Thanks to Scott Weathers and Julia Wise for their contributions to this post. All errors are my own.
On March 16th, several billion dollars in global health funding are up for allocation in the annual Congressional appropriations (budgeting) process. In effective altruism, we often talk about using our talents (career) and money to do good. We think time has great value as well, and now is a particularly important time for US residents to use some of their time towards political advocacy. There's a real threat that US foreign aid funding may be cut, and we believe our efforts can pressure the government to keep in place cost-effective and evidence-based interventions in global health.
Similar to the framework that 80,000 Hours and GiveWell use, we believe that an effective altruist approach to lobbying should account for the following components:
Confidently Net Positive: Would proposed policy changes have an important net positive effect?
Politically Feasible: Is there a window of opportunity for the policy change?
Influential at the Margins: Are there contributions that we, as individual constituents in a non-career capacity, can take that will move the needle?
Confidently Net Positive:
We believe the potential to change political outcomes on an issue is one of the most difficult – and critical – questions for a non political expert to observe. This post focuses on the appropriation sub committee decisions which will be paid on March 16th because representative have acknowledged that lobbying efforts in the past have influence their decisions on funding allocations.
This blog post will focus on moving money to global health funding. In particular, we are confident that funding going toward vaccines, HIV, TB, malaria, nutrition, and maternal / child health are some of the most cost-effective options within the global health space. While we acknowledge there may be other highly impactful cause areas, we wanted to leverage GiveWell’s research to focus on an area we feel there is general consensus on. We hope that other effective altruists will investigate other cause areas within lobbying that we can impact.
To answer the question of political feasibility, we rely on the comparative advantage of RESULTS, an anti-poverty lobbying group. In particular they have identified the following critical appropriations requests for 2018:
Provide $900 million for maternal and child health
Include $290 million for GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, for global immunizations within maternal and child health
Provide $250 million for nutrition programs in global health
Provide $1.475 billion for the Global Fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria to maintain and expand life-saving prevention and treatment programs
While these appropriations requests have enjoyed bipartisan support in the past, this appropriations process is the first conducted under the Trump administration. As a result, allocation decisions made in this year will have a strong bearing on priorities throughout the next 4-8 years. We are confident that lobbying around global health represents a high-impact opportunity that is also appealing to Congress.
Influential at the Margins:
To be able to successfully move the needle, one must take an action that is highly effective and directed at the right person.
In terms of effective engagement strategies, hand-written letters, phone calls, and in person meetings are most effective. Hand-written letters are effective because staffers rarely receive them, so they are more noticed. Staffers often record the number of opinions and requests they get about an issue – and hand-written letters get 10x or 100x the amount of weight as a regular letter according to the folks at RESULTS. Phone calls can be high-impact because they force a staff member to take time out of their day to focus on the issue on the constituents’ minds. In-person meetings are helpful because very few people do them and messages can actually be tailored to the representatives’ focus area.
What do we suggest as the first step? Write a letter.
Letters need to be sent by constituents from the state they live or vote in. Don’t fret if your Congress member isn’t listed above. Lobbying isn’t binary – if your representative is supportive and hears lots of feedback from their constituents, they are likely to become a champion. If they are a detractor know their constituents support global health, then have an incentive to remain more neutral. It is rare that a representative explicitly opposes global health efforts - generally the impact of lobbying is not to convince representatives to support or not support a given issue, but instead to move that issue up or down in their ranking of priorities. In an environment with so many competing agenda items, moving global health up that list by even a bit can have a major impact.
Want to multiply your impact even more? Search to see if any of your like-minded friends live in a state where there is a person who is a ranking member or chair of the State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee - the key decision making body. For this cycle, these folks are Hal Rogers (KY-5), Nita Lowey (NY-17), Senator Lindsay Graham (SC), and Senator Patrick Leahy (VT). Then, contact them and see if they would be willing to write a letter (or have you send one on their behalf).
What do to now:
We believe that just as it’s important to consider what your money can accomplish if donated effectively, it’s important to think about how you can do more good with a small portion of your time. Please take the next ten minutes to write your local Congress member. Julia Wise has written a great step-by-step “how to” guide. Then, take a photo with your letter, repost this article, and nominate 5 others to do the same on social media.
Want to take it to the next level?
Organize a letter writing event with your local EA group, in your workplace, or with your religious community.
Organize a meeting with your representative to discuss your priorities in terms of global health funding.