government that will improve your life, but vote for a government that will improve the lives of those most in need.

2. Donate effectively

Even though it might feel like you don’t have much money to donate, it is likely that you are in the top 5 - 10% of wealthiest people globally, with around 10 times the spending money of the global average (see where you fit into the world's wealth distribution here).

Budgeting appropriately not only helps you, but can help others! By saving 20% on your weekly shop by shopping in bulk and buying reduced items, your donations could go to feed a poverty-stricken family for a week. It is a positive trade-off - an insignificant change in our lives can result in a huge improvement in many other people's lives.

However, don’t just donate and expect that you are making an impact. Doing this would very likely lead to donating to a cause or charity that has relatively small tangible impact – and it could actually be causing more harm than good! Instead, donate to effective charities. Donating to GiveWell's recommended charities is a great place to start. They assess charities based on the amount of positive impact they have, not just the comparatively insignificant, but often used, metrics such overhead costs.

3. Discuss your donations and ethical decisions with others

Make giving normal. Make ethical consumption normal. Foster a culture of altruism.

We are socially influenced creatures. However much we feel like we have ownership over our decisions, ultimately the status quo has a huge impact on what we do. If we don’t see other people giving money to those in need, we won’t either. If we don’t see other people considering the ethical and moral repercussions of their actions, we won’t either. Unfortunately, altruistic actions such as charity donations are seldom discussed. We can help change the status quo by discussing our (effective) altruistic actions. I have written more about this here.

Well that's all for now! Hopefully that gives you something to get the cogs turning. Keep an eye out for my next blog post with more ideas to help you help the world.

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