Blog post

Reach for systemic change

2 min read
Nov 11, 2015

Effective altruists love systemic change – and they should. Last year, GiveWell moved $27.8 million to effective charities. At the same time, the U.S. government spent over $52 billion in foreign assistance to a variety of ends, from tanks for Egypt to mass distribution of insecticide treated nets (LLINs). Clearly, the impact of increasing the portion of foreign aid allocated to effective programs focused on evidence-backed interventions could have an enormous impact. The only question is tractability: is investing in influencing policy likely to yield results?

A shallow investigation of the impact of lobbying seems to indicate very high initial returns on investment. For example, certain groups have estimated the ROI (return on investment) of lobbying to vary between 5,900% and 77,500% depending on the industry.

Unlike with direct charity such as AMF, opportunities to influence policy come and go quickly. Issues that originally seemed intractable can quickly become tractable. Some organizations are able to achieve such an impressive ROI because they have invested in infrastructure and network development. When opportunities arise, they can quickly take advantage of them.

The Reach Act, which prioritizes proven, effective interventions, should be of particular interest to effective altruists. USAID estimates that passing it could save the lives of 600,000 mothers and 15 million children between 2015 and 2020.

While policy wonks such as Amanda Glassman and Lauren Post at the center for Global Development are enthusiastic about the bill, they note that to ensure it delivers real impact, targets need to be achievable, measurable, appropriate, and regularly tracked while new investments are also brought in. For more thorough analysis of the bill see posts by the Center for Global Development here, and here, and Scott Weathers’ analysis here.

Even if USAID’s estimate is overly optimistic, the bill will likely have a very significant impact on global welfare if passed. Given that it will be directly affecting how billions of dollars are spent on high impact interventions, the difference between the best and worst case scenarios might be measured in millions of lives. Effective Altruists should take note.