There are a lot of global problems that demand our attention and support. Even though we’d like to solve them all, our resources are limited. This means we just don’t have the capacity to give to every cause. Therefore, we need to explore ways to prioritise the very worst problems and address those first.
We need to be cause-neutral
Some causes have more impact than others. For example, in Part One we found that by focusing on health interventions in developing countries, we can prevent a malaria-related death for $7500. In addition to which, improving health by treating preventable diseases has significant economic benefits for the people affected. Meanwhile to save a life with health interventions in developed countries we would need to spend an estimated minimum of $790,000. We can save significantly more lives by focusing on health interventions in developing countries than in developed countries.
This reasoning applies more generally: to have the biggest impact through our philanthropy, we should be willing to give to whichever cause is most promising. Cause-neutrality means we are impartial about the problems to which we choose to give. Rather than selecting causes because we’re particularly passionate about them or because they have personally impacted our lives or those of our loved ones we base our decision on evidence indicating where our donation can best help reduce the greatest sources of suffering. However, this isn’t easy and sometimes we feel we must give to causes to which we feel a particular attachment. In these cases, we recommend splitting donations across those causes to which we are attached, and those that are most effective.
Taking a cause-neutral approach to our analysis of which problems we should donate to means we need to develop criteria other than cause-area to identify the best giving opportunities. The following framework does this by focusing on three key considerations: scale, solvability, and neglectedness.
- Scale – if we solved the problem, how good would it be?
- Solvability – if we doubled the resources dedicated to solving this problem, what fraction of the problem would we expect to solve?
- Neglectedness – how many resources are already going towards solving this problem?
– How to compare different global problems in terms of impact, 80,000 Hours
To better understand this framework, let’s explore its application using our earlier example on health interventions in developing countries.
The scale of a problem can be assessed in two ways:
- The number of people the problem affects. This means the larger the number the greater is the scale of a problem; and
- The severity of the problem. This means if two problems affect the same number of people, the problem with more severe short- and long-term effects is greater in scale.
In developing countries, an estimated ten million people die of illnesses that are easily and very cheaply preventable. This is a huge source of unnecessary suffering for victims and their families. One estimate suggests that preventable diseases in developing countries cost between “200 million and 500 million DALYs1 per year.” The number of people affected by easily preventable diseases and the impact these diseases have on their health and livelihoods constitutes the scale of this problem.
Now that we know the scale of the problem, we need to determine whether and at what cost it can be solved. Tackling a huge but intractable problem would not be a good use of resources. Fortunately, ill-health in developing countries is perhaps one of the easiest and cheapest ways to reduce the suffering of humans. For example, AMF has made great strides in reducing malaria-caused death through the use of insecticide-treated bednets. Looking to AMF’s work in preventing malaria, GiveWell estimates the total cost per distributed bed net to be $4.85 USD. The existence and affordability of solutions constitutes the solvability of this problem.
Neglectedness captures the idea that the fewer people working on a solution to a problem, the greater an impact your donation has. For example, medical science in developed countries like the US and UK is crowded with resources and talent relative to developing countries. This means, easily treatable and preventable diseases are no longer prevalent in developed countries. However, the relative absence of these resources and talent in developing countries means people living in poverty are also subject to needless suffering. Because less resources are dedicated to improving health in the developing world as opposed to the developed world, it costs significantly less to save lives in developing countries. The amount of resources a problem receives constitutes its level of neglectedness.
We conduct cause-prioritisation analyses to understand where our donation can save the most lives and reduce the most suffering. As we’ve seen, health interventions in developing countries should be prioritised over health interventions in developed countries. However, it could be that other causes are even more important. Many argue the scale, solvability, and neglectedness of animal suffering as a result of factory farming is far greater than that of health interventions in developing countries, and the risks from emerging technologies for future generations are greater still. Once we’ve identified high priority cause areas, the next step is to understand how to evaluate charities based on the effectiveness of their interventions and the robustness of their processes. This is what we’ll cover in Part Three.
The Effective Altruism community has thought a lot about cause-prioritisation. It’s a complex issue that we’ve only just touched on here. To learn more look through some of the resources below.
- Neutrality in focus area selection
- How to compare different global problems in terms of impact
- Importance, tractability, neglectedness framework
- The world’s biggest problems and why they’re not what first comes to mind
- Cause prioritisation tool
1 “One DALY can be thought of as one lost year of “healthy” life. The sum of these DALYs across the population, or the burden of disease, can be thought of as a measurement of the gap between current health status and an ideal health situation where the entire population lives to an advanced age, free of disease and disability.” World Health Organisation. (2017). Metrics: Disability-Adjusted Life Year. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/healthinfo/global_burden_disease/metrics_daly/en/