In the last couple of years the top rated charity of the effective altruism movement is the Against Malaria Foundation, an organization dedicated to protect people from the disease by funding mosquito nets distribution.
The malaria net has long been a symbol for aid, but the fact that it is considered one of the cheapest and most useful ways of saving lives, made it also a symbolic example of the implementation of Singer’s theoretical ideas in his book the most good you can do, the effective altruism movement manifesto.
However, many humans from waterside communities in sub-Saharan Africa are not using these nets against mosquitoes, but against fishes.
Instead of sleeping under a net at night, countless humans sew their net supply together into a gigantic fish net, sweeping up whatever they can from the bottom of the local lakes, swamp and ponds.
And what makes things even worse is that these nets are treated with insecticide, so the fishes which aren’t caught by the giant net, are poisoned by it.
While “effective” altruists are using their logic to calculate how many lives they can save for how many dollars, the locals are using theirs to decide what to do with the free resource they get. Since fishing net in the store costs about $50, which they don’t have, and since insecticide treated mosquito nets (especially new ones which have no holes and are full of poison) are far better than anything else they can get, many of the nets go straight out of the bag into the sea. After years of trying to scrape by with “substandard” fishing gear, all of a sudden, there are light, soft, surprisingly strong nets given for free.
So what is widely considered as a magic bullet against malaria in theory, is widely used as ammunition against fishes in practice.
And fishes are not the only victims of the nets, the locals are using them to build chicken and goat coops and to catch white ants. Other common uses are soccer nets, bridal veils and funeral shrouds, which are not violent and exploitative, but are additional examples of how aid that seems good frequently goes awry.
Our point is not to blame the effective altruism movement, nor the Against Malaria Foundation, which we are absolutely sure are making tremendous efforts so that the nets would be used for their intended purpose, and not for all of this.
The point is their simplistic and naïve theory of the world. Distributing nets is one of the easiest and cheapest ways to save human lives, so mathematically and rationally it is one of the most effective altruistic actions possible (from a speciesist point of view of course). However the world isn’t rational.
Even without factoring in the fact that each human life saving has a price tag in the form of all the consumed non-humans, as we explained in the post about the book, these nets directly cause immense suffering.
Their distributing doesn’t eradicate the disease since from the recipients’ perspective it is much more rational to use them to face their immediate problem – hunger.
Life is too complicated for magic solutions such as mosquito nets. In reality many families are forced into making a horrible choice – protecting themselves from malaria and continue to endure malnutrition and hunger, or leave themselves totally exposed to the disease and use the nets to catch fishes. And of course the fishes are not given any choice.
This story is so typical of the world, even when the intentions are basically good, the givers are doing their best to help other humans who are having a huge problem, which as far as they’re concerned prefer a different usage with the given help, which doesn’t solve the problem and creates a major one for the creatures in the rock bottom of the world hierarchy.
Even the media coverage of the story precisely reflects our horrible world.
First of all the focus is on the ineffectiveness of the western aid, then it is the Africans and their choice between malaria and hunger, then comes the danger (for humans of course) of drinking of and washing with polluted water, then the fights over fisheries between locals who use the mosquito nets and “professional” fishermen, then comes the aesthetic devastation of the lakes, only then comes the ecological destruction, and only after that comes the fishes problem – but still not the one you are bothered with but rather that the mosquito nets also catch fishes that are “too little” causing a depopulation problem, which is of course another humans’ problem.
The ones who are the most direct and immediate victims of the issue, the tens of millions of poisoned and suffocated fishes are not even mentioned.
There is a strict hierarchy in this world and fishes are so low at the bottom, they are absolutely transparent, the outmost absent referent.