I'm confused by your math.

You say 10M people die per year of preventable diseases, and the marginal cost of saving a life is (presumed to be) $5K.

The Gates Foundation and OpenPhil combined have about $50B. So if marginal cost = average cost, their money combined is enough to save everyone for one year.

But marginal cost certainly doesn't equal average cost; average cost is probably orders of magnitude higher. Also, Gates and OpenPhil might want to do something other than prevent all diseases for one year, then leave the world to rot after that.

I ... (read more)

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4gjm2moI'm pointing out what seem to me to be large and important holes in your argument. To an objection of the form "You have given no good reason to think Y follows from X", it is not reasonable to respond with "You need to give a specific example of how you can have X and not Y, with realistic numbers in it". I claim that you have given no reason to think that if there's a lot of good to be done at $5k per life-equivalent then there is necessarily an experiment that it's feasible for (say) GiveWell to conduct that would do something like eliminating all malaria deaths in Madagascar for a year. You've just said that obviously there must be. I reject any norms that say that in that situation anyone saying that your reasoning has gaps in is obliged to show concrete counterexamples. However, because I'm an obliging sort of chap, let's have a go at constructing one and see what happens. (But, for the avoidance of doubt, I am not conceding that if my specific counterexample turns out not to work then it means your claim is right and mine is wrong. Of course it's possible that you know ahead of time that I can't construct a working counterexample, on account of having a better understanding than mine of the situation -- but, again, in that case communicating that better understanding should be part of your argument.) I'll look at Madagascar since that's the country you mentioned specifically. [EDITED to add:] Although the foregoing paragraph talks about "constructing a counterexample", in fact what I did in the following paragraphs is just to make some guesses about numbers and see where they lead; I wasn't trying to pick numbers that are maximally persuasive or anything. So, first of all let's find some numbers. Madagascar has a population of about 26 million. Malaria is the 7th most common cause of death there. If I'm reading the stats correctly, about 10% of the population has malaria and they have about 6k deaths per year. Essentially the entire population is consi
2Benquo16dYou've given a lot of details specifically about Madagascar, but not actually responded to the substantive argument in the post. What global picture does this correspond to, under which the $5k per life saved figure is still true and meaningful? I don't see how the existence of somewhere for which no lives can be saved for $5k makes that claim any more plausible.

Your claim, as I understood it -- which maybe I didn't, because you have been frustratingly vague about your own argument at the same time as demanding ever-increasing amounts of detail from anyone who questions it -- was that if the $5k-per-life-equivalent figure were real then there "should" be some experiment that could be done "in a well-defined area like Madagascar" that would be convincing enough to be a good use of the (large) resources it would cost.

I suggest that the scenario I described above is obviously consistent with ... (read more)

REVISED: A drowning child is hard to find

by Benquo 1 min read31st Jan 202036 comments


Substantial revisions to clarify the post's core claim, including but not limited to this summary at the end:


  • Effective Altruism claims that there is a large funding gap for cheap well-understood developing-world interventions.
  • Even the most aggressive plausible construal of this claim implies an annual funding gap that could be covered completely by existing major institutional donors.
  • If this is true, it implies opportunities for comparatively cheap experiments (relative to the endowments of major donors in the space) with extremely high information value.
  • Such experiments have not happened either because they are impossible, or because the relevant institutional donors think they have better things to do with their money.
  • Neither scenario suggests that small donors should try to fill this funding gap. If they trust big donors, they should just give to the big donors. If they don't, why should they believe a story clearly meant to extract money from them?

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