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Thread: What's the best marginal aid dollar?

  1. #1

    Default What's the best marginal aid dollar?

    I was reading with interest some of the discussion surrounding the WHO's recommendation regarding the malaria vaccine. We know that malaria is a big problem, yet we also know that this vaccine has relatively limited efficacy and is quite complex to administer. The key question is how much effort and resources should be invested in rolling out this vaccine compared to alternative approaches to the problem (e.g. malaria treatment, or bed nets, or mosquito eradication, or transgenic mosquitos, or whatever).

    This took me down the rabbit hole of public health researchers debating the best way to roll out vaccines in a resource limited environment - which vaccines to prioritize, how to acquire/source them, how to distribute them, etc, etc. There's several competing schools of thought that have their own backers (financial and political) - all of them have broadly similar goals of improving the health of some of the world's most vulnerable populations, but there are fierce debates about how to best do that.

    This got me thinking about the much broader question: what is the most effective use of the marginal aid dollar today? If I were a government who wanted to spend another $1 billion on aid writ large, where would I spend it? Or, for that matter, how should a philanthropist spend her marginal million dollars, or a joe shmoe spend his marginal $1000? What is the most effective way to deploy additional resources?

    Obviously there are various definitions of 'effective', but let's assume that our goals are to improve the well being of as many people as possible as much as possible, with as little waste/fraud/corruption as possible. I'm not interested in answers that are essentially 'policy' answers (e.g. put money into lobbying Congress for X), but rather given the current state of the world, where can a dollar of aid do the most good?

    I'm kinda assuming it will be something associated with food assistance, vaccination, or education, but maybe there's a different perspective I'm not thinking about (e.g. water scarcity issues, or funding microcredit, or refugee resettlement, or climate associated efforts like building/protecting carbon sinks). Where do you get the biggest bang for your buck?
    "When I meet God, I am going to ask him two questions: Why relativity? And why turbulence? I really believe he will have an answer for the first." - Werner Heisenberg (maybe)

  2. #2
    Depends on the country, the period of history you're in, and the extent to which you're willing to trade short term benefit for long term development.
    You've been told that I'm the devil, but my blood is your blood
    In shame, my blood stains your hands
    You are the murderer of my fire and my sense
    You called me a sinner, you still talk forgiveness
    But now your dreams are haunted by your guilt

  3. #3
    I'm talking about right now and anywhere in the world. Where would you donate $1k to make the biggest impact?

    Edit: more broadly, I want to understand your thinking about why. The academic literature is full of various models about which countries would benefit most from additional $$ in theory, but that literature is only tenuously linked to parallel literature that discusses types of aid, 'aid recipient capacity', issues with deployment, etc. I'm not sure anyone really knows, though there are general best practices.
    "When I meet God, I am going to ask him two questions: Why relativity? And why turbulence? I really believe he will have an answer for the first." - Werner Heisenberg (maybe)

  4. #4
    Honestly, Afghanistan. You might get placed on some list if you do that though.
    Hope is the denial of reality

  5. #5
    Quote Originally Posted by Steely Glint View Post
    Depends on the country, the period of history you're in, and the extent to which you're willing to trade short term benefit for long term development.
    Don't overthink it. The best and most necessary use of the marginal aid dollar is always going to be either food, clean water, or children's health.
    “Humanity's greatest advances are not in its discoveries, but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity.”
    — Bill Gates

  6. #6
    Quote Originally Posted by Loki View Post
    Honestly, Afghanistan. You might get placed on some list if you do that though.
    You think so? In most estimates of PPP GDP, Burundi comes in last with ~700-800 per capita, which Afghanistan coming up about 10-15 slots higher, at ~$2k per capita.

    Granted, the estimates will probably be revised downwards quite a bit with the effective withdrawal of foreign aid and freezing the former government's foreign assets. But it seems like some int'l aid is still flowing and there's a healthy off-the-books economy that has sustained the Taliban for decades. I honestly am not sure that Afghanistan is the 'worst' off, though they're certainly on the list.

    I'm not looking for argument about specific countries or regions, though - we all can probably list the top 50 best recipients of aid, but the logistics of getting money to a good local partner is challenging outside of the biggest donors. I'm more interested in sectors of aid and ways of distributing it. Let's say that we think that the pneuomococcal vaccine is the most important aid priority in the world right now. It'll be damned hard to fund a pneumococcal vaccine push in a country that is not currently doing it, but I could decide to give $$ to, say, WHO or GAVI - which will decide on the disbursement of the aid geographically and temporally. But maybe they're not doing it right! Or maybe I decide it's food aid - is the WFP the best way to do it, or are we worried about screwing with local agricultural production and want to favor a different approach?

    It's not as straightforward as saying 'just give it to X country' or 'just give it to X cause'. What's the combination of organization, cause, region, etc. that results in the best use of a marginal dollar?
    "When I meet God, I am going to ask him two questions: Why relativity? And why turbulence? I really believe he will have an answer for the first." - Werner Heisenberg (maybe)

  7. #7
    In the long term, you're definitely correct about aid effectiveness, but in extreme humanitarian emergencies, some aid could immediately keep thousands from dying. For example, there might be as many as half a million fleeing to Pakistan and Iran, neither of which can suddenly take care of such a large influx of people.

    I'll write more later.
    Hope is the denial of reality

  8. #8
    Quote Originally Posted by wiggin View Post
    Edit: more broadly, I want to understand your thinking about why. The academic literature is full of various models about which countries would benefit most from additional $$ in theory, but that literature is only tenuously linked to parallel literature that discusses types of aid, 'aid recipient capacity', issues with deployment, etc. I'm not sure anyone really knows, though there are general best practices.
    You're trying to science something that's actually riddled with emotional and value judgements, since you have to decide what 'biggest impact' actually means before you even decide what the best way to achieve it is.

    For example:

    1) Is it better to help a larger number of people a small amount or a fewer number of people a larger amount? For example, $1k is a life changing amount of money in some parts of the world so you could give that to 1 family and lift them out of poverty permanently, or you could help a larger amount of families eat for a month but not change their general situation
    2) Give that the amount of money you have to give is limited, you must choose to help some people and not help others - are some people more deserving of help than others? Do you believe in deserving vs undeserving poor? Do you have more obligation to some people than others? For example, do you have an obligation to help people in your own country over people abroad? If your own better situation (since you're in a position to make a donation) is in some way due to the exploitation of other people in a worse situation, do you have a greater obligation to them than people in a worse situation you have nothing to do with?
    3) Is it better to give to a project which will help more people in the future vs fewer people in the present? Do the unborn have a bigger moral weight than the living, because there are more of them?
    4) Would you rather give to a project that might help, say, 100 people or one which will definitely help 10 people?
    You've been told that I'm the devil, but my blood is your blood
    In shame, my blood stains your hands
    You are the murderer of my fire and my sense
    You called me a sinner, you still talk forgiveness
    But now your dreams are haunted by your guilt

  9. #9
    Quote Originally Posted by Loki View Post
    In the long term, you're definitely correct about aid effectiveness, but in extreme humanitarian emergencies, some aid could immediately keep thousands from dying. For example, there might be as many as half a million fleeing to Pakistan and Iran, neither of which can suddenly take care of such a large influx of people.

    I'll write more later.
    I look forward to reading your analysis. And perhaps you're right - the marginal aid dollar might always be best spent on the most pressing crisis at any given moment, irrespective of the broader picture. E.g. the famine in Ethiopia is happening right now and there's very few better ways to save lives than making sure people have adequate nutrition. Through that lens, I would assume that the best partners to fund would be large international organizations, who have the capacity and resources to quickly address the crisis du jour; finding and vetting an appropriate smaller/local organization is likely to take too much time, and said organization will likely not have the capacity to scale up that quickly.

    I do wonder if running from crisis to crisis is the best practice, though.

    Quote Originally Posted by Steely Glint View Post
    You're trying to science something that's actually riddled with emotional and value judgements, since you have to decide what 'biggest impact' actually means before you even decide what the best way to achieve it is.

    For example:

    1) Is it better to help a larger number of people a small amount or a fewer number of people a larger amount? For example, $1k is a life changing amount of money in some parts of the world so you could give that to 1 family and lift them out of poverty permanently, or you could help a larger amount of families eat for a month but not change their general situation
    2) Give that the amount of money you have to give is limited, you must choose to help some people and not help others - are some people more deserving of help than others? Do you believe in deserving vs undeserving poor? Do you have more obligation to some people than others? For example, do you have an obligation to help people in your own country over people abroad? If your own better situation (since you're in a position to make a donation) is in some way due to the exploitation of other people in a worse situation, do you have a greater obligation to them than people in a worse situation you have nothing to do with?
    3) Is it better to give to a project which will help more people in the future vs fewer people in the present? Do the unborn have a bigger moral weight than the living, because there are more of them?
    4) Would you rather give to a project that might help, say, 100 people or one which will definitely help 10 people?
    Steely, you're absolutely right! There are lots of value judgments and hard-to-quantify benefits we're talking about here. There are legions of academics and others who spend their lives trying to figure this out. The reason for starting this thread wasn't to come to a definitive determination, but to understand different perspectives (and gain new ideas) wrt precisely these sorts of questions. I'll take a stab at answering your questions from my own perspective:

    1. Generally, given the huge numbers of people in the world who are heart-breakingly, deeply poor, I would think that selecting a few lucky ones to 'uplift', if you will, is hard to justify. The marginal value of the thousandth dollar to that family is much lower than the marginal single dollar to the thousandth family, at least in theory.

    In a world where the basic needs of everyone were met, I think one might argue for some sort of ink blot strategy with some broader economic justifications involved (e.g. that single family that gets uplifted increases demand for all sorts of goods, and might start thriving businesses that could hire people, etc.). But if people are starving to death or dying of preventable diseases, it seems hard to justify selecting the lucky few.

    2. I'm actually of two minds about this. In theory, one should give all of one's charitable money/goods to the people who will get the most utility out of it. In a Western context, this would mean that very few locals would 'qualify' for philanthropy, even adjusting for PPP - mostly because of government social programs in the rich world. But I think in reality a balance must be struck: The needy in one's local community are part of your community, and thus there is a unique responsibility for the other members of the local community to support them - different from the abstract assistance to someone we will never meet or know.

    Outside of regional preference for at least a portion of one's aid, though, I do not believe in the 'undeserving poor'. People are people, full stop.

    I think your question about e.g. restorative justice is an interesting one. If one's actions have caused an externality, one should pay for it, but it isn't charity, it's just a full accounting for the costs you caused. If we're talking about broader societal arguments re: privilege and historical injustice in a society that is not linked to an individual's action, I'd say there is no special individual imperative to direct one's contributions to address this, but there might be a societal one (so a government allocating money might need to make a different decision than an individual).

    3. Re future vs. present, I'd say in general that the marginal dollar argument would favor immediate relief rather than future relief. However, that doesn't mean that all aid should be ad hoc - sustainability is an important value here, and if an 'investment', such as it is, allows for longer term relief, it should be seriously considered. I think funding source also matters. For one-off spends by e.g. a philanthropist (think because of settling an estate, or a sudden windfall), investment-type donations seem appropriate, since the size of the donation cannot be matched in the future. For more steady annual kinds of funding, I think they should generally go to 'operating budgets' or the like to address immediate and urgent needs.

    4. Obviously you're bringing up a stark distinction to highlight a question, but the shades-of-grey answer is that there's a great deal of uncertainty associated with any of these efforts, both in terms of the number of people being served and the magnitude of effect on those people. Inasmuch as it is possible, it would make sense to develop as good an understanding of the numbers as possible and then do simple math (e.g. a 20% chance for 100 people > a 90% chance for 10 people). Averaged out over large numbers of cases, this would be the best outcome. An added benefit is that one can learn over time and refine one's assumptions to better predict which is better.


    That's my rough answers. What are yours?
    "When I meet God, I am going to ask him two questions: Why relativity? And why turbulence? I really believe he will have an answer for the first." - Werner Heisenberg (maybe)

  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by wiggin View Post
    That's my rough answers. What are yours?
    In general I would tend towards short term help for individuals for micro amounts of money and long term help for groups for larger amounts of money. Give me 1k to spend and I'll try and find some in a bad situation and make them not in a bad situation, give me 1 billion and I'll try and find a way of solving the problem of bad situations generally, not just take a million people out of bad situations. Or I could go to space, I guess. Jeff. Jeff.

    1) Well, the way I would think about this is not some qualifiable measure of utility but binaries - alive/dead, homed/homeless, in poverty/not in poverty. I don't really see the value in making someone 6% less homeless, better to make 1 person not homeless that 6 people a bit less homeless. But it's better to save 6 lives than it is to save 1 life and also make that person not homeless.

    2) The problem with the 'most utility' criteria is that there are a lot of people out there who are going to get roughly the same utility out of whatever you choose to give. Someone starving in the second poorest country in the world isn't less starving than someone in the poorest country in the world, or the richest. Dead is dead. So these ties of obligation are a good tie breaker IMO.

    Regarding, restorative donations. What if there's a situation where someone's poverty is something you benefit from (for example, their low wages for performing labour that directly or indirectly benefits you, or the appropriation of natural resources in their country which should really be helping them), even if you've done nothing to bring about this situation, even actively oppose it? Do they have some claim to this largesse you now have, in part because of them? Likewise, given that we live in a democracy are we in part accountable for the things or governments do abroad? To take Loki's example, we both would have voted for the clown shoes who helped create the situation in Afghanistan, even if the other clowns would have probably done the same thing and also they said what they were doing in Afghanistan was good.

    3) Big monies = solve problem. Small monies = help victims of problem. Ideally, both. But probably at some point we have to priorities, for example, solving climate change vs helping the people who are victims of climate change.

    4) Dunno.
    You've been told that I'm the devil, but my blood is your blood
    In shame, my blood stains your hands
    You are the murderer of my fire and my sense
    You called me a sinner, you still talk forgiveness
    But now your dreams are haunted by your guilt

  11. #11
    Quote Originally Posted by wiggin View Post
    , but rather given the current state of the world, where can a dollar of aid do the most good?

    I'm kinda assuming it will be something associated with food assistance, vaccination, or education, but maybe there's a different perspective I'm not thinking about (e.g. water scarcity issues, or funding microcredit, or refugee resettlement, or climate associated efforts like building/protecting carbon sinks). Where do you get the biggest bang for your buck?
    I think you'll find right now that you get the best "bang for your buck" by asking if any colleagues with science-fiction derived pseudonyms on the forums you frequent could use some of your excess money.

    Quote Originally Posted by Steely Glint View Post
    1) Well, the way I would think about this is not some qualifiable measure of utility but binaries - alive/dead, homed/homeless, in poverty/not in poverty. I don't really see the value in making someone 6% less homeless, better to make 1 person not homeless that 6 people a bit less homeless. But it's better to save 6 lives than it is to save 1 life and also make that person not homeless.
    I like the way you framed that.
    Last edited by LittleFuzzy; 10-07-2021 at 09:35 PM.
    Last night as I lay in bed, looking up at the stars, I thought, “Where the hell is my ceiling?"

  12. #12
    Quote Originally Posted by wiggin View Post
    I was reading with interest some of the discussion surrounding the WHO's recommendation regarding the malaria vaccine. We know that malaria is a big problem, yet we also know that this vaccine has relatively limited efficacy and is quite complex to administer. The key question is how much effort and resources should be invested in rolling out this vaccine compared to alternative approaches to the problem (e.g. malaria treatment, or bed nets, or mosquito eradication, or transgenic mosquitos, or whatever).

    This took me down the rabbit hole of public health researchers debating the best way to roll out vaccines in a resource limited environment - which vaccines to prioritize, how to acquire/source them, how to distribute them, etc, etc. There's several competing schools of thought that have their own backers (financial and political) - all of them have broadly similar goals of improving the health of some of the world's most vulnerable populations, but there are fierce debates about how to best do that.

    This got me thinking about the much broader question: what is the most effective use of the marginal aid dollar today? If I were a government who wanted to spend another $1 billion on aid writ large, where would I spend it? Or, for that matter, how should a philanthropist spend her marginal million dollars, or a joe shmoe spend his marginal $1000? What is the most effective way to deploy additional resources?

    Obviously there are various definitions of 'effective', but let's assume that our goals are to improve the well being of as many people as possible as much as possible, with as little waste/fraud/corruption as possible. I'm not interested in answers that are essentially 'policy' answers (e.g. put money into lobbying Congress for X), but rather given the current state of the world, where can a dollar of aid do the most good?

    I'm kinda assuming it will be something associated with food assistance, vaccination, or education, but maybe there's a different perspective I'm not thinking about (e.g. water scarcity issues, or funding microcredit, or refugee resettlement, or climate associated efforts like building/protecting carbon sinks). Where do you get the biggest bang for your buck?
    I had a professor who's an expert on foreign aid and regularly flies out to assess aid projects. My main takeaway point from his work is that the specific details of a project and its implementation is far more important than what specific issue the project addresses. There are good and bad projects dealing with crime, good and bad projects that deal with HIV/AIDS, good and bad projects that deal with climate change, etc. You can't assume that just because a major non-profit is carrying out a project that it will carry it out well (in fact, some organizations that throw too much money at a problem have absolutely no idea which, if any, part of those resources actually had an impact).

    I'm sure there are areas where the potential impact is huge, but those same issues tend to be difficult to implement. Or the payoff is uncertain. Or it takes a long amount of time before there is a payoff. I'd say that if you're really going to spend a lot of time and money on this, you should give money to specific projects rather than to particular issues (though you can choose to only help fund projects relating to certain problems). Look for aid projects that hire experts to assess their intervention and are transparent about the effectiveness of their intervention.

    Steely makes valid points about the importance of your own morality here, but a moral project that's poorly implemented or secretive is not a project worth funding. Plus, most effective interventions are fairly low scale. It's much easier to see whether they're working and how they're working (the latter allows for expanding the project).
    Hope is the denial of reality

  13. #13
    Quote Originally Posted by wiggin View Post
    I was reading with interest some of the discussion surrounding the WHO's recommendation regarding the malaria vaccine. We know that malaria is a big problem, yet we also know that this vaccine has relatively limited efficacy and is quite complex to administer. The key question is how much effort and resources should be invested in rolling out this vaccine compared to alternative approaches to the problem (e.g. malaria treatment, or bed nets, or mosquito eradication, or transgenic mosquitos, or whatever).

    This took me down the rabbit hole of public health researchers debating the best way to roll out vaccines in a resource limited environment - which vaccines to prioritize, how to acquire/source them, how to distribute them, etc, etc. There's several competing schools of thought that have their own backers (financial and political) - all of them have broadly similar goals of improving the health of some of the world's most vulnerable populations, but there are fierce debates about how to best do that.

    This got me thinking about the much broader question: what is the most effective use of the marginal aid dollar today? If I were a government who wanted to spend another $1 billion on aid writ large, where would I spend it? Or, for that matter, how should a philanthropist spend her marginal million dollars, or a joe shmoe spend his marginal $1000? What is the most effective way to deploy additional resources?

    Obviously there are various definitions of 'effective', but let's assume that our goals are to improve the well being of as many people as possible as much as possible, with as little waste/fraud/corruption as possible. I'm not interested in answers that are essentially 'policy' answers (e.g. put money into lobbying Congress for X), but rather given the current state of the world, where can a dollar of aid do the most good?

    I'm kinda assuming it will be something associated with food assistance, vaccination, or education, but maybe there's a different perspective I'm not thinking about (e.g. water scarcity issues, or funding microcredit, or refugee resettlement, or climate associated efforts like building/protecting carbon sinks). Where do you get the biggest bang for your buck?
    Is it fair to also factor-in Malthusian countervailing factors, EG if you bring winter coats and heating to Afghanistan you prolong the fighting season. If you bring malaria vaccines to a country with historical malaria challenges, you may get [unintended consequence]?

  14. #14
    It's food and water and children's health you dorks. Put food and water into the bellies of children and keep them healthy. There is no form of charity that is more universally useful from a moral and practical standpoint. There is no form of aid more immune to the law of diminishing returns. These are the most fundamental needs, and they're going unmet; what good is all our "optimization" if children die of starvation or dehydration or waterborne illnesses?
    “Humanity's greatest advances are not in its discoveries, but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity.”
    — Bill Gates

  15. #15
    It is preventing pregnancies in regions with inadequate food and water and healthcare.
    .

  16. #16
    Quote Originally Posted by Being View Post
    It is preventing pregnancies in regions with inadequate food and water and healthcare.
    Not even close. If a choice must be made, it's morally and pragmatically more important to prioritize the people who are alive and suffering—or in danger—now. People don't choose when wars and natural disasters devastate their lives and deprive them of food, water, and good health. Trying to address those issues with family planning interventions is not practical—or necessary. But ensuring that children in refugee camps have food and water is eminently feasible, and necessary right now.
    “Humanity's greatest advances are not in its discoveries, but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity.”
    — Bill Gates

  17. #17
    Sure, it is commendable to keep people from dying. Though those lives saved, destined to be lived out in refugee camps at the whim of people seeking that good feeling that comes from such humanitarian efforts, will probably never get much better. And it doesn't do anything to end the problem of too many people vying for limited resources. Any long term solution to the matter of limited resources, which is the source of most conflicts, needs to include population control. So you can either cull the herd (genocide) or ship them off to foreign places or control birth rates.
    .

  18. #18
    We're actually on pace to have a population decrease starting from the next century, topping out at about 11 billion people. So we just need to expand the yield on our resources enough to handle a 40% population increase.
    Hope is the denial of reality

  19. #19
    Quote Originally Posted by Loki View Post
    We're actually on pace to have a population decrease starting from the next century, topping out at about 11 billion people. So we just need to expand the yield on our resources enough to handle a 40% population increase.
    The problem with that is where the decrease occurs. Probably won't be the places where people have nothing better to do than have sex without birth control to pass the time of day.
    .

  20. #20
    I'd focus on Water. It's the common denominator for almost every problem we're trying to prevent, alleviate, or solve. Everything begins with water. From Malaria to drought, farming, famine, migration, even national security.

    By definition, any "best marginal aid dollar" will still be marginal, and therefore insufficient. Sure, we can give food, drinking water, and medicines to third world countries, and even do the same for Americans....but they're just temporary stop-gap measures that will eventually fall short.

    I think we should stop dinking around the edges of "aid", and focus on big, bold policies related to Water, and climate change science. The first practical solutions I can think of would be banning residential swimming pools and watering grass lawns, and building "beach homes" on eroding coastlines. We'll still have a fight over irrigation for agriculture, at the expense of potable water, but it's a start.

  21. #21
    Quote Originally Posted by Being View Post
    Sure, it is commendable to keep people from dying. Though those lives saved, destined to be lived out in refugee camps at the whim of people seeking that good feeling that comes from such humanitarian efforts, will probably never get much better. And it doesn't do anything to end the problem of too many people vying for limited resources. Any long term solution to the matter of limited resources, which is the source of most conflicts, needs to include population control. So you can either cull the herd (genocide) or ship them off to foreign places or control birth rates.
    Before you start "culling the herd" as a way to allocate scarce resources....wouldn't it be better and smarter to get Americans to stop being selfish wasteful gluttons? Come on, man, we treat food and water with such utter disrespect that we have a national garbage disposal problem.

  22. #22
    Quote Originally Posted by Being View Post
    The problem with that is where the decrease occurs. Probably won't be the places where people have nothing better to do than have sex without birth control to pass the time of day.
    You seem to have a very weird idea of what developing countries—and the people who live in them—are like.
    “Humanity's greatest advances are not in its discoveries, but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity.”
    — Bill Gates

  23. #23
    Quote Originally Posted by GGT View Post
    Before you start "culling the herd" as a way to allocate scarce resources....wouldn't it be better and smarter to get Americans to stop being selfish wasteful gluttons? Come on, man, we treat food and water with such utter disrespect that we have a national garbage disposal problem.
    Better and smarter is not how 50% of us Americans work. Trump is still on a pedestal for god's sake.
    .

  24. #24
    Quote Originally Posted by Aimless View Post
    You seem to have a very weird idea of what developing countries—and the people who live in them—are like.
    What would you do to pass time as a refugee?
    .

  25. #25
    Quote Originally Posted by Steely Glint View Post
    In general I would tend towards short term help for individuals for micro amounts of money and long term help for groups for larger amounts of money. Give me 1k to spend and I'll try and find some in a bad situation and make them not in a bad situation, give me 1 billion and I'll try and find a way of solving the problem of bad situations generally, not just take a million people out of bad situations. Or I could go to space, I guess. Jeff. Jeff.
    I think this is an interesting position. Because there's a hell of a lot more than 1 million people in absolutely dire straits... so why wouldn't you spend the $1 billion on meeting immediate needs? What makes the immediate needs of the millionth person less than those of the first? Or, to put it another way: at which person do you decide that meeting their needs can wait in favor of addressing the broader issues?

    I'm not trying to make a 'gotcha' here, I just genuinely don't know how to address this. It certainly feels like your basic premise is right, but I'm not sure how to formulate it in a way that can be well defended.

    1) Well, the way I would think about this is not some qualifiable measure of utility but binaries - alive/dead, homed/homeless, in poverty/not in poverty. I don't really see the value in making someone 6% less homeless, better to make 1 person not homeless that 6 people a bit less homeless. But it's better to save 6 lives than it is to save 1 life and also make that person not homeless.
    I think this is a useful rubric you've developed - you want to be able to effectuate a 'quantum' of change in a person as your minimal aid unit (let's call it an MAU), and the different quanta of changes both have different MAU dollar amounts as well as a hierarchy of importance. So, presumably, you'd argue that saving someone from starving to death is more important that assuring they're vaccinated against a generally non-lethal disease, which might be more important in turn than ensuring they have stable housing, etc. So presumably with a sufficiently finely grained prioritization, we could find the MAUs with the highest priority and lowest dollar amount and use that for our marginal aid dollar. And as those specific MAUs become more scarce (because we've been giving so much money to them), we'd shift to the next highest priority. Obviously we'd need to figure out how the priority multiplier works, but it's a start.

    2) The problem with the 'most utility' criteria is that there are a lot of people out there who are going to get roughly the same utility out of whatever you choose to give. Someone starving in the second poorest country in the world isn't less starving than someone in the poorest country in the world, or the richest. Dead is dead. So these ties of obligation are a good tie breaker IMO.
    Is this fair? Because you're really assuming there are ties, when there probably aren't. The marginal cost to save someone's life is probably cheaper for some interventions and some locations than others - so, saving the life of a starving person in an easily accessible city with lowish transport, security, and food costs might be far better than saving the life of a starving person in the middle of a warzone. So from a strict dollars and cents perspective (e.g. how many lives can you save), I doubt there are many ties at all.

    Furthermore, let's say that you have a sense of obligation to, say, people in the Central African Republic. Maybe it's because your grandparents are from the CAR, or your country ruled them as a colony, or your country's intelligence service backed a ruinous coup there, or you consume goods that drive up the price of certain commodities that are sourced there and cause a lot of local strife. I would assume that certain countries are far more likely to incur a sense of obligation in the rich world than other countries, just because of their history/migration patterns/etc. Is that really fair to reduce other countries' aid just because they don't have as much exposure to the rich world?

    Regarding, restorative donations. What if there's a situation where someone's poverty is something you benefit from (for example, their low wages for performing labour that directly or indirectly benefits you, or the appropriation of natural resources in their country which should really be helping them), even if you've done nothing to bring about this situation, even actively oppose it? Do they have some claim to this largesse you now have, in part because of them? Likewise, given that we live in a democracy are we in part accountable for the things or governments do abroad? To take Loki's example, we both would have voted for the clown shoes who helped create the situation in Afghanistan, even if the other clowns would have probably done the same thing and also they said what they were doing in Afghanistan was good.
    I think you're getting into Good Place territory here. Given how deeply intertwined the world is nowadays, it's almost impossible to find a poor person whose plight doesn't in some way indirectly benefit me, even if it's just that my energy/goods/food/etc. are cheaper than they would be otherwise.

    Quote Originally Posted by LittleFuzzy View Post
    I think you'll find right now that you get the best "bang for your buck" by asking if any colleagues with science-fiction derived pseudonyms on the forums you frequent could use some of your excess money.
    But what if we're not sure they're sentient?

    I will gladly take donations though.

    Quote Originally Posted by Loki View Post
    I had a professor who's an expert on foreign aid and regularly flies out to assess aid projects. My main takeaway point from his work is that the specific details of a project and its implementation is far more important than what specific issue the project addresses. There are good and bad projects dealing with crime, good and bad projects that deal with HIV/AIDS, good and bad projects that deal with climate change, etc. You can't assume that just because a major non-profit is carrying out a project that it will carry it out well (in fact, some organizations that throw too much money at a problem have absolutely no idea which, if any, part of those resources actually had an impact).

    I'm sure there are areas where the potential impact is huge, but those same issues tend to be difficult to implement. Or the payoff is uncertain. Or it takes a long amount of time before there is a payoff. I'd say that if you're really going to spend a lot of time and money on this, you should give money to specific projects rather than to particular issues (though you can choose to only help fund projects relating to certain problems). Look for aid projects that hire experts to assess their intervention and are transparent about the effectiveness of their intervention.
    I think there's an important distinction to be made here. Some aid efforts are bad uses of money because they are implemented poorly. Some are bad uses of money because the goal itself cannot be met efficiently. It's easy to imagine that certain efforts - even if a paper analysis would suggest that the available MAUs are plentiful, cheap, and high priority - can never be effectively carried out due to circumstances outside the control of the best run organizations on the planet. For example, I doubt that people trying to intervene in earlier famines in e.g. NK in the 90s or China during the Great Leap Forward would have been all that successful, no matter how impactful a goal one might have had.

    I'm interested in knowing which aid efforts, when managed with a reasonable level of competency, should be prioritized. The mechanics of finding a specific organization/project to meet a specific aid goal is also an important question, of course, but it's secondary to my fundamental question of what we should be focusing on first.

    Steely makes valid points about the importance of your own morality here, but a moral project that's poorly implemented or secretive is not a project worth funding. Plus, most effective interventions are fairly low scale. It's much easier to see whether they're working and how they're working (the latter allows for expanding the project).
    I'm curious what you mean by 'low scale'. Surely some of the most important interventions in the world are feeding the hungry and vaccinating against preventable diseases. Both of these are massive efforts with enormous logistical overhead, but probably wouldn't be terribly effective any other way. Perhaps I am misunderstanding your intent.

    Quote Originally Posted by Dreadnaught View Post
    Is it fair to also factor-in Malthusian countervailing factors, EG if you bring winter coats and heating to Afghanistan you prolong the fighting season. If you bring malaria vaccines to a country with historical malaria challenges, you may get [unintended consequence]?
    Yes, I think knock-on effects are important to note. I don't think we should be paralyzed by indecision if said effects are unknown or far from certain, though. I think that immediate relief should generally be prioritized over nebulous concerns about unintended consequences. More long term development projects need to think about this a lot more - e.g. the effect of crowding out local nascent industries, effects on local employment and currency markets, effects on local conflicts, etc.

    Quote Originally Posted by Being View Post
    It is preventing pregnancies in regions with inadequate food and water and healthcare.
    Being, I would like to be charitable and read this as believing that there should be access to low cost family planning for everyone who wishes it rather than a more coarse 'let's make sure there are fewer indigents cluttering up the world' - unfortunately, your later posts make it hard to do so.

    There are many reasons why people have many children in the poorer parts of the world, and access to family planning is only a small part of it. While population pressures are a real challenge in many countries, Loki correctly noted that overall population in the world is looking like it will start stabilizing in the coming decades, and potentially start dropping quite a bit as we move into the next century. There is a clear negative correlation between development status and fertility, suggesting that the simplest way to reduce population pressure is to increase people's incomes and economic prospects, not to try to impose smaller family sizes on them from without.

    In fact, given demographic pressures in much of the developed world (and some middle income countries), it would make sense for those countries to be much more welcoming of migrants and refugees to improve their demographic balance while simultaneously reducing population pressures in the developing world. Perhaps that is a rather more ethical and effective solution rather than 'preventing pregnancies'.
    "When I meet God, I am going to ask him two questions: Why relativity? And why turbulence? I really believe he will have an answer for the first." - Werner Heisenberg (maybe)

  26. #26
    Quote Originally Posted by wiggin View Post
    I think this is an interesting position. Because there's a hell of a lot more than 1 million people in absolutely dire straits... so why wouldn't you spend the $1 billion on meeting immediate needs? What makes the immediate needs of the millionth person less than those of the first? Or, to put it another way: at which person do you decide that meeting their needs can wait in favor of addressing the broader issues?
    Well, it's better to solve a problem than alleviate the symptoms, right? We'd all agree on that. If you just endlessly meet people's basic needs eventually that money is going to run out, and then they're back where they started. Also, an existence where you basic needs are met but just barely and you're dependant on the charity of strangers still sucks.

    So if you can actually solve the problem, you should do that but if you can't you might as well just alleviate the symptoms.

    Is this fair?
    None of this is fair. It's also not fair to not help someone because you could help two people for the same price in some other country, they didn't choose to be born poor in a place with a higher cost of living. But, as we've already discussed, you have to pick somehow, since you do not have the power to help every single person in need on Earth. If you say you want to optimise your donation to so it helps the maximum number of people, I'm not going to quibble with that.

    I think you're getting into Good Place territory here. Given how deeply intertwined the world is nowadays, it's almost impossible to find a poor person whose plight doesn't in some way indirectly benefit me, even if it's just that my energy/goods/food/etc. are cheaper than they would be otherwise.
    Right, 'no ethical consumption under capitalism' and all that, I know. But, again, you have to pick somehow and we agreed this is ultimately about making a value judgement.
    You've been told that I'm the devil, but my blood is your blood
    In shame, my blood stains your hands
    You are the murderer of my fire and my sense
    You called me a sinner, you still talk forgiveness
    But now your dreams are haunted by your guilt

  27. #27
    Quote Originally Posted by wiggin View Post

    Being, I would like to be charitable and read this as believing that there should be access to low cost family planning for everyone who wishes it rather than a more coarse 'let's make sure there are fewer indigents cluttering up the world'...

    In fact, given demographic pressures in much of the developed world (and some middle income countries), it would make sense for those countries to be much more welcoming of migrants and refugees to improve their demographic balance while simultaneously reducing population pressures in the developing world. Perhaps that is a rather more ethical and effective solution rather than 'preventing pregnancies'.
    Ah, so we agree...

    Quote Originally Posted by Being View Post
    ...
    Any long term solution to the matter of limited resources, which is the source of most conflicts, needs to include population control. So you can either cull the herd (genocide) or ship them off to foreign places or control birth rates.
    .

  28. #28
    Quote Originally Posted by Steely Glint View Post
    Well, it's better to solve a problem than alleviate the symptoms, right? We'd all agree on that. If you just endlessly meet people's basic needs eventually that money is going to run out, and then they're back where they started. Also, an existence where you basic needs are met but just barely and you're dependant on the charity of strangers still sucks.

    So if you can actually solve the problem, you should do that but if you can't you might as well just alleviate the symptoms.
    I think the reality is that no matter how hard we try to fix 'root causes', there are always going to be people who, through bad circumstances or a ruinous context (e.g. wars, natural disasters, climate, etc.) are going to need immediate life saving assistance. So, sure, root cause effects are important, but at times it's hard to understand where the line should be drawn between meeting the immediate and urgent needs of people and trying to limit the numbers of those who need such assistance in the future.

    That's where my general formula for the distinction between spending one-off distributions versus continual aid. Continual aid should cover the world's 'operating budget', if you will - meeting immediate and urgent needs. One-off supplements to that should go for longer term projects on root causes. It avoids the question of who is deserving of immediate aid but focuses on what makes sense from a funding perspective.

    None of this is fair. It's also not fair to not help someone because you could help two people for the same price in some other country, they didn't choose to be born poor in a place with a higher cost of living. But, as we've already discussed, you have to pick somehow, since you do not have the power to help every single person in need on Earth. If you say you want to optimise your donation to so it helps the maximum number of people, I'm not going to quibble with that.
    I'm not specifically thinking about myself here - as with I imagine that vast majority of others, I spend a decent chunk of my charity dollars on my various local communities because I agree with the basic argument that one's obligations have some sort of higher moral demand than a general dictum to reduce human suffering. But when you get to a sufficiently dilute level of obligation, I think that justification becomes increasingly untenable, and money should be allocated to help the most people as much as possible (potentially using your MAU framework discussed above).

    Quote Originally Posted by Being View Post
    Ah, so we agree...
    'population control' and 'preventing pregnancies' of the poors is not exactly what I was saying.
    "When I meet God, I am going to ask him two questions: Why relativity? And why turbulence? I really believe he will have an answer for the first." - Werner Heisenberg (maybe)

  29. #29
    Quote Originally Posted by wiggin View Post
    ...


    'population control' and 'preventing pregnancies' of the poors is not exactly what I was saying.
    Manipulating population distribution is population control. You advocated this.
    .

  30. #30
    Um, no.
    "When I meet God, I am going to ask him two questions: Why relativity? And why turbulence? I really believe he will have an answer for the first." - Werner Heisenberg (maybe)

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