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The good it promises, the harm it does (Part 2: Simone de Lima)

This is what I envision with hope: Imagine what international solidarity could look like: organizations across the world dialoguing with, elevating, and supporting … diverse voices, with a radical respect for the groundedness of their activism in their territories, their cultures, and their histories, sharing resources and skills, finding common ground, recognizing common ground, recognizing different perspectives, deepening their knowledge, and impacting lives, livelihoods and systems.

Simon de Lima, “Effective altruism’s unsuspecting twenty-first century colonialism
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1. Introduction

This is Part 2 of my series The good it promises. This series draws lessons from a recent collection of academic essays, The good it promises, the harm it does: Critical essays on effective altruism.

Part 1 introduced the series and looked at the foreword of the book, by Amia Srinivasan. Srinivasan raised a novel, contextualized and non-ideal approach to understanding the institutional critique of effective altruism. Srinivasan also raised concerns about the voices and perspectives that are heard within effective altruism, and the impact that a biased selection of voices might have on the movement’s decisionmaking. Not coincidentally, Srinivasan linked these concerns to the project of this volume, which brings together a diverse collection of voices that are often underrepresented in discussions by effective altruists to raise points that effective altruists often do not adequately consider.

Today, I want to focus on Simone de Lima’s chapter, “Effective altruism’s unsuspecting 21st century colonialism”. De Lima is the founder of ProAnima, a Brazilian organization focused on improving the situation for animals through activism, policy change, education, and protection. A longtime animal rights activist, de Lima shares her perspective on what went right, and what went wrong when large international organizations began aiming to influence animal advocacy within Brazil, and draws general lessons from this discussion.

One helpful feature of de Lima’s discussion is that it places animal advocacy efforts by effective altruists within a broader context. To many, effective altruists are just the latest in a line of large international organizations seeking to rewrite the playbook for animal advocacy, healthcare, and anti-poverty efforts within countries across the world, many of which are still reeling from the impacts of colonialism and somewhat hesitant to take direction from former colonial powers. While some readers may be disposed to protest that de Lima is not always speaking directly about effective altruists, I think it is beneficial to contextualize work by effective altruists within a set of broader trends.

2. Local history, context, and knowledge

A recurring theme of de Lima’s discussion is the importance of learning about and building upon local history, knowledge and context, as well as the people living and working within a community. Too often, international organizations sweep in to a country and ignore the rich social and cultural heritage in which they operate; the history of related work on which they ought to build; and fonts of local knowledge gained through experience that could help them to operate more effectively.

De Lima notes of large US- and UK-based animal rights organizations expanding into Brazil that:

These organizations didn’t encounter a vacuum in terms of animal rights activism and campaigns. By 2003, when I founded ProAnima, in Brasília, the capital, the country already had a burgeoning, if mostly volunteer and grass-roots, movement dedicated to the defense of animals … There were two influential and professionalized organizations promoting veganism or vegetarianism. On the legislative front, animals had been recognized to some extent in anti-cruelty laws since 1938 and attained constitutional protection from cruelty in 1986 … In the meantime, vegetarianism had been slowly but surely growing in popularity … Over the years, vegan collectives, knowledge sharing, demonstrations, organizations, campaigns, social media outlets, and products emerged.

De Lima complains that much of this local context was ignored by international organizations, whose staff members sometimes expressed surprise or disbelief at the advanced state of animal rights activism and law within Brazil.

Ignoring local history, knowledge and context raises a number of concerns. In the next section, we will see that ignorance of local context connects to a broader pattern of top-down international governance, divesting those with the most knowledge and the strongest stake in local issues from their share of influence and control. In this section, I want to focus on a different concern: ignoring local context leads to ineffective action.

De Lima illustrates how a lack of local knowledge can lead to ineffective solutions by looking at instances where international organizations have promoted solutions that local organizers could easily have told them would be ineffective in the local context:

A quick look at different versions of vegan starter guides used by [international] organizations in Brazil reveals a range of writing and recipes that goes from the frankly US-centric (showcasing mainstream US meal and product choices) to an attempt to integrate culturally appropriate dishes, but which still rely heavily on expensive, industrialized ingredients, found mostly in large urban centers, and the promotion of plant-based products produced by large corporations whose mainstay is factory farming.

In this passage, de Lima highlights some ineffective actions taken as a result of local knowledge: inappropriate recipe and ingredient suggestions in vegan starter guides. But it is also important to highlight instances in which a lack of local knowledge causes serious problems to be ignored because they are not fully understood.

One of the strongest recurring complaints made by de Lima is that in Brazil, there is a gap between legislation and enforcement. To effectively improve the situation of animals, it is important to build alliances with the knowledge and influence to ensure that sensible policies are effectively enforced:

It is important to highlight that close to 80 percent of deforested areas in the Amazon were cleared for animal-based cattle grazing. Grazing the Amazon, a documentary produced by investigative journalism agency O Eco and the nonprofit Imazon, explains the difficulty faced in the enforcement of environmental protection laws in the region, especially due to the many “cattle-washing” tactics employed to legitimize cattle raised in illegally cleared areas, not to mention the power of the agribusiness caucus at all levels of Brazilian policies.

De Lima goes on to detail how a large meat processing company, currently receiving praise for offering a plant-based burger, was recently caught out handing substantial bribes to meat inspectors and politicians in pursuit of favorable legislation and enforcement.

Drawing on local knowledge, history, context and communities can help international organizations to know what actions are most appropriate in a given context, and to gain the influence necessary to make lasting change.

3. Top-down approaches

In Part 1 of this series, we looked at Amia Srinivasan’s discussion of who speaks and who listens in conversations about effective altruism. Srinivasan suggests that effective altruists may often ignore marginalized voices such as indigenous communities, disability-rights advocates, and residents of the Global South, inducing a corresponding neglect of emancipatory theoretical traditions rooted in the knowledge and experience of marginalized communities.

De Lima raises a similar complaint, noting that large international organizations often engage in top-down governance that brings decisionmaking power into faraway offices in the same countries that once operated as colonizers:

[International] organizations tend to operate with a top-down, rather than collaborative, approach in their “branch” countries. Goals and standards for success are increasingly established by the organisations’ central HQs, removed from an understanding of local sociological, cultural, historical, and political factors … On-the-ground staff are seldom in a position to question headquarters’ directions.

In the previous section, we saw one way in which top down governance can be harmful: it leads to ineffective action by ignoring local knowledge, history, context and people. De Lima is clear that there is a direct link between top-down governance in international aid organizations and ignorance of local context:

When an international organization sweeps into another country bringing in top-down goals and methods, it often disregards that country’s history in activism and the cultural and legislative advancements gained by the movement before the establishment of these new “foreign” organizations”.

Another challenge, familiar from the history of colonialism, is that foreign leaders of international organizations begin to position themselves as the sole arbiters of terms such as reason, evidence, objectivity and rationality. The strategies that they recommend are grounded in reason and evidence, but those they oppose are rooted in emotion and devoid of evidential support:

To advance the[ir] supposedly effective interventions, a colonialist tactic could not be absent: that of convincing the public that this is the superior, tried and tested, science-based approach to animal advocacy. The result is that international lecturers engage in talk tours and workshops “teaching” “efficacy and pragmatism” … They claim for themselves, and for themselves only, the word strategy, coining “strategic veganism,” a rhetorical move to portray those who invest in community and alliance-building, politicized and contextualized activism, and the fight for food sovereignty and autonomy as devoid of strategy.

To fend off the possibility of misunderstanding, let me emphasize that De Lima is not here calling for an abandonment of truth, evidence, reason and objectivity. De Lima is highlighting how terms such as truth, evidence, reason, and objectivity are shaped by relations of power, money, and influence that have little to do with reason and threaten to undermine the very evidence-based approach to policy that they claim to promote.

Two of De Lima’s remarks in this passage deserve special emphasis. The first returns to the question of who speaks: it is international lecturers who give speeches, offer seminars, and write books, positioning themselves as teachers and the recipients of their beneficence as listeners. A second remark worth emphasizing is how the monopolization of terms such as reason and evidence functions as a strategic move within what ought to be contested conversations about philanthropy and policymaking.

It is no accident that the effective altruism movement finds itself heavily invested in these rhetorical moves. Many effective altruists describe themselves as “rationalists”, committed to thinking rationally and avoiding bias in an attempt to be less wrong about the world. They congregate on blogs and fora with titles such as “Overcoming Bias” and “LessWrong.” provides an introduction to effective altruism that literally defines effective altruism as “the use of evidence and reason in search of the best ways of doing good,” and that definition is repeated elsewhere: for example, by 80,000 Hours. Who could be opposed to that?

Not me. But De Lima’s next criticism of effective altruism reveals why one might be suspicious of what effective altruists call reason, evidence and objectivity, even while remaining firmly committed to the correct use of reason and evidence to solve global problems.

4. What quantitative models miss

Connecting again with Srinivasan’s discussion in Part 1 of this series, De Lima suggests that the quantitative metrics employed in a simplified, decontextualized and top-down way by international organizations may often present a distorted picture of the evidence by mischaracterizing or omitting factors that are hard for their approaches to quantify.

One of the best illustrations of the perils of decontextualized quantification is De Lima’s discussion of the gap between promise and action in cage-free egg campaigns:

The pressure to “show work” to donors provokes a race to the bottom to identify easy campaigns that can score a “win” regardless of any real impact in advancing awareness, improving the lives of animals, or tackling the root causes of their exploitation … Nowhere has this become more salient to me than in the disconnect of these campaigns in Brazil, where governmental and institutional instability has increasingly become the norm and enforcement and compliance with legislation is in frank erosion … Despite this reality, what do these “effective” organizations do? They engage an army of organizational employees working on long-term commitments from the industry to go cage-free.

In theory, commitments to cage-free eggs are an important and measurable victory. But often the commitments tracked by organizational metrics fail to produce tangible results. De Lima continues:

Out of 130 businesses that committed to such changes, only 20 companies even deemed to answer follow-up questions from Fórum Animals’ Egg Radar website, a few have blatantly ignored preestablished deadlines, and so far only one has met its commitment and turned its production to cage-free. In their turn, companies start using the commitments as propaganda tools almost immediately … Who exactly is winning here?

So far, we have discussed the immediate problem that the benefits claimed by quantitative models may often fail to materialize in practice. The flipside of this problem is that many harms are ignored or under-counted because they cannot be easily incorporated into models.

One such harm was suggested at the end of the previous passage: bad corporate actors may use their work with animal rights organizations to brighten their stained reputations and enable questionable practices to continue into the future.

A case in point is Burger King’s much-heralded launch of the plant-based “Rebel Whopper.” The second-largest burger company in the world, acquired by a Brazilian group in 2010, Burger King has a history of labor rights infringements in the country … On the environmental front, a report by the nonprofit Mighty Earth found Burger King to be the worst fast-food company in terms of lack of accountability and responsiveness to measures to mitigate the presence of deforested areas in its supply chain … The Rebel Whopper itself is produced by the agribusiness conglomerate Marfrig – the world’s second-largest beef producer … [Marfrig] is repeatedly cited in human rights and environmental nonprofit reports as one of the conglomerates most unable to detach its supply chain from the beef purchased from illegally deforested areas in the Amazon.

For many vegan activists, it is certainly better for these companies to make plant-based burgers than for them to make the same burgers from beef. But it is important to recognize that the reduction in beef consumption that registers on a chart may understate the role of targeted corporate concessions to vegan activists in a larger strategy of distracting from, and thereby sustaining a range of unpalatable practices.

De Lima also suggests that international modelers may miss the role of small, local, contextualized efforts in driving change:

The local, small-scale personal connections that make up community support networks … are what are supplying literal lifelines for communities. Especially in countries where governments have attacked the scientific community, destroyed public health systems, and retreated from multilateral organizations, large systems are clearly failing us, and it is the ingenuity of closeness, generosity, and the ethics of care keeping the most vulnerable afloat.

In sum, De Lima suggests that the quantitative models favored by many effective altruists may not favor the pursuit of measurable `wins’ that (a) do not materialize in practice, (b) serve to sustain other unpalatable practices, or (c) stack up unfavorably against local, contextualized interventions whose benefits are harder to measure.

Does this mean that there is no hope for engagement with major corporations and international activists? That would be going too far for De Lima. In fact, De Lima closes her essay on an optimistic note.

5. Room for hope

De Lima leaves us with a vision of hope:

This is what I envision with hope: Imagine what international solidarity could look like: organizations across the world dialoguing with, elevating, and supporting these diverse voices, with a radical respect for the groundedness of their activism in their territories, their cultures, and their histories, sharing resources and skills, finding common ground, recognizing common ground, recognizing different perspectives, deepening their knowledge, and impacting lives, livelihoods and systems.

I must say that in many ways, I share De Lima’s vision of hope. Like Srinivasan and De Lima, I think that this book present an important opportunity for effective altruists to engage with voices, perspectives, knowledge, contexts, and communities, that have not always been represented in conversations about effective altruism. If we can learn to listen to, elevate and support one another from a place of radical respect for difference, we can learn to do good better.


2 responses to “The good it promises, the harm it does (Part 2: Simone de Lima)”

  1. Diego Oliveira Avatar
    Diego Oliveira

    Thanks, David, for amplifying the voices of these writers! I’m Brazilian myself, and it’s a pleasure to read what other Brazilians have to say.

    1) As you pointed out, it’s really difficult to understand to what extent some of these critiques apply to Effective Altruism, especially since there is no EA-specific organization in the animal welfare space in Brazil (please, correct me if I’m wrong). If we try to link Effective Altruism with what’s going wrong here in Brazil, maybe we could try to look at the current [recommended charities] by Animal Charities Evaluator (an EA-aligned organization). Their “top charity” that operates in Brazil is The Good Food Institute, and as “standout charities” that work here they list Dharma Voices for Animals, Mercy for Animals, and Sinergia Animal. I’m not sure about this, but maybe a critique of EA would therefore have to target these four institutions? Because, if the institutions that are operating unaware of Brazil’s local animal advocacy achievements and local culture, etc, are not those, then it’s hard to establish even a weak link between the critiques and Effective Altruism.

    2) She opened my eyes to this curious excluding effect that occurs when an organization is named with an adjective (say, [Effective] Altruism, [Rationalist] community, etc), in which those who do not belong to the organization may be seen as fundamentally lacking the adjective. That is a problem whose scale and solution I do not know (I’d love to hear more, if anyone wants to share their insight). However, we must also be aware that some charities do operate without regard for scientific evidence, rationality, or effectiveness, and are indeed driven substantially by emotional responses or even other incentives.

    3) I agree with the premises, but I don’t agree with the conclusion advanced in the first part of the section “What quantitative models miss”. My understanding is that this section is trying to conclude that what is being missed, is being missed *because* of the quantitative approach, but it goes on to say that what’s being missed is precisely the number (a quantity) of corporations that follow up with their pledges. So I’d say that the problem here is not the quantitative approach per se, but what this specific model is trying to quantify. It’s trying to quantify the wrong thing (namely, the number of corporations that make the pledge), instead of quantifying the right thing (the number of corporations that keep their pledge and undergo change). I admit the possibility that quantitative approaches can have blindspots by dint of being quantitative, but that’s not the case here.

    4) De Lima brings up the problem of brand washing. It’s definitely true that some interventions that EA supports (such as corporate campaigns) can have the effect of making the corporation seem more “vegan friendly”, while it’s still promoting the slaughter of millions of animals. However, for those interventions to cause _harm_, I believe she would have to argue counterfactually. That is, she would have to argue that, if the corporations hadn’t made the pledge, then the total number of slaughtered animals would be smaller. Should we believe this is true? I’m open for seeing evidence of this.

    1. David Thorstad Avatar

      Hi Diego,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments! I’m a bit hesitant to make strong assertions to a Brazilian about animal advocacy in Brazil, but I’ll do my best not to embarrass myself.

      **On (1)**

      You are absolutely right to stress the importance of linking more general criticisms of trends in animal advocacy to criticism of specific organizations. I think that De Lima intends her comments to apply directly to at least three of the organizations you listed, though it might be worth checking with De Lima on this point. Here is the most direct passage in which GFI, Mercy for Animals and Sinergia Animal are linked to the more general trends that De Lima wants to criticize: “In 2010, a large US-based international organization, Humane Society International, set up shop in the country, followed by at least five other US- and Europe-based funded others (Mercy for Animals, Animal Equality, Veganuary, GFI, and Sinergia Animal).”

      There is always a delicate balance between generality and specificity in critique. Very specific critiques (for example, “I don’t like what Mercy for Animals did last Tuesday”) tend not to leave enough room to bring salient normative and descriptive disagreements to the fore. On the other hand, very general critiques (“I don’t like how large NGOs do animal advocacy”) are sometimes a bit hard to apply in any specific case. De Lima is a bit in the middle: she wants to talk about some broad trends in animal advocacy within Brazil and the role of effective altruism within those broad trends. It would definitely be worth following up on whether and to what extent each particular criticism applies to each particular organization (that is, indeed, one excellent way to engage with criticism). If you do this, please do let me and other readers know.

      **On (2)**

      You’re absolutely right that nothing De Lima said about appropriations of terms like effectiveness, strategicness, and rationality tells against the idea that some charities are better than others or suggests we shouldn’t engage in ranking or comparison of any kind. (I hereby establish a charity to provide David Thorstad with an unlimited supply of cookies. Surely this is an ineffective charity on anyone’s account, but anyone who disagrees is welcome to donate).

      I think you have extracted the right lesson from this discussion: we need to be very aware, in ranking charities, of how we may be attempted to appropriate for ourselves, and for ourselves only terms such as rationality and effectiveness, and of the fraught entanglement of this type of appropriation with a legacy of colonialism and racism in Brazil and elsewhere.

      **On (3)**

      I suppose you know that many fields of research and policymaking end up having quite heated debates between fans of qualitative and quantitative approaches. Sometimes each party is out for blood: for example, in academic economics, the debate didn’t end until the qualitative researchers had been driven out of the field. Often, people settle on a more balanced conclusion. For example, we might enrich quantitative models to take account of important factors they tend to neglect; supplement quantitative models with qualitative studies rooted in local knowledge and context; develop models suited to the local context rather than applying models developed for other problems; or take the conclusions of quantitative models with a pinch of salt.

      One of the recurring themes of this volume, as well as of many other criticisms of effective altruism (for example, the institutional critique) has been that the kinds of quantitative models often employed in practice have some problems (after all, what model doesn’t?). I hope we can reflect carefully on those problems to see what the right fix is in each given case, and whether those fixes tend to be implemented in practice.

      **On (4)**

      I’d also be very interested in seeing counterfactual estimates of the effects of brand washing on animal welfare, as well as on other downstream social, economic and political harms caused by corporations. I don’t know any good estimates off the top of my head and would be very interested in seeing some. Drawing on the discussion from point (3), this could be an example of a question that is helpfully supplemented by considering qualitative studies due to the difficulty of constructing compelling causal models, but again I don’t want to speak about models I have not seen – they could be very good.

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