Dan Banik and Ryan Briggs discuss effective altruism and longtermism, the political effects of foreign aid, and how to maximize global efforts to reduce poverty.
Effective altruism has been in the news of late. Sam Bankman-Fried, the CEO of the FTX cryptocurrency exchange, which collapsed in 2022, was for many years a leading voice for and financial sponsor of the effective altruist movement. He and others have argued for ‘longtermism’: the idea that positively influencing the distant future is a key moral priority of our time. As effective altruism and longtermism have become increasingly influential, these ideas have also been subject to greater scrutiny.
Ryan Briggs is an associate professor in the Guelph Institute of Development Studies and Department of Political Science at the University of Guelph. He has worked extensively on foreign aid, African politics, and effective altruism. Twitter: @ryancbriggs
Professor Dan Banik, University of Oslo, Twitter: @danbanik @GlobalDevPod
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Banik Ryan, it's finally time for us to have a chat. We've been waiting for this moment for a long time, it's good to see you. Welcome to the show.
Briggs Thank you so much. I'm really happy to be here.
Banik Ryan, let's start with something I know you've been working on recently and that is this concept of effective altruism. I've had discussions with one of the gurus, Peter Singer, on this show, he's been one of my heroes. This whole idea within philosophy within many of these social movements, that we should use evidence, we should be reasonable, we should try to figure out how to benefit others, not just be generous, but also be effective in trying to help others as much as possible and take action based on evidence and reason. What is problematic these days with that concept? I’m asking you this because especially in North America, there has been so much talk about Sam Bankman-Fried and the collapse of FTX. Where are we in this effective altruism movement at the moment?
Briggs Yeah, that's a great question. I think a lot of people that either identify with effective altruism or see themselves as kind of adjacent to it are asking that question right now in the wake of just a really weird year. The whole FTX blow up and all of that but then even before that I think a lot of people were uneasy and asking a lot of questions about where things were going when it seemed like everything was on the up and up. There was just so much more money and attention on this small group of nerds that traditionally have not had a lot of money and influence. I don't know that I have an incredibly coherent answer I'm not sure anyone does right now, but something that I find useful to keep in mind and that is something that I try to kind of grow in my own little the little corner is most of the money in effective altruism goes to global health interventions, it goes to things that I think most people think are pretty reasonable. Most of the people like working in effective altruism do the same thing they're putting their time and attention on basically global development causes that most people in global development I think would feel pretty squarely behind. That's not to say that the other stuff is fringy or weird or useless or things like that, I don't actually think that that's the case, but I do think that the long-term-ist AI techno utopia or dystopia thing, I think that gets overplayed because it's so interesting and fun to talk about and trying to get more bed nets out the door is just a lot less interesting, it doesn't grab people's attention in the same way.
Banik What is it that people react to, say in the United States and Canada, with this concept? Because for me it seems to be a bit of a win-win. What is it that they find problematic? Is it this focus on AI, this fear that they will suddenly become obsolete; that we’re funding things that will make our lives worse; or maybe that we are helping others in distant lands but making things worse for ourselves? Is that the concern?
Briggs No, I'm not sure, some people might have that concern. I think there are some other concerns that are somewhat reasonable and sometimes maybe less so. One of them I think is that whether or not it's intended, I think a lot of people feel a little bit judged or a little bit defensive when effective altruism gets brought up. It's kind of in the name a little bit, it's kind of a cringey name because it sort of implies the other stuff isn't effective. I don't think that was ever intended, but it does have that effect on people, I think it rubs people the wrong way. The closest analogue that I can come to this is I was a vegetarian for a decade, I'm not now, but I was at the time I would like hang out with vegetarians because it was easier to eat with them and I would hang with a lot of vegans and people just don't like vegans, they're just normal people, they would do non vegan things and people would be kind of defensive around them. My best guess is that we all have this collective understanding that at least what we do to animals and factory farming is just truly abhorrent and we just try to pretend like it's not and then when you see someone in your presence who's a vegan, like it's a little bit off putting or you feel a bit defensive because this person is maybe living out your values a bit better than you are. I think there's a little bit of that with effective altruism where a lot of us just do recognise that there are very severe global inequalities and the people at the bottom of these inequalities are very, very badly off and people in rich countries could do more to help and I think there is a bit of defensiveness that comes in there and I think that that's unfortunate, I'm not going to say that's a reasonable reaction. I think maybe a reasonable reaction is trying to more fully live our values. But I don't think that's all of it, I think that there are some concerns that people have that basically effective altruists are doing like systems maintenance for an unjust global order.
Banik Well, you mean like the Bill Gates of the world?
Briggs Yeah, a little bit or people like me that give money to bed nets and childhood vaccination incentives regularly. I think that some people have an idea that a better use of our time would be trying to topple the global order, it's not totally clear to me actually what they’re after but some kind of broad institutional change and just doing like kind of maintenance around the edges of a system that they see as unjust is not just like a bad use of time but is prolonging an unjust social order. I don’t think there's nothing to that view, and I think that some people do hold that view.
Banik That’s a good point because I was thinking that some of the resistance is because we may not really always want to base our actions on evidence. Some of the resistance is because we wish to support a charity because it is important for religious purposes or because we, I don't know, we've been doing it for several generations, everybody else is talking about it, the community is convinced so why do we need an impartial body of evidence to base our actions on? We know this is good and so don't tell me otherwise. We want to continue with what we are doing; we've convinced ourselves that what we're doing is working so who are you to come up with this independent body of evidence about what works and what doesn't.
Briggs Yeah, there might be some of that. I mean, this is something where I try to actually just be really cautious. From an effectiveness point of view, I think it's just not going to be effective to approach someone who's volunteering at a local food bank and telling them to actually work and earn money and give that to bed nets or something, I think that's a crass and dumb thing to do, I think it's unwise. But putting that aside, there was this meme that took hold a while ago, maybe a decade ago, and the idea was that what effective altruists were doing was trying to do as much good as possible impartially. I don't know any effective altruists that are doing that, I'm sure that a few exist but I don't actually know any that are trying to do as much good as possible.
Banik Peter Singer is.
Briggs Well, no, he's not really, he's close. But I don't want to be overly personal with how he chooses to spend his money, but he is closer than most people but does not genuinely try to do it. He prioritises some personal relationships as I think he should, over impartial others and I really have zero stones thrown at Peter Singer he's living this much more than say I am for example. But I don't actually think he's doing the pure maximising thing and most of the people that I know that are effective altruists are trying to do a lot of good, they're trying to be really ambitious. But I have kids and I spend more money on my kids than I do on random people, and I recently took a vacation and I spent more than $5000 total on that vacation, which means that could have bought enough bed nets to save a life. I also give a sort of reasonable share and increasing share of my income to these different charities, and I think that that's important and more people should do that, and I think when we do that, we should try to be analytical and try to do a truly large amount of good. But the idea that we're trying to maximise this I think it's wrong it's not actually right, people don't really do that. But I also think it causes people some anguish when they fail to live up to this incredibly difficult, demanding standard that, at least to me, does not actually feel correct. I do feel like I owe more to my kids than random strangers, I just think that I owe something to random strangers.
Banik So, I think that is where Singer’s early work, I remember reading that 1971-72 article, the shallow pond example (for my listeners, I’ll put a link to my conversation with Peter Singer on this), one of the most well-known examples in philosophy and moral philosophy. But this idea, Ryan, of solidarity with strangers, it is important we should be doing much more of obviously, but in that article, Peter outlined some of these restrictions or limitations to that principle. It has to do with sacrifice – there are different types of thresholds that we can maintain certain relationships as you mentioned to family, to our children, to our loved ones and those relationships require certain types of reciprocity. So, spending $5000 on the vacation was important as it gave you something important, the family bonded, it gave you happiness, and so that is fine, he would say, certain things you could sacrifice, but perhaps not that. That's how I understand this, it should not be this huge amount of guilt for everything we do. But I do take your point that setting that threshold is often difficult – when is it that I should give money and when can I use it for myself. When should I buy a new car or a new suit? Knowing that is often difficult.
Briggs Yeah, there are people who struggle with the, can I eat an ice cream cone? We can laugh but that is a go to on the EA forum and look around some posts and you'll find people that are genuinely struggling with this. These are people that are trying really hard to live a moral life and I just think that that's important at least for me to express that what I like about effective altruism is not some kind of maximising notion. It is the idea that we live in a world where people in my socioeconomic position, can do a lot of good for other people with some sacrifice but not onerous sacrifice and if we decide to do that, then I think we should try to be analytic we should try to be really ambitious with how much could we do. I came to this via Peter Singer’s pond example, which I read in early high school and just like, crashed through my worldview and like, I've never fully recovered from it. But when I actually think about the for lack of a better word, the vibe, of effective altruism, it's less Peter Singers drowning pond it's more the late Hans Rosling’s statement about the head and heart. It's much more that kind of being driven by your heart and then trying to apply analytics to this to really be able to execute. That to me is more what I feel and its less kind of guilt notion about feeling like I have these intense obligations that I need to live up to that are hard to carry.
Banik I think the big problem is an overload of obligations, this feeling that nothing you do helps. But Ryan, earlier this year you wrote a paper where you tried to use the capability approach developed by one of my gurus – Amartya Sen and his work on development as freedom. And you use that in relation to this effective altruism idea or concept. Tell us a bit more about why you think using the capability approach. First, tell us how you understand the capability approach and then why that helps perhaps strengthen the idea of effective altruism.
Briggs This is one of those things where to your listen listeners, I think the capability approach will be fairly common, I'll still explain it, but I think people know about this, a lot of effective altruists don't and I think that there's a lot of useful cross pollination that could happen between these two communities that share so many values. So, what I was trying to do was mostly bring ideas that were fairly common in the development space into this other space where I don't remember the median age of an effective altruist, but it is so much younger than me. This is a movement that has grown very quickly, and I don't think of myself as especially old, but I am one of the oldest people that would feel some affiliation here. So, the capability approach is just another way to try to get at welfare, you can think of it for making comparisons across people I was talking about it in terms of, what effective altruists should be trying to maximise and so I was saying that they should be trying to maximise value weighted capabilities. But certainly, Sen wouldn't talk about it in this maximising way. The crucial idea for the capability approach is that there are things that could be there, things that we could do, we're just going to call those things functionings. So, I could be a teacher, I could be a parent, I could eat and then capabilities are just options to do functioning so there's choices that you may or may not have to actually do this thing. Probably the main important nuance there is they need to be choices where you really could actually do the thing. For example, I don't have the capability to be the Prime Minister of Canada, I'm not legally barred but it's not going to happen, I'm just not positioned in a way to make that happen, I don't really have that choice. Once we buy that, then the final thing to realise is if you're an effective altruist, what you're trying to maximise, it's not the number of capabilities that someone might have because you might have the ability to take a certain job or the ability to be a parent, you might have this huge list. The problem is by doing one of those things you might foreclose another one. So maybe by having a kid then you can't work in some countries, especially for women. So, the thing that we're trying to maximise would be the capability sets these groups of capabilities that people might have access to. And you can imagine trying to create some sort of weights for them so that like more important capabilities count for more. My pitch to effective altruists is I think the naive utilitarianism that sometimes can permeate those spaces, I think that that's a bit mistaken I think often it honestly doesn't end up mattering that much, but I think that the people that are trying to be ambitious and doing good in the world would benefit from the capability approach.
Banik One of the early examples that Sen used if I remember correctly is there are two people fasting outside the White House. Something like that, that one person is fasting because of political beliefs and the other one is fasting because he or she simply does not have money to buy food. The end result would be that both would starve and if they did not get food they would die. But if we only focused on that end result, starvation induced death, that would not really make us better understand that one of those did not have a choice, and that one of them actually starved to death because of political beliefs, not because he or she did not have money to buy food. I think it is that distinction, right, the options available that enable us to make certain decisions that we arrive at that allow us to be or do certain things.
Briggs That's a very useful way and that was the original example. The difference when starving and fasting where fasting means you have that option, that's a really useful way to highlight for people the difference between capability and a functioning. In class I like to use the example of getting punched in the face, that's a functioning, but it really matters if you're boxing, where you have the option to not do that you've chosen to, the sort of broader choice context really matters for understanding. In one choice context this is a like a horrific event that you've been assaulted and in the other one you're boxing and so that functioning, it's got to be understood in reference to the choices that you have at that moment, and then what makes this maybe more interesting or somewhere this really adds, I think to the way that utilitarian approaches get hashed out in practise is the choices that you have will often depend on like features of you. So, you could imagine a social programme that transfers everyone the same amount of money then you might think that that's really good if you're below some income threshold, you get the same amount of money. But it just could be the case that to achieve certain functionings like to get the option to do a functioning, some people might need more money than others, so maybe they have a certain kind of disability, and because of that, it's more expensive for them to get around. So maybe they're in a wheelchair, they can't take some kind of transit, they need to take a different kind. If you give people all the same amount of money, you're going to basically give less options to go places to someone who's in a wheelchair than someone who's not. The right way to think about maybe equalising people is in this capability space, not in this money space or the resources space. I think that can be really, really valuable as well and it highlights one area where if you don't try to think about capabilities, you can get into weird situations where you feel like you're doing something that is sort of ideal and you're not.
Banik Ryan, let's move on to something related and that is foreign aid that you've been working on quite a lot in an African context, mainly African politics. Many would say that aid is a form of altruism. It is often given with altruistic motives; a lot of rich countries give money based on some idea of global solidarity. Want to reduce poverty somewhere in distant lands, solidarity with strangers, some would say, but then there are also other reasons why we give money as aid, it could be security. But mainly it is often very political and, in your work, I noticed that you are interested in better understanding why is it that that the political impact or effectiveness of aid is not studied as much or does not get that attention? What is it about the political effects of giving aid or the extent to which, say, incumbent leaders benefit or do not in terms of staying on in power. Give us a little overview of that relationship between aid and politics.
Briggs I think your framing is bang on, correct. It is this really interesting flow of money that is in part altruistic, I don't think that taxpayers in rich democracies would support it if it was just presented to them as it's really important that we have this bribe money for trade deals, that wouldn't be supported. It's because there is like a genuine motivation, a lot of people don't want to think too hard about this, but they are really happy for some very small fraction of the government’s budget to go to foreign aid. I think that that's excellent that's a wonderful impulse, it is also just clearly the case that this is influenced by domestic politics on both sides and then also influenced by international politics. So, it's definitely one of those things that it's both and whatever party you're near you'll see it as either political or altruistic. What originally made me interested in studying aid was that I was afraid that foreign aid might create large political problems in recipient countries and that those problems could be so large as to offset any positive effects that it creates. The original story for this that is still kicking around is an analogy to oil, so people might be familiar, but really quickly for those that maybe aren't political scientists. Some stories that have at least some empirical support that basically say it seems really important to State Building to have a government that depends on its citizens for taxation, and there are a number of reasons for this, some have to do with democracy once you start actually going out and taking money from people, they feel a much stronger impulse to then try to hold you to account for how that money is used. A lot of explanations have nothing to do with democracy and just have to so with basic functioning of the state, where it's hard to go and get tax from people and the things that you need to do to be able to actually execute that plan, they just look almost exactly like building up a functioning state. So having a bureaucracy and having often registers like making large portions of society legible, is a precondition for going out and actually being able to get tax from large numbers of people. So, you can easily tell these stories where this process of doing taxation creates these really positive feedback loops in terms of state capacity. In terms of democracy, and if you believe that, and then you kind of look over at well, I should say part of why we believe that is when you look at countries that don't have to do that often, they don't seem to have a state that is able to really penetrate society and they don't tend to have, we would think of as good democratic institutions and so you look at countries that depend on oil and you really just have to control this relatively small amount of land and then you just get free money forever and then citizens get transfers from government, the government doesn't take from the citizens, and it seems like it might break some of these relationships. Now I'm well aware of the fact that I'm currently in an oil state, as I believe are you and things look OK and we can tell the story about sequencing and it matters when you get the oil. But something that I think is, well, when I became interested in doing a PhD I thought that this might exist with aid, aid could be this kind of free resource and it could create these similar problems and I'm now just reasonably convinced that's not the case. I don't think that happens in a way that is at least large enough to pick up statistically, we just don't see it happening. It might have other ill effects, it likely does, but I think it’s big picture concerns they're just not supported by any of the evidence that we have. I think that's probably underappreciated by people that don't squarely study this, this is a theory that we've tested a number of times and it's been found to be pretty lacking.
Banik So when you think about the rich donor countries, let's say the OECD DAC countries, there's always this framing of aid as doing everything, all the magical stuff, good governance, democracy promotion, civil society being empowered. You're giving a voice to the voiceless. You're actually talking about different sorts of rights, empowering women, climate smart policies, everything is put under this basket. One of the things I notice Ryan of late is that budget support that is giving money directly to a recipient government’s budget rather than funding separate projects that is being touted again as something that we should return to because one of the big criticisms of aid has been leakage and corruption and abuse of resources, and so that is one of the reasons why budget support that had started a few years ago, was suddenly discontinued in many parts of the world, including some of the countries that you and I study. We are seeing this sort of budget support element being brought back in and one of the biggest reasons or justifications for that, is to strengthen the legitimacy of a state, particularly weak states where, and I can talk about Malawi, where I do a lot of work and you've done work there too where a Malawian citizen usually is aware that a lot of the stuff that is being done, infrastructure, whatever is being supported by some donor because it is a country that depends heavily on aid. Now the extent to which the citizen then connects this to a non-functioning Government in the country is what interests me in your work, you could say that this is being done, who is it being done by? I'm not sure as long as I get a service, that's fine. But I would ideally like to think that if I'm receiving a good that is coming directly from the from my government, that is wonderful, that is, as you said earlier, it's my tax money actually helping, right? If it's coming from a donor, OK, it's something separate, it's not something that I paid for through taxation. So, this is a long about way of sort of trying to get you to reflect a bit on what you found in your work, in Ghana in Nigeria, which is an oil resource rich country in Malawi. One of the things I notice in your work is that you find that aid does not necessarily mean that an incumbent leader, his or her position is strengthened, that they will get re-elected. It actually does the opposite and there are several mechanisms you identify. So, rather than me telling the story, why don't you give us a little overview as to why is aid often not beneficial to an incumbent president or leader?
Briggs This is a great question. I felt very uncomfortable about this paper because there is a normal story that we tell about all resources, which is people like to get stuff and so if they get stuff before an election, whether that's their income goes up, they know they experience income growth or the price of gas goes down and so they're able to buy more of it and then they're more likely to vote for the party in power. I thought that I would find this in the cases that I looked at. Foreign aid provides a lot of stuff, people like stuff you might straightforwardly expect and frankly, I did expect that you would then see that it increased the likelihood that someone would say that they would then vote for the President in the next election. I have a number of papers on this and in other ones I have found the expected relationship. I have a paper looking at electrification in Ghana and when lights came on and there I do see the expected relationship and in this other case, just looking at different countries and different points in time I found pretty uniformly the aid either did nothing, or it seemed to make people less likely to want to vote for the President in the next election. I don't have a general theory as to what is going on, but I've become like increasingly convinced that the relationship between resources and voting, at least in low or middle income countries, is just much more complicated than the simple theories that political scientists have. Some of the explanations that I came up with I don't really know that they're correct, but this is the sort of thing that I think demands like a little bit of extra thought, you can't just be like, turns out it's negative. It could be that people that are voting regularly for the party in power are doing this because they're in some kind of a patronage relationship, and it might just be that when your life gets better above some threshold, you don't feel like you need to be in that relationship in the same way. I don't know that aid is capable, frankly, of being transformative in that sort of way like I that might be a bit of a stretch, but it could be that some people are having either their income boosted or their health gets better or their schooling situation gets better and prior to that, one of the things that they were depending on through either a local broker or whoever was a little bit of help with school, a little bit of help when a medical situation came up. People then sort of felt like they could vote their preferences when they weren't in that situation it could be that people are a little bit sheltered from the actual like implementation side of the government business and once you see that up close, maybe you don't like what you see.
Banik But you could also have a situation Ryan where you get more demanding. I've got this now give me more.
Briggs Yep, that's entirely possible and there are some papers that are related to mine that have found effects that seem consistent with that kind of story, where people almost weren't maybe tuned in to government actually just doing anything and then once they show up a little bit, all of a sudden you're like, wait a minute, you could have been doing this, this was an option where are all of the other things that you should be doing?
Banik In one of your papers, you mentioned that the core thing is, the crucial aspect is getting aid in the year preceding the election. That is important.
Briggs In an older paper I was looking at age shocks, these are weird situations where foreign aid to a recipient goes up or down quite a bit, and I wanted to see how that could filter out into influences on people voting. The idea there was, there are times that recipient countries experience, quite large shocks to foreign aid going up or down, maybe like 5 or 10 percentage points over prior flows and this often happens because of nothing that they did wrong, so this isn't a situation where a country has a horrible scandal around misappropriation of funds, and then it goes down. Often, it's more like America elects a more right-wing government and the foreign aid budget gets cut, and then from the recipient's point of view they're in this weird kind of like whiplash situation where domestic politics on the donor side has now caused a somewhat exogenously this either crash or increase in funding. What I showed in that paper is there's this very suspicious pattern in the time series, where if that whiplash hits in the year before the election, then you tend to see the expected American politics story of, more money sloshing around in this system means more stuff means more voting, incumbents are more likely to get re-elected. That doesn't happen a few years earlier, or it doesn't happen if it happens in the election year. That makes sense to me because it should take some time for money to turn into stuff. With all of this, I've become increasingly sceptical of our ability to actually pick up these effects by running regressions on the data. Even if you're doing everything right, I think that there are very, very difficult challenges to actually identify causal effects in this way, which doesn't mean I've become nihilistic about statistical work or something, but I have increasingly grown sceptical of a lot of this work because it's just so hard to do well.
Banik That is precisely why it is so fascinating to read your work Ryan. One of the things I wanted to run by you is something that I noticed in Malawi and in some other countries where political leaders, incumbent leaders, presidents, often market themselves as being able to get a lot of aid. It is almost like showing how effective I am, how respected I am and because donor governments approve of my handling of the economy because my administration is not as corrupt as the previous one, we have been able to attract increased donor funding, which means I'm doing a good job, which means vote for me and keep voting for me.
Briggs Yes, I think there is something to that. I think the paper that was written on this I'm going to blank on the title, but it's by Lindsay Dolan and it's based on a bunch of interviews and so I'm probably going to blur a little bit of the details. Maybe I can send you the paper for show notes or something after. But it was based on interviews I believe in Kenya and one of the things that really came out of this so strongly was this idea that people just expect politicians to get aid, it’s one of the jobs. If we're telling a story where aid is viewed negatively because it's the signal that the government couldn't get it together and run everything on tax, and they have to depend on outsiders or whatever, that just seems, at least in the case that she looked at to be just completely misplaced. One of my big takeaways there as someone who told some of those stories, and I think this circles back to effective altruism nicely, all of these groups of people, professors studying this effective altruist trying to do implementation I think all of them could just benefit so dramatically from having so many more people from these countries, Kenya or wherever, in these communities and really serious central ways. Because I'm really glad that Lindsey wrote this paper and showed us that maybe these kind of simple stories that we were telling were wrong. But I bet there are a lot of other simple stories kind of like this, and it's really hard to know what you don't know and I think that there is probably a lot of low hanging fruit here that could easily be picked if we had in global development or in effective altruism so many more people that live in low-income countries very, very active in these communities. I think the onus there is pretty squarely on people like me to try to make that happen. But this was this was a pretty stunning paper for me. I really really like it and it was a little bit disconcerting to see how squarely one of these simple stories seems to have been wrong and so I'm glad that that these ideas have filtered out.
Banik I see this every day in the newspapers it is all about leaders saying it's not just getting money from bilateral donors, it's also getting IMF approval, it is getting a World Bank loan. It is all taken as part of a package that is stamping their approval on my functioning as a leader, so I've delivered by getting money in. Now, whether it's a concessional loan from China, whether it is a grant which is free money, it doesn't matter what is important I see in newspaper reports that leaders highlight is just the size of the investment. It could be a private sector actor getting just unbelievable conditions for investments that are not good for the country, but the very fact that you've got these people in is seen to be an achievement. I want to move on to a final section in our conversation Ryan and that has to do with targeting. Because that is also something that you've been working on, and I've been interested in this for very many years. I did many studies in India and one of the things I noticed that you've been interested in is World Bank projects and the way in which they may not necessarily always target the poorest. So, tell us a little bit about how that works. You would think that aid or anything that the World Bank does, which by the way, is about reducing world poverty, whatever they do should be aimed at reducing poverty and whatever efforts they put in should be trying to maximise poverty reduction, but you find that that is not always the case. Why is that so?
Briggs The most useful first thing just to not confuse people is just there's a bit of a distinction when a political scientist talks about targeting and an economist talks about targeting and given the mix of your audience and like the global development research community, it's just set up to generate this confusion. So, when an economist thinks about it, they're talking about trying to get resources to people, and then it's how precisely should we try to define these groups and what data should we use, and you can do a cost benefit analysis and they basically have this imagination from universal, so either everyone gets it or it's sort of like random draws from the population for who gets it all the way to like individuals, or maybe households where you're really narrowly targeting based on some kind of good source of data that you have. Political scientists, probably because we often want to correlate things with voting data, and we don't have individual voting data. We are almost always talking about only geographic targeting. This might seem unfortunate, but something I think the economists really under rate is universal targeting almost never exists. Most things that we think of as universal require people to do things in physical space in order to get the thing and what that means is people still get to target even ostensibly universal goods. To give one example, and then I'll go into the World Bank, voting is a right everyone, basically every adult, maybe some minor exceptions, has the right to vote and so you might think then, that's the epitome of universal. But politicians control where polling stations go they control the staff levels at those polling stations and if you just look across countries, it's very, very clear that in some countries wait times at some polling stations are very, very, very long and at other ones, they're very, very, very short. Basically, access to the right of voting is targeted by controlling where polling places go, and then how many staff go to them. This is something I don't see at all in Canada, but I saw this like a lot in the US and you see this in other places too. So, once you've realised that most universal things require people to go to specific places in order to get that universal thing then it unlocks this whole world where you're like, oh, wow, almost everything is targeted. That's the world of a political scientist. So that's where I come to this, this World Bank work and I should say I'm not trying to pick on the World Bank, they have the best data, so they're one of the only donors that releases good, geotagged data that goes back in time and spans a large number of countries. Everything I'm going say about the World Bank, as far as I can tell, is not specific to them. I have looked at other donors in a few countries where the recipient has a good aid management software system, and actually tracks where everything goes, it’s the patterns that I see for the World Bank, they seem to exist for all the other donors as well. So, the main pattern with the World Bank aid is it tends to go to parts of countries that are better off and that's not a story of population, it's not merely the case that there are more people in those places and so if you're targeting people evenly, then you'll target richer areas evenly, that is not the story. Beyond that, it's a little bit tricky to say because of the data concerns that I mentioned before.
Banik But it's mainly an implementation issue, it's efficiency, it's aid effectiveness, implementation.
Briggs Yes and no. I wrote a number of papers that were using this information on where it goes and this information on population density and stuff all around the world. You see this really consistent pattern that aid targets richer parts of countries and it's not merely a city story or a capital city story. I don't think you can go much further with that data and so something I did in later work was I surveyed a bunch of World Bank staff that are responsible for implementation and I gave them a little survey experiment where I showed them two aid projects and I randomised features of the project, like how big it was or if it was located in a poorer than average part of the country or richer than average part of the country. Then I asked them to pick between these two projects, which one did they think would be easier to implement or which one did they think the client would care more about? Because if the client doesn't care, right, what can you do? What I thought would happen is because this is the story I've been telling, I had been saying for a year or two, one really possible explanation for why it targets richer parts of countries is because it works better there. So if you're trying to help people per dollar, you may not want to target an area that is really far from the capital city maybe it doesn't have consistent electricity, maybe it doesn't have a good road access, maybe the physical security situation isn't good and aid might interact with all those things, if you're building a school, then it could be that it makes a lot more sense to build it in somewhere with good transportation infrastructure and electricity and water and physical security and it just won't work that well if you build it in somewhere with none of those things. You can just go down the list of kinds of aid projects and most of them have this complementarity right, with all different kinds of infrastructure and then the infrastructure tends to be better in richer parts of countries. So, you can really imagine why this would happen, I thought that was going to be the story. To my surprise the World Bank staff that I interviewed through the survey they said very clearly, they thought that aid worked better in poorer parts of countries. I don't know that I fully have a story for that, but it's possible to tell a story where there's just a kind of declining marginal effect of new good things and so the sort of kick that you get from some aid investment is just a lot higher when you have very little investment and it's a lot lower when you have a lot more investment, can tell a kind of declining marginal effect of resources story.
Banik They're far more difficult to implement.
Briggs To implement yes. I had five different explanations that I tested all of them failed except for implementation. Very, very, very strongly it came out that in more remote or rural or poorer parts of countries it was just much harder to implement projects. I also got a lot of emails from the World Bank staff members after the survey, I just have my e-mail address saying, if you have questions about the survey and I got a lot of unsolicited emails just with stories about how difficult it was to travel, either just physically, really onerous or bureaucratic rules preventing them from travelling very far outside of cities because of physical security, and that just meant that they couldn't do the kind of oversight that they would need to do, which just put a hard cap on how far they could go. Then very often, the places they couldn't visit tend to be these remote rural places where people are much, much poorer often than in cities.
Banik But there's also this other dimension Ryan about how leaders want certain projects to be implemented in their home districts in their backyards, I've seen this in Malawi, I've seen it elsewhere. It could be a soccer stadium, it could be a university, sometimes leaders offering their own land, saying build it in my in my backyard and that is something I noticed western donors, of course, would be much more sceptical they would do the homework, it would be very time consuming, etc. This is where I see China has often given in because China has this sort of non-interference principles, so they say, OK, you know best where the project should be situated, we'll build it for you and then later on down the line, it turns out that that wasn't the best decision or it wasn't the best use of resources because the president has been defeated or has died or something has happened which meant that the project did not achieve the result. There's so much talk about the rich countries becoming less generous, there's been a lot of concern about how we've failed large parts of the world during the pandemic. There are renewed debates on global public goods, how we should be financing climate issues and prevent future pandemics. There are concerns in many parts of the world in these aid recipient countries that aid as such is going down that rich countries are prioritising themselves more. What would you say to donors, but also to individuals like us is there a way to use effective altruism to shape aid policies better? I notice, for example, there's considerable emphasis on cash transfers, that those work really well so let's mainstream those in aid policies. Are there any other examples you can think about where this kind of evidence based on reasoning, making decisions based on evidence, is shaping these more, larger policies on aid?
Briggs That's a good question. I think you're right to highlight cash benchmarking as an area where at least effective altruists flavoured ideas have been influential and I think that's useful. So not only thinking of cash transfers as they seem pretty effective we have good experimental evidence that they're pretty effective. We should use them in place of other things often I think that's all right but I think also this idea of benchmarking against it, if you can't beat cash with your program, considering all the cost of your program if you can't just beat a cash transfer, maybe you should just do a cash transfer. I think that idea has been influential and I'm not going to call it an EA idea I don't exactly know the lineage of it, but it's certainly inflected with that kind of thinking. What I think is helpful about EA ideas for aid specifically for aid, is one thing that I think aid needs, one thing I would like it to be pushed towards and I understand why it's not there, but I think one thing it could be pushed towards is an acknowledgement of the limitations of aid, any money that is coming from outside a country is just going to have a number of problems with it and it's going to stop it from being able to do a lot of things well and so I think that outsiders to any country are not particularly well placed to try to push institutional change inside countries. I think that that has a really bad history, and I don't think it is an especially good use of resources now I think it doesn't have a very good track record and I think continuing to push on that is just not a great idea. I do think that money from outside aid or charity can still do an enormous amount of good by funding fairly specific things where we have some decent understanding of what they actually do and then leaving institutional change to people that live inside these countries and have skin in the game and have local knowledge and are just well positioned to push things forward. There might be places to support them with aid or charity, but I think that's really mostly a game for citizens of countries to push for change, big institutional change. So I would love to see foreign aid move more towards the Esther Duflo plumbing, relatively small things that we can understand reasonably well, which is not to say the other stuff is not important, it's enormously important, it's more important. It's just as far as I can tell not something that aid or charity is just positioned to do well and for me that is again a kind of effective altruist inflected insight, even if it's not a sort of squarely EA thing.
Banik Ryan, it was so fun to see you and chat with you today. Thanks so much for coming on my show.
Briggs Thank you so much for having me, Dan. This has been really fun.