Saving lives via bed nets is hard to beat for immediate impact

by JonahS 2 min read21st Jun 201346 comments


In my last post I wrote about how Peter Singer’s implicit past claim that [one can save a child’s life for the cost of a pair of shoes] is misleading.

Having said that, it’s important to highlight that if one ignores indirect effects, funding bed net distribution to save lives is an extremely good opportunity for people in the developed world to increase the number of valuable years of life that people experience.

The situation is probably completely different when one considers indirect effects. I’ll postpone discussion of indirect effects to a later date.

Consider the question of what the quality of life is in the developing world. The GiveWell blog post Quality of life in the developing world reads:

When we argue that donors should give internationally, one of the most common questions we get is, “Sure, you may be able to save a life in Africa, but what type of life are you saving? If you save a child from malaria will s/he likely die from something else soon after? Will s/he suffer from other problems that significantly reduce his/her quality of life?” 


People in poor countries are less satisfied with their lives (they ranked their satisfaction as 4.3 out of 10, while rich country residents ranked theirs as 6.7). 


Those who live past age 5 have nearly a 70% chance of living until age 60. 


Fewer than 1 out of 100 people have HIV/AIDS, 1 out of 40 have lymphatic filariasis, and about 1 out of 2,700 have river blindness. 


About a third of children are stunted (significantly shorter than normal due to undernutrition).


Incomes are low, but discretionary spending does exist even among the poorest. People in extreme poverty (defined in the past as under US $1 a day of income) do not spend every “additional dollar” on additional food; they frequently own TVs and radios and participate in festivals.

The reader can draw his or her own conclusion from this. It seems likely to me that the average life in the developing world is worth living, and that the value of an average year of life in the developing world is no more than 3x lower than the value of an average year of life in the developed world.

In my last post, I wrote about how the explicit estimate for Against Malaria Foundation’s marginal cost per life saved is $2k, and the fact that the actual cost could be significantly higher owing to Bayesian regression

  • Place yourself in the shoes of the average person in the developed world who makes $60k/year. 
  • Suppose that you donate enough to Against Malaria Foundation to save a life each year (whether it be $2k or $10k or whatever your best guess is).
  • Suppose that saving a life corresponds to allowing someone to live 51 additional years in the developing world.
  • Suppose that the value of a year of your own life is no more than 3x the value of a year of life saved.
  • To a first approximation, the immediate value of a year of your work is equal to the value of a year of your life.
  • Therefore, by donating, you can give create at least 51/3 = 17x as much value as you can through your immediate work.
Some types of work are much more valuable than average, and indirect value can swamp immediate value. Nevertheless, the above discussion helps place things in perspective.

Note: I formerly worked as a research analyst at GiveWell. All views are my own.