Cause prioritization

Some basic questions like “can causes be compared?”, " how do we compare causes?"

What is cause prioritization?

Cause prioritization looks at broad causes (e.g. migration, global warming, global health, life extension) in order to compare them, instead of examining individual charities within each cause (as has been traditional). As GiveWell says in explaining the Open Philanthropy Project (which is one approach to cause prioritization):

Historically, GiveWell has sought evidence-backed, thoroughly vetted, underfunded charities for individual donors to support. We’ve looked for unusually straightforward, evidence-backed value propositions such as “$X delivers Y bednets, which saves Z lives.”

More recently, we have been broadening our work via the Open Philanthropy Project (formerly GiveWell Labs), which we work on in partnership with Good Ventures. This project looks for the best ways to accomplish good with philanthropy - no matter what form and what sector. Through this project, we are open - among other things - to funding political advocacy, scientific research, startup organizations with no track record, projects with no precedent, and projects with extremely long time horizons.

Also, as 80,000 Hours notes:

There are several reasons [why cause prioritization is different from GiveWell’s traditional work]. First, GiveWell primarily aims to find the best funding opportunities, so it has a different perspective to us. The best funding opportunities are very relevant to people pursuing earning-to-give, but we expect them to be different from the best opportunities to deploy your human capital. Malaria nets are a good funding opportunity precisely because they require relatively little additional skilled human capital. All mainly required is more nets to be made and shipped, which by this stage can easily be accomplished with additional money. We’re much less sure that working on the malaria nets intervention is the best thing to do with your human capital.

We’re aiming to find the best causes for you to generally work within for at least the next couple of years. Our focus is broader than finding non-profits with funding gaps. For instance, there are many promising activities within research and government, and we don’t think it’s obvious that you shouldn’t work on them rather than find a non-profit to support. We’re also focusing on a smaller scale than GiveWell, which aims to find charities with room for at least US$1m more funding, whereas some of the causes on this list would struggle to absorb that many resources at comparable rates of return.

Second, we think that GiveWell is more effective than their top recommended charities (reasons in their own words), but they don’t recommend themselves for preserving impartiality. GiveWell is an example of prioritisation research and promoting effective altruism, and we think the effectiveness of GiveWell, among other organisations, is evidence that these causes are in general more promising than global health (at least on the scale of investing less than US$1m).

Third, we think we differ somewhat from GiveWell in our framework and key judgement calls. In particular, we think GiveWell might underweight the importance of long-run flow-through effects, animal welfare and value of information, while placing higher weight on common sense, and being more sceptical about the ease of finding unusually good interventions.

The Global Priorities Project is another approach to cause prioritization. From their website (WebCite):

There are theoretical reasons to expect large disparities between the effectiveness of different types of intervention in different fields. This effect is observed within a wide range of different fields, for example in global health the most effective interventions are hundreds of times more effective than the least effective. Similar disparities have been observed within the fields of developing–world education and among interventions to reduce climate change emissions. While comparisons are currently made among interventions within a field, comparisons between fields are rare. This project aims to investigate how to compare interventions across a wide range of different fields.

In practice, cause prioritization looks at the Importance, tractability, and neglectedness of causes.

Cause prioritization also deals with larger amounts of money.1

Some basic resources

I think 80,000 Hours has some of the most accessible information on cause prioritization. The relevant posts are:

Other things to check out:

Cause prioritization itself as a cause

Quoting 80,000 Hours:

Prioritisation research is activity aimed at working out which causes, interventions, organisations, policies, etc. do the most to make the world a better place. Organisations and projects within this cause include some policy think-tanks and some parts of economics. Within prioritisation research, we think the most high-priority area is long-run-focused cause-prioritisation. That is, research aimed at working out which causes do the most to make the world a better place in the long-run if we add more resources to them. Note that this research need not consist of detailed economic modelling. Cause-prioritisation can also involve down-to-earth projects like investigating room for more funding or aggregating expert opinion. Organisations within this sub-cause include the Copenhagen Consensus, GiveWell, the Future of Humanity Institute and the Centre for Effective Altruism (our parent charity).

See also this Prezi.

Individual research

See Amenability of cause prioritization to individual research

See also

More resources

  1. Conversation with Alexander Berger on GiveWell Labs. Katja Grace and Alexander Berger.