Our new member: Effective Altruism Estonia

7. May 2024

The NENO recently gained one more member with no less than world-changing ambition. Effective Altruism Estonia (EA Estonia) defines itself on its website as a community of people who aim to do good deeds as effectively as possible and are united by the desire to be more efficient in doing so. Our volunteer Marie spoke to Triin Teesalu, co-director of EA Estonia.

Marie. What is an effective altruism? What makes a good deed effective?
The resources at our disposal, such as time or money, are notoriously limited. The question is what and how much we can do with these resources. The measure of effectiveness is how much good we can do with one unit of time, skill or money. This is why we talk about smart giving. At the same time, we want to steer people, especially young people, towards careers where they can make the biggest possible difference to society. Your life’s vocation will determine to a large extent how much good you can and will be able to do in your everyday life.
EA Estonia is one of the cells of a larger global movement and community of effective altruism.

Marie: So how do you find out which focus is more effective than the other?
Triin: There is obviously a number of methods of impact assessment. One particular framework that we use in our community of effective altruism consists of three metrics: scale of the problem, scale of marginalisation, solvability. The impact of addressing a chosen problem is likely to be high if the problem is large in scale, i.e. touches the lives of many in a big way. We might also consider the extent to which the problem is marginalised, i.e. whether there is someone already working on the same problem area. Finally, the extent to which the problem is solvable, i.e. how much sense it makes to focus resources on it, is also important. These principles can be used to identify an area of activity with a potentially high impact.

Marie: Can you give us some examples of career choices that could put bread on the table and solve important societal problems at the same time?
Triin: I myself work in biostatistics and programming. I can therefore immediately give an example from the field of clinical trials, where you are working with important drugs, such as those for viral diseases that kill millions every year. There are organisations in this field whose central aim is to reduce the length of drug trials. Today, clinical trials last on average 10 years. Shortening the duration of trials would probably save the resources needed to carry out trials and, of course, life-saving medicines would become available more quickly. But this is just one example. High-impact careers can be pursued in a wide variety of fields, from writing about important issues as a journalist to practising the art of social criticism.

Marie: Are there any areas that the community of effective altruism pays particular attention to?
Primarily, our focus is on anything that can be considered as mitigating existential risks, i.e. preventing scenarios that could result in the death of all humanity. For example, the development of safe artificial intelligence, the prevention of pandemics and nuclear disasters. In addition to reducing the risks to existence, the well-being of people living today is also an important area. Of course, reducing inequalities in the world is important. The approach of leaving no one behind could be part of the moral code of humanity. This should also take into account animal welfare. In the case of animals, we are talking about farm animals suffering on industrial farms. The most familiar example to the Estonian people might be caged hens. I believe that most people have seen footage of laying hens living in Estonia’s largest chicken farms. It is horrific torture and no living creature deserves such a life, but fortunately there is an organisation called Invisible Animals in Estonia which is drawing attention to this and we hope that it will soon be banned.

Marie: How many members does the effective altruism community have in Estonia? What is the most common profile of a community member?
Honestly, we don’t have a clear statistical picture. We have mathematicians as well as philosophers, physicists and philologists. Today there are around a couple of dozen of us. On Slack, however, over 80 people follow our activities, our Facebook page has almost a thousand followers and our monthly newsletter is read by 220 people. Our Smart Philanthropist short course has 25 participants this spring. In the autumn, we also ran AI security courses with 16 participants, and are currently running our first ever biosecurity course. It is very encouraging to see that there is interest and it is growing.

Also, we cannot forget the members living abroad who come to events or summer days whenever they are in Estonia.

Marie: Can you share any successes stories?
A lot has been done on AI security at the global level. The effective altruism community is making a big contribution to getting the field researched and regulated. In Estonia specifically, it is great to see that our community is getting more engaged and active. As measuring impact is at the heart of our principles, we are doing the same for our own organisation. Last year, we were joined by three ‘high contributors’, individuals who donate at least 10% of their income to effective charities or made a conscious career or professional choice to contribute more effectively to a particular issue area based on the principles of effective altruism. In the future, we will certainly be able to talk about more substantial victories.

Marie: What brought you to effective altruism?
The desire to do something more. I took a 10-month break from work a while back. It’s safe to say I was hit by an early mid-life crisis. It was as if I had achieved all the important goals I had set for myself. I found myself realising that I wanted to make a greater contribution to society through my work. When I heard about the effective altruism movement, it immediately resonated.

Marie. What have you gained from being part of the community?
First and foremost, I’ve gained a good feeling. I see the development of people inspired by the ideas of effective altruism, new opportunities for collaboration and impact. Already as a regular member, I got a lot of inspiration to contribute to the world in small steps, whether it’s increasing my regular donations to effective charities by more than 10%, or consciously changing my eating habits to include plant-based alternatives. But over the past eight months, as an EA Estonia community leader, I’ve already seen how courses, community events and get togethers have given many people new ideas about what and how they can make a difference.

Marie: Is there anything else you would like to say about effective altruism?
Yes – drop us a line if you’re interested in finding out more. The website has all the contacts, and you can also find all upcoming events on social media and in the newsletter. Also listen to our pocket alert “Let’s do good better!”. We welcome new people and ideas. And, in fact, we’re also open to debate about our ideals or focus.