Rich-country policy changes that could greatly benefit poor countries


Policy change

In the EA movement, there's a lot of enthusiasm for significantly increasing the number of immigrants able to come to countries like the United States each year. This would help the global poor in two ways: it would directly help immigrants who come to rich countries but wouldn't have been able to without the policy changes, and it would help family members of those immigrants who remain in the home country but receive remittances.

But lately, I've been thinking a lot about other policy changes on the part of rich countries that could greatly benefit poor countries, ones that don't get discussed as much in the EA movement. Some ideas:

Increasing government aid to poor countries: This is kind of obvious, and I suspect many people dismiss it on the grounds that most voters wouldn't support it. But the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief under George W. Bush suggests that efforts in this area may be more feasible than commonly assumed.

Debt cancellation/creating a global bankruptcy process: It might be tempting to assume that it would be easier to get money for, say, programs to combat disease than it would be to get money for outright cancellation of the debts of poor countries. On the other hand, the fact that many poor countries have debts that were originally contracted by corrupt dictators creates a moral case for debt cancellation that many find compelling.

There's also the argument that creating a formal system for countries to go bankrupt would be an important reform, because well-designed financial systems need a bankruptcy process. This is especially true when we're talking about government debts of countries that borrow in foreign currencies, who can't simply reduce their debt burden thought inflation (something the United States could do if it really had to). The idea of creating an international government bankruptcy process has advocates from Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz to Pope Francis.

Abolishing rich-country agricultural subsidies: Like tight restrictions on immigration, there's a strong economic case to be made that agricultural subsidies don't actually help rich countries. But they do potentially do great harm to farmers in poor countries. I'm not very confident about how large the harm is–I've heard claims that agricultural subsidies cost farmers in developing countries $24 billion per year, though I haven't tried to check that particular number.

Of course, any of these policy changes would be more difficult to get implemented than simply donating a little more to AMF or GiveDirectly, so the potential benefits would have to be weighed against the difficulty of bringing about these policy changes. Still, they look worth investigating. I've only started looking into them myself, which is why I'm creating this thread, so that if anyone has anything to add to what I've said, or has other ideas for things that could be high-impact, they can post their ideas here.
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Have you read Thomas Pogge? He's written on a lot of this. Specifically debt relief and reform of intellectual property laws so that life-saving drugs are available to the global poor.

My sense is focusing on some of this may indeed be more high-impact than the donations to AMF or GiveDirectly because the returns to lobbying on this could be quite great. I'm unaware of groups working on this in a very effective way though.

Also, aside from foreign aid, much of it is indirect or negative (e.g. we just stop doing x rather than proactively help by doing y), and there's a possibility people could be biased toward focusing on these sorts of things because people tend to respond more to negative obligations than positive ones.

CGD aims to find these policies. Check out their list of initiatives:

The Copenhagen Consensus although thinks trade reform could be very high return:

Question about CGD: are they optimizing for making their proposals sound boring even though in fact they ideally want huge changes from the status quo? Or do they really just think we need tweaks to the status quo?

(This is based on a very superficial glance at their site, was already planning on trying to read more of their materials.)

In "Doing Good Better" MacAskil rates labor mobility as "intractable." I agree it's difficult, but I think this a specific example of the wide blindness of EA to the mechanics of political change. All of the issues you have raised are fundamentally political problems, not technical problems, and would require political strategies, for which we will not have evidence from RCTs.

This is a weakness of the "progressive" philanthropic tradition in general, which tends to think in terms of technical solutions to specific problems. It has a lot less to say about the broader shifts in values and networks that enable high level political change

More on that:

In other words, I am glad to see this post. I think we need to be looking in these sorts of directions.

Very much agreed. There's another thing I would note, though, which is that even when you can do an RCT, there are often many longer-term and more diffuse effects you won't pick up, and these effects are often highly important when it comes to politics and institutional change.

There's a difference between "labor mobility" reform, and "open borders". I don't know how often these two are conflated by effective altruists. Open borders is the idea a nation removes all restrictions for people from any country to exit and enter the country to live and work there. A reaction is citizens of a country worry this will flood the citizenship or immigration systems, will put strains on government welfare systems, and dramatically change the nature of the countries culture. I haven't read too much on open borders yet, but I blieve a counter to this worry is open borders doesn't ensure legal citizenship or other entitlements or political rights, such as the right to vote, are granted to any migrants moving in for work and a better economic life. Some advocates of open borders claim changing the nature of the granting citizenship in a given country also be changed to assuage these worries, while implementing open borders at the same time would realize most of the economic benefits of the policy.

Labor mobility reform is immigration reform which makes it easier for professionals and/or laborers to move between countries, particularly from developing countries to developed countries. I think the greatest example of this is easing the way for the most educated professionals from developing countries to move to and be engineers or doctors in, e.g., the United States. The Open Philanthropy Project (Open Phil) is still investigating labor mobility as a possible space to make grants for policy reform to. The result of their investigation hasn't come out yet, and while they may conclude it's intractable, there investigation yet complete or published. I've never read the phrase "open borders" or a euphemism for it in any blog posts or conversation notes from Givewell or Open Phil. Thus, we cannot and should not assume "labor mobility" implies "open borders" when talking about Open Phil.

Not that you, Jonathan, Topher, or anyone else in this discussion does that. I'm just making the point to repeat help us all out when having this conversation with others more broadly. I'm surprised Dr. MacAskill made a blanket statement labor mobility is intractable, considering labor mobility is a broad tent which could imply relatively modest reforms to only a single law restricting the ease by which a certain type of professional can emigrate to work in a country, to very broad reforms applying to any sort of laborer in general.

I haven't read Doing Good Better yet. What more did Dr. MacAskill expound upon labor mobility?

MacAskil discusses this in a section titled "international labor mobility" but does not mention "open borders" or draw the distinction you have. He writes:

"Increased levels of migration from poor to rich countries would provide substantial benefits for the poorest people in the world, as well as substantial increases in global economic output. However, almost all developed countries pose heavy restrictions on who can enter the country to work. ... Tractability: Not very tractable. Increased levels of immigration are incredibly unpopular in developed countries, with the majority of people in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom favoring reduced immigration."

As the quote you provided shows, labor mobility was rated as "not very tractable", not "intractable". Moreover, labor mobility was given that rating because it was judged to be politically infeasible, in light of the low popularity of even modest migration reform proposals, and not because we lack evidence from RCTs, or due to blindness to the mechanics of political change. So I think you are mischaracterizing what was said in the book.

Some advocates of open borders claim changing the nature of the granting citizenship in a given country

Were you thinking of this piece?

I have serious worries about this sort of policy leading to worse world over the medium to long-term. In the short term, we have the massive benefits of open borders, but over the long run, a united world but one with a caste system.

There is a campaign at the moment in Australia seeking to increase the aid budget (which has been massively reduced in recent years). Given the economic and political situation as well as the prevailing cultural mindset I think tractability is low. Impact could be high. Any thoughts on whether I should invest time into this project?

Sound roughly like the manifesto that brought about the seattle demonstrations. Lots of work's been tried here by the NGO communities but to little avail. The vested interests are large, I wouldn't underestimate getting some of the fine tuning of the policy right or the amount of effort it would take to get these things through + keep them there.

I was 12 when those demonstrations happened, and I'm a little fuzzy on the agenda of the protesters. I'm currently finishing up Stigliz's Gobalization and its Discontents, which while critical of the IMF, also complaints about anti-globalization activists lobbying for more protectionist measures on the part of developed countries, against goods produced in developing countries. Do you have any idea if that applies to the Seattle protests?

Yes. It applies. But they were also asking for what you were asking for.

I say little avail - but I had CAP / agricultural policies in mind. Debt cancellations have happened a lot, and have been partly the result of campaigning. Also, aid has increased, and although the lines are harder to draw / for me to see, this might also have been helped by NGO type lobbying.

Buy sperm from the most talented males in various domains of economic interest. Then offer poor women from all over the world money and citizenship in exchange for surrogate prengancies with said sperm.

Give the resulting children a top-notch education. Their human capital will then be taxed normally, to refinance the expense.

Any rich-country government could do this.