In rich countries, this often means issues like homelessness, inner city education and unemployment. But are these the most urgent issues? There are good reasons to focus on helping your own country — you know more about the issues, and you might feel you have special obligations to it. However, back in , we encountered the following series of facts.
These figures are already adjusted for the fact that money goes further in poor countries purchasing power parity. As we also saw earlier, the poorer you are, the bigger difference extra money makes to your welfare.
And there are far more resources dedicated to helping this smaller number of people. This is because problems facing the poor in rich countries are complex and hard to solve.
Moreover, even the most evidence-backed interventions are expensive and have modest effects. Though if you live in a developing country, then it may well be best to focus on issues there. What if we were to tell you that, over the second half of the 20th century, progress on treatments for diarrhoea did as much to save lives as achieving world peace over the same period would have done?
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The number of deaths each year due to diarrhoea have fallen by 3 million over the last four decades due to advances like oral rehydration therapy. Meanwhile, all wars and political famines killed about 2 million people per year over the second half of the 20th century. A large fraction of these gains were driven by humanitarian aid, such as the campaign to eradicate smallpox.
Put the focus back where it belongs: get the poorest people in the world such obvious goods as the vaccines, the antibiotics, the food supplements, the improved seeds, the fertilizer, the roads…. This is not making the poor dependent on handouts; it is giving the poorest people the health, nutrition, education, and other inputs that raise the payoff to their own efforts to better their lives. Within health, where to focus? An economist at the World Bank sent us this data, which also amazed us.
This is a list of health treatments, such as providing tuberculosis medicine or surgeries, ranked by how much health they produce per dollar, as measured in rigorous randomised controlled trials. The first point is that all these treatments are effective.
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Essentially all of them would be funded in countries like the US and UK. Even more surprising, however, is that the top interventions are far better than the average, as shown by the spike on the right. The top interventions, like vaccines, have been shown to have significant benefits, but are also extremely cheap. The top intervention is over ten times more cost-effective than the average, and 15, times more than the worst.
So how much more impact might you make with your career by switching your focus to global health? Then, if we focus on health, there are cheap, effective interventions that everyone agrees are worth doing. We can use the research in the second chart to pick the very best interventions, letting us have perhaps five times as much impact again. In total, this makes for a fold difference in impact. Does this check out? No matter which job we ended up in, these donations would enable us to make a significant difference. See more detail on how to contribute to global health in our full profile.
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However, everything we learned about global health raised many more questions. We considered lots of avenues to help the global poor, like trade reform or promoting migration , or crop yield research , or biomedical research. We also seriously considered working to end factory farming. For example, we helped to found Animal Charity Evaluators , which does research into how to most effectively improve animal welfare. We still think factory farming is an urgent problem, as we explain in our full profile. But in the end, we went in a different direction.
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Most people choose the second option. We would certainly choose the second option. And if you value future generations, then there are powerful arguments that you should focus on helping them. This means our system neglects them. You can see this in the global failure to come to an international agreement to tackle climate change that actually works. Second, their plight is abstract. Future generations rely on our goodwill, and even that is hard to muster. Third, there will probably be many more people alive in the future than there are today. The Earth will remain habitable for at least hundreds of millions of years.
If each generation lasts for years, then over million years there could be one million future generations. This is such a big number that any problem that affects future generations potentially has a far greater scale than one that only affects the present — it could affect one million times more people, and all the art, science and culture that will entail.
So problems that affect future generations are potentially the largest in scale and the most neglected. This suggests that probably what most matters morally about our actions is their effect on the future. We cover it in more depth in a separate article. This said, can we actually help future generations, or improve the long-term? Perhaps the problems that affect the future are big and neglected, but not solvable?
When many people think of the biggest problems facing future generations, climate change is often the first to come to mind. We think those people are, to some extent, on the right track. The most powerful way we can help future generations is, we think, to prevent a catastrophe that could end advanced civilization, or even prevent any future generations from existing. We argue for this in greater detail elsewhere.
However, climate change is also widely acknowledged as a major problem Donald Trump aside , and receives tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars of investment. You can read more in our full profile. If assembled into a complete strand and transmitted to 10 people, public health experts estimate it would have killed 10 million people. In the future, we can imagine diseases even deadlier than smallpox evolving or being created through bioengineering. The chance of a pandemic that kills over million people over the next century seems similar to the risk of nuclear war or runaway climate change.
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So it poses a similar threat both to the present generation and future generations. But risks from pandemics are more neglected. Overall, we think biosecurity is likely more urgent than climate change. Read more about how to contribute to biosecurity in our full profile. Around , civilisation underwent one of the most profound shifts in human history: the industrial revolution.
Looking forward, what might be the next industrial revolution — the next pivotal event in history that shapes what happens to all future generations? If we could identify such a transition, that may well be the most important area in which to work.
One candidate is bioengineering — the ability to fundamentally redesign human beings — as covered by Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens. Billions of dollars are spent trying to make artificial intelligence more powerful, but hardly any effort is devoted to making sure that those added capabilities are implemented safely and for the benefit of humanity. The priests tell Solon that next to the Egyptians the Greeks are but children. Solon desires to know what they mean by such a comparison.
A very elderly priest replies:. And I will tell you the reason for this.