I grew up in a little house in the neighbourhood of Pinheiros in Sao Paulo. It was a modest house my parents leased from my grandparents up until I was 11. It was a lovely region, full of bars, shops and concert houses – but despite all of that it was also a dangerous part of town.
I have very vivid memories of being afraid of the outside. My parents had been robbed many times in those streets and once they even had the house broken into by two armed thieves while they were home. Brazil is a country of two nations – a Modern Brazil that resembles the life of North Americans and Europeans; and the Real Brazil, one where people don’t have enough to eat and must live by the decisions of Modern Brazil (which most often don’t reflect the realities of 90% of the population).
Growing up I always wondered what did I do to deserve being born in Modern Brazil. Did my ancestors claw out poverty and discrimination by sheer hard work and power of will, or were we simply lucky enough to have been born into a household descendant of Europeans in the west end of town?
I’ll never have the answers to these “what if” questions, but in seeking to understand history, moral philosophy and economics I was able to fill in some gaps.
After turning 16, I embarked in an exchange program to Canada. The whole idea was to sharpen my English and be exposed to different cultures and ways of life. This entire experience was only possible due to the kindness of the host mom I so luckily happened to be paired with. She treated me like a son and assured my parents that, even though I was 10,000 kilometers away from home, they did not have anything to worry about.
As the years went by, I was able to stay in Canada, gain a scholarship to play basketball in college, graduate university, and start a career that enabled me to live in different parts of the country. Things were working out better than I could have ever wished for. And so my childhood question about serendipity burned even stronger.
The more I travelled, read and talked to people from different walks of life, the more I realized that my life was rather unusual. Sure – I worked hard to achieve my goals and stuck to my values of living an honest life, but none of that would have been possible without a basic foundation that was totally outside of my control that most people around the world can only dream of. Not once have I ever had to worry about not having enough to eat, a doctor to take care of my health when sick, or access to education (among many others).
These are things that the developed world often takes for granted. The very fact that I can read and write this sentence in English automatically gives me access to more books, more papers, and more services than 6 billion people around the world could only dream of. And all it takes is a few Google searches to quickly realize how my income puts me in a far more fortunate position than the vast majority of the globe.
So, if hard work and natural talents only pay off in the face of opportunity, and opportunity is only available to a select group of people in the world by sheer luck of the straw, how much of my personal success can I confidently attribute to my own doing versus where and when I was put into this world?
How would have my life played out had I been born in Real Brazil?
For a long time I contemplated how I could give back the fruits of my labor and serendipity in the most impactful way. And so this past year I was exposed to Peter Singer’s philosophy of Effective Altruism that completely changed my perspective on the concept of charity.
In Essays in Philosophy Volume 18, Issue 1 (2017) Effective Altruism: Introduction, William MacAskill defines Effective Altruism as:
“…the project of using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible, and taking action on that basis. […] Its aims are welfarist, impartial, and maximizing: effective altruists aim to maximize the wellbeing of all, where (on some interpretation) everyone counts for one, and no-one for more than one. “ESSAYS PHILOS (2017)18:1 | DOI: 10.7710/1526-0569.1580
And so a community of Effective Altruists was born around this idea and platforms were set up to facilitate the engagement of regular folk like myself to contribute in any way they can. Websites such as effectivealtruism.org and givewell.org make giving a lot easier by having a team of experts evaluate the most effective charities around the world and allocate funding based on where your dollar will save the most lives. The concept of Effective Altruism “Mutual Funds” were invented and automated deposits made it that much easier for anyone to get involved.
So, what if you could live a life in which you saved someone from a burning building every year on top of your day job? Effective Altruists have figured out how to do just that.
The Against Malaria Foundation estimates that a mere $3,000 will save someone from dying of Malaria. A bed-net costs as little as $5, and that will effectively protect a child from dying of a disease responsible for killing over 400,000 people every year.
But you see, giving money for Malaria bed-nets isn’t as rewarding a partaking in toy drives, food banks and personal volunteer hours in your local community. The “immediate feedback” of doing good (familiar faces smiling and thanking the donors) is a lot harder to recreate when solving the biggest causes of suffering in the world – specially when they’re happening thousands of miles away from your doorstep.
And to make matters even harder, publicly talking about your altruistic efforts to others has become taboo – your true intentions behind the good deed will come into question. But as Sam Harris, in his conversation with William MacAskill, put it – speaking about your efforts to give back can inspire others to do the same.
2020 has opened our eyes to many things; one of them being how fragile the human existence truly is and how together we can change the course of history for the better. For so many years we’ve grown protective of our achievements and ways of living. All of that is badly estimated. Much of who we are, what we do and how we live is largely circumstantial. The fortunate ones have the duty to help elevate the tide for all boats.
And with that I am challenging you, the reader, to embrace your serendipity and join me in this endeavour.
Begin your journey by committing 1% of your income to making the world a better place for all here: