Actions have consequences. One of the consequences of our trade sanctions is to increase wheat and corn prices significantly. There are currently Africans who are on the brink of starvation and the increased food prices will increase starvation? 

Is our current position "It's okay if 1,000,000 Africans starve if we can prevent 100,000 Ukrainians from not dying in the war"?

Are there models that tell us how much people are likely to starve as a result of our actions? Are there wheat futures that we can use to tell us future wheat prices and economic models that estimate how many people will starve?

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I'm not quite sure the increase in wheat prices is entirely an effect of our sanctions. Ukraine is a big wheat exporter by itself and its expected drop in production may be the main cause of the price hike...

The purpose of the sanctions is not to prevent Ukrainians dying. It is to prevent Russia taking over Ukraine.

An obvious way to prevent both the collateral damage of sanctions and any Ukrainians (and Russians) dying from the war is for Ukraine to immediately and unconditionally surrender and for all its allies to support that. If saving lives is a reason to not impose sanctions, would you consider it also a reason to surrender to this and all other aggression?

One factor not mentioned here is the fact that low global food prices are one of the factors keeping many developing nations in poverty. Many of them depend upon agricultural exports in order to buy other goods that can improve their health, productivity, and lives in general.

The superficial principle of "high food prices = fewer people able to buy food = starvation" doesn't seem to be as clear in practice as it appears in a paragraph of text. There is a good argument that much of the starvation and malnutrition in the world is not in spite of low global food prices, but partly because of them.

Your assumption that the end goal of sanctions is ‘save Ukrainian lives’ is incomplete. If the end goal of sanctions is to prevent World War Three by deterring Russia from invading the Baltics or other NATO countries and/or deterring China from invading Taiwan, then the trade-off looks very different. Because preventing WW3 is a goal that justifies very large sacrifices in human life.

Yes, we should make an exception in the sanctions for selling food. Probably only some basic food, i.e. not alcohol or caviar.

(I admit I have no idea how much food Russia sells to Africa on an average year.)

23 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:52 PM

At the risk of derailing the discussion, asking that we temper our sanctions on Russia by measuring its cost to starving people in Africa, looks a lot like an isolated demand for rigor

Nearly all policy choices, both foreign and domestic, involve tradeoffs like this. Almost nobody ever says, "We shouldn't choose that policy because we could have redirected money to help people in Sub-Saharan Africa instead." Perhaps we should! But singling out the war in Ukraine, and our response to it, is too parochial for a productive discussion of what tradeoffs we should be willing to make.

I did downvote the question for this reason. It seemed to me written to elicit a reaction more than an honest question

I appreciate you making this comment. I think it does a great job of articulating the feelings that a lot of people are probably having about this post. I myself do not share those feelings. I was wondering why there was such a strong negative reaction to the post, and seeing this comment along with it's upvotes has helped me understand the reaction.

Viewing the OP as making an isolated demand for rigor violates the principle of charity, I think.

  1. The OP doesn't really demand rigor in the case of Ukraine. It doesn't claim that we should shift our resources to Africa and away from Ukraine. It simply asks the question of whether we should.
  2. Even if it did demand rigor, it is not clear that this demand is isolated. Ie. it is not clear that the author wouldn't also demand such rigor in other situations.

Now, I think that the principle of charity can be applied too strongly. If Really Bad Person says Really Bad Sounding Thing, you don't always want to say "Well, Really Bad Sounding Thing has some ambiguity to it, and could be interpreted as meaning Kinda Good Thing, so I'm going to interpret it that way. Because Principle of Charity." At some point that just becomes naive and unproductive. However, I think that we as a community should lean quite strongly in the direction of interpreting things charitably, and I think that this particular situation deserves that charitable interpretation.

My read on it is that the author probably thinks that such a rigor should be applied universally, not just in the case of Ukraine. But discussing the case of Ukraine is a productive step in that larger conversation (concreteness is great), so he posed this question. And both conversations seem to me like valid and important ones to have. I also assume that he would agree that the cold/raw calculus of simply adding up QALYS misses important things. And, additionally, I'm like 90% confident that he believes that taking altruistic actions that tug at the heart strings, but that perhaps aren't the 100% most effective, is something that should be encouraged.

Regardless, I don't think that such assumptions should really be acted on. At least not without clarifying with the author first. Ie. "To what you actually said, I think A. It also sounds like you are saying, or that you believe B. Is that true? If so, I disagree because of C. It also seems like you might believe D. Is that true? If so, I disagree because of E."

Furthermore, I am fearful that such a strong negative response to posts like this will push the community away from, let's call it courageous viewpoints (well, here no viewpoints were really expressed in the OP, just questions posed). Some courageous viewpoints are counterproductive for the community and should be discouraged. And it's not always easy to know where to draw the line. I'm having a hard time articulating this, but I think that a line has been drawn in this scenario, and it is quite far from where I personally would like it to be.

The OP doesn't really demand rigor in the case of Ukraine. It doesn't claim that we should shift our resources to Africa and away from Ukraine. It simply asks the question of whether we should.

I don't even ask that question. I ask what kind of tradeoffs we should accept.

"I don't think we should accept tradeoffs like 1,000,000 million Africans starving to rescue 100,000 Ukrainians but I also don't think that this is what the tradeoffs are in reality" would be a valid answer.

My read on it is that the author probably thinks that such a rigor should be applied universally, not just in the case of Ukraine.

I do also believe that there should be fewer economic sanctions against Cuba, Iran, and North Korea. I believe that economic sanctions are generally imposed because of the belief that "action should be taken" and not any analysis about the actual consequences of the action.

Regarding the tradeoffs, I downvoted the original question because it weighs one first-order effect of the sanctions against one second-order effect, and that seemed like a misguided way of weighing such tradeoffs.

For instance, levying sanctions against Russia for invading Ukraine also makes them more likely to be levied against China if it invades Taiwan. This hopefully disincentivizes such an invasion, but if it happened nonetheless, it would contribute to more suffering.

It's unclear what's first and what's second order here. If you block Russia from selling Africans wheat and as a result Africans starve that seems like a first order effect.

On the other hand sanctions don't have a direct first order effect or Russian military actions in Ukraine.

There a difference at looking how many people get killed by policy X and looking at whether you could spent money instead of X on a better Y.

I don't think there are many policies that kill as much Africans.

Presumably Africans can still buy Russian wheat, since their governments haven't introduced sanctions, so wheat should be cheaper for them?

Western sanctions seem to be able to prevent Russia from exporting even to other countries:

Grain exports have been halted by a lack of transportation because of port closures, while paying Russia has become more complex due to sanctions imposed by the west.

The article suggests a 50% increase in wheat prices. 

Interesting. But that sounds like a short term sort of thing till alternatives are set up, at which point reduced competition for russian wheat should lower prices?

That's basically a thesis that Russia will have it easy to route around Western sanctions. Given that there are futures contracts it should be possible to answer that question.

Well they won't be able to route around sanctions to sell to the west that easily, only to those countries that don't support sanctions.

Sanctions make forbid various shipping companies to transport the goods. The banking sections also make it a lot harder to actually pay for the goods. Traders can't burrow to finance their operations to trade with Russia and ships can't be insured when the insurances are barred from doing so.

But presumably at some point the present shippers will be replaced by e.g. Chinese shippers which aren't bound by sanctions?

Truncating the Y axis is misleading, and in this case seems intentionally so.  Around 100 billion people have ever lived past infancy.  The ratio of the next year in Africa vs Ukraine is an irrelevant comparison of parts of noise.  Also, is 1,000,000 is a reasonable estimate?  That's about 1/6 of worldwide COVID deaths, and a few years' worth of malaria deaths.  Have EA orgs or the like have shifted their focus from malaria to food?  
There is a worthwhile question here, but it's not about comparing very different populations and summarizing all outcomes as "death or not".  I'd be very happy to have an exploration of "how do we end the Ukrainian invasion in a medium-term european-lifestyle-compatible way with a minimum of worldwide pain and horror".  This could easily include questions of how to feed people in Africa better by modifying sanctions or by other means. suggests that as of 2017 we had 9 million starving per year. 

An additional 1,000,000 deaths would mean 12% more deaths due to starvation. If food prices go up by significantly more than 12% as predictions suggest, the number seems in the right ballpark.

Fair enough.  1M additional deaths by starvation is about a 4% increase in overall deaths (note: couldn't easily find good statistics on this so may be off by a bit).  And there will certainly be longer-term sub-mortality impacts from it as well.  I really do NOT mean to imply that it's all fine and not a concern.  I mostly want to argue against overstating this aspect by picking extreme dimensions of comparison.

What do you think would be better ways to compare the scale of the damage done to Africans by the sanctions compared to that done to Ukrainiens?

I don't think there's a good way to make that comparison, because it's strongly embedded in a false dichotomy.  

What framing do you think would be better for thinking about the unintented consequences of letting a significant number of Africans starve?

I don't think there is a simple framing for it, and I don't think it's a binary decision.  You might frame it in terms of how to make more of Africa food-independent regardless of this year's crises.  You might frame it in terms of carve-outs for sanctions.  You might frame it in terms of escalating militarily instead of economically (at the risk of a LOT more death).  Or even try to estimate the longer-term hedonic cost of just letting Russia attack without repercussion.  

All of these involve comparisons of world states conditional on actions.  They rarely can be done by picking two population numbers as representative of the entire outcome.

[Bowing out, here.  Feel free to respond or make final comments. ]

This is reminiscent of a follow-on fanfic I read once to HPMOR, where Harry was considering eating a sandwich.

Driven by his binding magical oath not to destroy the world, he has to consider if the marginal addition to the price of wheat he caused by eating the sandwich could possibly lead to some far-off child not having enough to eat, and that starvation being the tipping point that leads said hypothetical child down a path to destroying the world.

I do agree that it would be useful and beneficial to have models of the actual costs of a given sanction, in dollars as well as lives.

Nothing is without cost, and we should (ideally) be weighing the costs and benefits to our decisions such as you suggest.

But as the above anecdote suggests, actually living in such a manner imposes a nigh-impossible computational burden.

Perhaps it might be more productive to analyze which regions are at risk of starvation, and then organize/fund food deliveries to those regions?  I would support attempts to alleviate the burdens of the sanctions (and the instability created by food shortages) through such measures.

Eating a sandwich does not raise global grain prices by 50%. It's a whole different order of magnitude.