This is my contribution to the EA blogging carnival on cause selection. I compare cause areas and attempt a quantitative comparison between LLIN distributions and advocacy for farmed animals. In short, I will continue to fundraise for the first but but personally donate more to prioritization research within the latter area.
Obsolete Content Warning
My thinking on priorities has changed greatly since I wrote this article. Today I consider much of my thinking from 2015 to be outdated. This article has been superseded by “Current Thinking on Priorities 2018.”
Since my selection of the cause area is highly dependent on the interventions and the implementing charities available in that cause area, this article will cover the complete stack of cause, intervention, and charity selection, which I will call CIC for short. I will also distinguish between CICs to fundraise for and such that I want to donate to directly since fundraising also requires that the CIC is marketable in my target demographic.
Since I’m constrained in time, feel well value-aligned with our prioritization organizations, and don’t want to duplicate effort, I’m relying on GiveWell and Animal Charity Evaluators for a preselection. I’m looking forward to relying on Open Phil similarly, once the project publishes concrete recommendations. I’m also taking meta charities into account but struggle with the absence of the same preselection.
Thus my cause selection is down to NTDs (two charities), malaria, poverty, farmed animals (three charities), and various areas of EA meta activism.
The cause areas fall into the category of those that affect mostly nonhuman animals, those that affect mostly humans, and the metacharities.
The Animal Charity Evaluators top charities all look great, and I have no hard and fast ideas for how to weigh them against each other. ACE’s very rough quantitative estimates are almost within the same order of magnitude, so I don’t expect the significant effort I’d have to invest to prioritize between them to be warranted. Some ideas I’ve had that might help if I wanted to do it after all were:
The amount of meat consumption in the country the charity is active in, particularly of smaller animals like poultry and fish, based on the assumption that the marginal benefit of my investment may be lower in a country that is largely vegetarian already (India?).
The rate of adoption of veg*nism in the country, based on the assumption that a higher rate may indicate that anticarnistic campaigns can gain good traction.
I also thought about taking the consumer price index into account, thinking that the charity can do more with my money there, but the differences between the countries that the three charities are active in were negligible.
Please note that ACE may have already done or may be working on such research.
What ACE is doing reminds me a lot of what Open Phil is doing in terms of how hard it is for them to quantify the impact of the charities. This doesn’t seem to be so much in the nature of the cause areas – as with prioritizing research or existential risk – but rather the result of the neglect of the area, so that ACE has only little and poor-quality prior research to draw on.
Imma once warned that neglectedness may be overexerted as proxy for marginal cost-effectiveness in areas where the latter is too hard to determine, but once again I see no other option. Hence ACE is also one of my candidates.
In the end Animal Equality, in addition to ACE, is ahead in terms of charities to donate to for the silly reasons that they are tax-exempt in Germany and have the highest quantitative estimate of the top charities, but I think I’ll rather make an unrestricted donation to ACE, which it can regrant if it’s somehow suddenly flooded with donations.
Mercy For Animals is ahead in terms of charities to fundraise for, because they have a fundraiser system on their website.
GiveDirectly is brilliant as certainty and scalability go, but those are important for very risk-averse donors and major foundations respectively. So long as I “only” have to allocate a few ten thousand euros, the cost-effectiveness is more important to me, and that is lower compared to the other top charities.
Evidence Action and SCI are top contenders, but I think the evidentiary basis for the effectiveness of deworming, while sizable, is more ambiguous than that for bednets, and more extreme estimates are also more likely to be wrong. So for as long as LLINs remain highly effective, I’ll rather invest in:
The Against Malaria Foundation. It seems to combine the advantages of having a solid evidentiary basis, being highly effective, and being well-run as an organization. Since it has a fundraiser system and is tax-exempt in a whole bunch of countries, it’s particularly good for fundraising for. I also hope to dedicate my master’s thesis to the topic of LLIN distributions – once I get any useful feedback on my proposal from my assessors.
GiveWell seems relatively less neglected than ACE, but that comparison doesn’t fit neatly into this section.
I’ll look into the standout charities in more detail once I either have more time or some of them have become top charities.
I’d love to invest in metacharities, but absent prioritization between them, I don’t know to which. I’m hoping that my expected utility auctions will alleviate that problem a little by crowdsourcing prioritization to some degree, but they’re still a thing of the future.
Some metacharities have estimated some leverage ratios, but they were always (as far as I’ve seen) the average ones of their past donations not of marginal donations, which may bias the estimate upward. (Except when the metacharity was just fundraising for operating expenses like Giving What We Can.) In some cases they didn’t take future impact into account either, which may bias the estimate downward if the metacharity had or has a lot of initial costs and is still increasingly gaining traction with its program. I’d much rather like to see a rough estimate what difference in scale my marginal donation can make a few years down the line and with what elasticity (say, $100,000 might achieve a lot, but $50,000 a lot less than half of that, because it would not be enough for a certain investment).
A focus on current leverage ratios may incentivize metachrities to defer important investments into the future, scaling up slower than they could, and thus deferring some of the alleviation of suffering that they could do into the future, allowing more dolors to accrue in total.
My intuition is that even investing in a random one of the EA meta charities I’ve looked at would be at least as good as an investment in a GiveWell top charity, so it would be fallacious to ignore the cause area just because I can’t decide between several great options, so outside small windows for investment like the GWWC fundraiser, this has been another reason for me to plan to invest in ACE in the future.
My Species Vs. Your Species
And then I have to somehow decide between humans and nonhuman animals. That’s really a bit unfair since I’m pitting one species against a whole lot of species, but at this point it seems much easier to help farmed animals than wild animals, which reduces the number of species a lot.
I attempt an estimation to compare the average ACE top charity to AMF in terms of the years of suffering that a donation averts. I’m lumping all ACE top charities together because I can’t meaningfully prioritize between them. I put the results in bold type in case you’re in a hurry.
The concept of the value of a life has been elusive to me, and when people try to estimate it by considering what impairments of health people accept for what increase in wage, the resulting estimates vary widely. The same surveys can’t be conducted among farmed animals, further complicating the picture. The multipliers that I assign intuitively vary widely, and I have trouble justifying them in ways that wouldn’t be speciesist. Hence I don’t want to rely on them for my prioritization and rather base it on well-being over time.
For clarification: Valuing well-being may in my case mean something along the lines of negative-leaning utilitarianism, though that can’t be the whole picture, and I perceive suffering as something that can be borne to some degree before it becomes increasingly unbearable, so that occasional dusts specks are perfectly bearable and don’t register for most people but torture is probably unbearable for most. I perceive whatever does the bearing like a muscle that can fatigue, recover from fatigue, and can possibly be trained (some sort of reverse hedonic adaptation). Proper philosophers have probably debated this view at length already, so I’d happily link any such debates if you know where to find them.
GiveWell uses for its quantitative estimate of the cost-effectiveness of LLIN distributions the complete cost of the distribution including costs that AMF can leverage from partners such as Concern Universal or IMA. That is important to avoid lots of confusion about the attribution of impact. When I enter the historical average cost per net for AMF ($3.64) instead of the composite cost, the spreadsheet shows an average cost between $25 per undiscounted DALY averted and $64 per 3%-discounted DALY averted with uniform age weights. At the original composite costs, it returns cost between $44 and $111. Hence you can avert 9–40 DALYs per $1000.
However, GiveWell’s estimates only include lives saved. With 198 million cases of malaria in 2013 and 584,000 fatal ones, the nonfatal ones outnumber the fatal ones 339:1, so that the monetary and health benefits from the prevented nonfatal cases may be sizable. Plus I may value some degree of reduction of suffering over a year higher than the creation of another life year that is barely worth living.
If the YLL-to-YLD ratio is similar in the regions that AMF targets for their high malaria incidence and low insecticide resistance, then you avert one case of malaria for $6–10 (the costs per life saved for the two different net costs divided by 339). The WHO estimates that 2 million of the 198 million cases of malaria annually were severe cases, which have a disability weight of 0.21 as opposed to 0.005 of uncomplicated malaria. With a donation of $1000, you can thus avert another 100–166 cases of malaria or 0.7–1.2 DALY. This hardly changes the result above, but an estimate of the YLD averted due to saved treatment costs and prevented loss of income would be interesting.
Animal Charity Evaluator confirmed that the estimates for all interventions that comprise the quantitative estimates of their top charities rely on the same assumptions about the number of animals not eaten, market elasticity, and recidivism. Hence I adjusted the donation in the Online Ad Impact Calculator so that the resulting number of animals saved came close to the top charity average of about 4769. The result was a reduction of 1700 years of suffering for $1000. These are not yet disability adjusted.
Bailey Norwood and Brian Tomasik have discussed quantitative estimates of farmed-animal suffering. I don’t have access to Norwood’s Compassion, By the Pound, and Tomasik writes that Norwood assigned a positive value of life to chickens farmed for meat, which he contests most convincingly on the basis of their short lives and brutal deaths (Norwood’s response), but Will MacAskill writes in Doing Good Better that Norwood’s “average rating for broiler chickens is -1” anyway. (Cows, farmed for meat and milk, account for only 30 of the 1700 years.)
I created a copy of the spreadsheet and undid the merging of cows farmed for meat and dairy and that of chickens farmed for meat and eggs, and introduced a new section to the spreadsheet to multiply in Norwood’s disability weights, which I divided by ten to put them in the same range as DALYs or QALYs. I’m not sure what to call this unit, but let’s say a donation of $1000 to the average ACE top charity averts between -36 and -2210 “QALYs,” with the best estimate at -283 “QALYs.”
These units may be incorrect and only comparable to a limited degree. The estimate doesn’t include wild-caught fish, whether caught intentionally or accidentally. Neither does it include environmental or health benefits, or flow-through effects of reduced recidivism through increased social acceptance or of increased visibility of veganism.
Finally, I don’t know whether it would be speciesist to value a human QALY one or two orders of magnitude higher than a nonhuman “QALY,” and would be tempted to just split my low-volatility budget between the CICs, but since I find it much harder to rally people in support for nonhuman animals than other humans, I want to invest as much of the money that is at my sole discretion where I can’t invest fundraised money.
Over the course of the past year I’ve become less risk averse in my selection, probably through the realization that we’re already diversifying our investment portfolio by having different opinions on what the most cost-effective interventions are and prioritizing neglected ones in the hopes of earning a higher marginal utility. Hence I don’t need to worry so much about the risk attached to my own investment and can rather aim for something closer to the highest expected value. This trend may well continue, particularly once Open Phil releases recommendations.