“Helping the poor… by getting rich: ingenious or delusional?”
That headline from 2011 presaged the range of responses i received when I later told people that I was taking a corporate strategy consulting job in the City so that I could give more money to charity.
It was 2012, and I was in my final year of university. I had been defaulting towards academia before I encountered the Effective Altruism movement, which encourages us to use reason and evidence to determine how we can use our resources to help others most. Encouraged by discussions with other Effective Altruists, I was already donating 10 per cent of my student income to pay for deworming treatments and the distribution of anti-malaria bed nets, two of the most cost-effective charitable causes. But to many of us it seemed obvious that we could do even more good by seeking out a well-paying job and increasing our donations that way.
To some people, rearranging my career plans in this way might seem like a dramatic step. To me, it felt like a natural response to the fact that there are so many people in the world in such urgent need that we can so easily help. As Larissa MacFarquhar has written, in times of crisis – such as wartime – it is normal for people to make sacrifices far, far greater than mine: giving up their homes, their families and even their lives. Effective Altruists are unusual only in treating global poverty as a genuine crisis.
Over the course of three years, my wife and I gave away over £20,000 – enough to treat more than 10,000 people. That part was remarkably easy. The money came out of my salary each month along with my taxes and student loan, meaning that I never saw it or budgeted for it. I made a deliberate decision not to think much more about it – I didn’t want it to take over my life to the point where I was standing in the supermarket aisle calculating the number of bed nets I could buy if I switched to own brand cereal. But in the back of my mind, I was always aware that my contribution was growing.
I don’t think there was ever any danger of me losing sight of why I went into consulting or being corrupted by my new surroundings. I’ve always been pretty frugal and I was very conscious of the importance of building savings, so my lifestyle was unlikely to get out of hand. While there were company retreats to exotic locations and team dinners at fancy restaurants, my personal habits never felt hugely out of step with those around me. It certainly wasn’t like people sat around comparing sportscars or holiday homes.
It was harder to deal with the job itself. The hours were long and tough, regularly staying in the office beyond midnight. The subject matter was often obscure and tedious (I know more than I ever wanted to about the German software reselling market). A lot of the time, I didn’t feel any intrinsic purpose to what I was doing. Sunday evenings came to be filled with dread, as I felt the shadow of a new week of work looming. I often found myself counting down the days to my next holiday.
But this line of self-pity makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. The sad truth about our society is that many people don’t enjoy their jobs and see the working week as something to endure. It is a special kind of privilege to see this as intolerable. Like many of those people, I suspect, I found that work was only one small component of my overall happiness. I still had my wife, my family, my friends; I could cook and eat, read and listen to music, as ever before. It was a difficult time, but I wouldn’t say all things considered it was an unhappy time.
My reasons for leaving consulting are a bit messier than my reasons for going in. My last few months in the job were pretty awful, as I got stuck in a cycle of roles that didn’t suit me, that I didn’t do well in, and I became increasingly demoralised. Three years in, I realised that I couldn’t envisage myself remaining in consulting in the long term (and probably wouldn’t succeed even if I could sustain my motivation). The longer I stayed, the older I would be when it came to the inevitable step of starting again in a new field.
I had always been interested in public policy (an area of growing interest for Effective Altruists), so I moved to an NGO working on alcohol policy, an area with lots of cost-effective interventions. I am working towards a PhD in Social Policy, building my skills for the future. And of course, I continue to donate 10 per cent of my (now smaller) income to effective charities.
But I still worry that this is not the optimal use of my abilities. The prospect of changing policy offers huge potential for positive impact, but the likelihood of success is very low, and identifying the causal impact of any specific individual is extremely tricky. Inevitably, then, I find myself pining for the certainty that every day’s work was worth a certain number of bed nets or deworming drugs. Ultimately, it feels to me like I have made a moral compromise: I do less good for the world, but at lower cost to myself, and I have to live with that.