Effective altruism, air pollution in Delhi, Supreme Court of India, and trade off between legibility and complexity in evaluating philanthropic efforts.
Really fantastic post Shruti. As someone working on helping India develop economically, I can really attest to the transformation that has happened even in the 6 years I have been here. You can see a tangible difference in the average person's lives.
That said, the lack of state capacity on things like metros, buses, buildings, educaiton, healthcare, piped water, etc. is absolutely holding millions of people
And as someone who tries to take the metro in Delhi, it drives me nuts how hard it is to do the last mile! Most people I know don't have my level of patience and just give up and drive. Simiilarly, I often think about how much each individual home in Delhi spends on water purifiers vs. what the cost would be for the government to just tax those same homes and build water treatment to each . I suspect it would save several orders of magnitude, but have not seen anyone do this calculations-maybe something you can suggest to one of your students!
This is very interesting reading about Delhi! I will make an argument for part of GiveWell's case that I think isn't covered here.
Part of GiveWell's argument for the causes it endorses is that they are things that private charity can do relatively better. To take a simpler problem, consider choosing between vaccinations and bednets. Vaccinations are very effective and nobody would argue that bednets are better. However, because it's so well-known, vaccinations are well-funded by governments, foreign aid, the UN, and large private charities like the Gates Foundation. (Also, there are trials for promising new malaria vaccines, but they aren't asking for private donations.)
GiveWell judged bednets to be relatively neglected and to have "room for more funding" because it's something private donors can do to make things happen without being overshadowed by bigger funders.
I would like to see more arguments in favor of alternatives to GiveWell's recommendations. But to be convincing, I think they need to be pretty specific: how can this private charity help? What does it do? Why is it a good cause? Charities devoted to legible causes will have the advantage in making persuasive arguments (at least to those of us impressed by math-based arguments), but there is certainly room for other arguments.
Perhaps we need more charity evaluators that take different approaches? Trust is a key issue here (another kind of legibility). I have seen alternative charities that seem pretty good, but they often don't publish enough information to understand what they do very well. As a stranger from another part of the world, I don't have the same confidence in them.
By contrast, "economic growth" is a broad abstraction. Investors don't invest in "economic growth"; they invest in specific companies that sell specific products and services that contribute to economic growth. As an abstraction, it seems too vague to fund - it's not really in the same category as a specific charity recommendation.
Something like "building hospitals and increasing the number of doctors and nurses in Africa" is a bit more specific, but Africa is very large and there are many charities. Some are surely better than others? One would want more specifics.
Few people are in a position to devote much time to charity evaluation - another way that there are likely many good charitable causes that aren't legible to us. Part of GiveWell's competitive advantage, whether you believe in their particular approach to evaluation or not, is simply that they are a knowledgable, trusted charity evaluator and there are few of them.
A fantastic, thought-provoking piece. Thank you for this. Makes me think that 'messy' solutions may sometime be more effective, especially since the problems are almost always more complex than they are made out to be. Sharing this.
It's bizarre that no Indian city has a well functioning bus system. The number of buses is at all time lows. Bus stops are either non existent or insufficient (no shade or seating, for instance). Improving a city's bus system, I feel, can have the single biggest impact on quality of life.
Thanks for this post, I really enjoyed it!
As someone from the "EA" world, I'd personally say that air pollution really *is* an effective cause to donate to (or at least, it certainly warrants significant attention)
I completely agree it's harder to quantitatively evaluate air pollution than bednets, however it has been tried. I wrote the following (https://founderspledge.com/stories/air-pollution), and I'm aware that Open Philanthropy (an organisation spun out of GiveWell) has South Asian air pollution as a major focus area (https://www.openphilanthropy.org/research/south-asian-air-quality/). I'd be excited to see more research in this direction.
On altruism and development more broadly: This post (which generated a lot of discussion in EA at the time) highlights how increasing growth/development could be more cost-effective than GiveWell's top picks: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/bsE5t6qhGC65fEpzN/growth-and-the-case-against-randomista-development
So I think EA is definitely sympathetic to development being impactful!
Excellent analysis.I am happy to know about "Givewell",by and large I have stuck with institutes which publish at least part accounts.It will be a great help if at some point a list is given of whom not to give.
Fantabulous piece Shruti, Kudos..!!
You say that economic growth is not responsible for Delhi Pollution, lack of public transportation (state capacity) is.
But if we don't build just the road and automobiles, the GDP would be certainly down by 2% every year! Even lesser employment, lesser inclusion, poorer families that would have no nutritious food.
The impending environmental catastrophe is real. It is already a code red for humanity(IPCC 6th AR). You can not demonize the "new environmentalists" for them demonizing economic growth; because they are right: the consumption led economic growth has doomed our planet.
As per the Global Footprint Network, humans consume what the earth produces in an entire year by the month of August(Earth Overshoot Day). We are killing mother Earth with our each breath.
Please read the Development Dictionary published in 1992 by Wolfgang Sachs.
If every human was to live at Sweden's standard of living, we would need 3.5 Earths. Indeed, we need less climate activists (like the Swedish Greta Thunberg) and more people with lesser carbon footprint(like Tulsi Gowda)!
Pardon me to say this, but your thesis seems naive.
This was eye opening stuff, Shruti. As a mother who is deeply and personally pained by Delhi pollution, and the designer of a DD News campaign on the importance of public transport (esp buses), and a former civil servant - this resonated with me on SO many levels! Thank you for this!
As others have mentioned, it's wouldn't be true to say that EA doesn't have an appreciation of these concepts. It's not within the remit of GiveWell, but that's not to say it doesn't exist. There's a few other omissions here related to examining both sides:
1. Malaria efforts very probably have legitimate contributions to development. Quantifying this is certainly difficult, in the same way as quantifying the contribution to a development focused initiative would be.
2. In comparing, ICRIER and a girl's education, the ICRIER donation is taking a much broader perspective (either than or 20% seems super pessimistic, not super optimistic). To what degree does girl's education contribute to a more stable society that could succeed at having the state capacity needed? Would ICRIER have focused on that?
3. Another aspect of the comparison omitted is uncertainty. It's not good enough to work backwards and say that ICRIER was created and a specific gift had some chance (10-50%) of being the created as at the time of the gift being made it wasn't even known that something would be successful. A fairer comparison to the almost certain outcome of a repeatable intervention would be to look all attempted gifts of that sort. You'd also have to take credit for mistakes, in cases where a gift actually funded corruption or advised for bad policies. While you don't have to accept GiveWell's set of standards that are based on confidence, when you choose new ones, they have to have a method to give credit to the confidence in the other column of a comparison.
4. GiveWell's mission is not specifically to fund the charities with the highest cost-benefit. It's mission is to "finding outstanding giving opportunities and publishing the full details of our analysis to help donors decide where to give". It's still up to the donors. You can think of GiveWell itself as attempting to build charitable giving capacity.
I myself have used GiveWell's rankings, but have chosen to deworming efforts above the malaria efforts. My reasons there are that between those two, because the benefits of deworming have more intrinsic reason to believe they will create long term effects. Now, notably, GiveWell has adjusted the way they rate charities and deworming does not have the priority to them it did several years ago, so in a sense, this supports the view of your article, but it's also notable that GiveWells research was significant to me knowing as much about the specific deworming charities as I did.
I'd say there's room for more than one version of GiveWell, which approaches charities with different approaches, some more focused on certainty, and some looking to cast a deeper net.
I'd finally mention that organizations intending to create "economic growth" have on occasion fallen prey to "narrowing" concerns of their own, by using economic measures that hid important real world measures, for example growing the growing GDP of a country experiencing a case of Dutch disease. That nation isn't building state capacity, yet the most widely used economic measure would look positive while the reality is a deepening autocracy, corruption and lack of support (or active destruction) of any other type of productive industry.
Brilliant work and a thought provoking read indeed ! Happy to read more of your work now.
Are you fine to list some of the institutions/ think tanks/ programs that you decided to donate to in India to promote overall economic growth, sanitation etc. to mitigate pollution? It will be interesting to understand the work they do
Also, given that most Government intervention programs (even for the next 5-6 years maybe) though well intended, have been cost ineffective due to shoddy implementation, poor planning, capacity constraints at intellectual level etc., what do you feel about the future value of current interventions?
Great argument. And thanks for adding in your calculations of expected value for economic growth. I wonder what the reduction in malaria in India was due to the Ford foundation investment (or other health improvements).
Enjoyed this post ....
This is a very informative article. Thank you!
The specific cases of environmental pollution, malaria, etc., were engaging reads (not my domain of practice but certainly of concern). I particularly liked the way the specifics brought out the more general ideas around:
1. Legibility and complexity. Something that we routinely run into with when proposing projects in the operations management space.
2. Second order effects that often blind side both bodies with authority who offer solutions through executive fiat and affected stakeholders who bear the consequences.
A bit late of a reply and request: if one were fully convinced by the argument here (which, at the risk of narrowing: it’s better to fund charities or NGOs that work on improving economic growth than to fund charities that Givewell’s analysis prioritizes), what organizations can you (or any readers here) recommend for donors?
If this is correct then I think it raises a couple of questions:
A) where are the scalable charitable organizations which accept donations that work on this? If nowhere, then why don't they exist? I would think the Gates Foundation would be interested in this given Gates is a capitalist (but maybe Gates is optimizing for his reputation and doesn't want to get involved in politics, but still there are other foundations run by capitalists, probably there's at least one childless soon-to-die capitalist (both those things reduce incentives to promote reputation) who's charitable).
B) if future scalable charitable organizations which accept donations will eventually exist, then does that imply 'patient philanthropy'? (investing now and donating later)