This question comes up often, particularly for those of us offering careers advice at 80,000 Hours. I should note that we feel uncomfortable presenting ourselves as authorities on this for a range of reasons:

  • The circumstances of the people asking are often very different from our own, so we lack a lot of relevant knowledge.
  • The circumstances of the people asking are often much more precarious, making bad advice on our part more dangerous.
  • It feels inappropriate to tell people who are much less privileged than us what to do with their lives.
However, as the question arises frequently, and silence is also unhelpful, I feel we have to should have at least something to say about it. Indeed I believe there are significant opportunities open to people with an effective altruist mindset in the developing world.

Here are some tentative ideas, but please take them with several pinches of salt:
  • As always, develop career capital and explore: study hard, network, learn English, complete high school and probably a degree too, as this will open a range of additional options. Online education resources can be particularly valuable for you.
  • Try to migrate to an OECD country, perhaps by moving for higher education. This one is straightforward and usually on people's lists anyway where possible.
  • Become a good professional in your home country. All of the traditional 'social impact' jobs that seem less valuable to residents of rich countries, such as being a good teacher, engineer, nurse or physician, look a lot more valuable in a country that has far fewer such experts per capita. In some countries teachers only show up to work half of the time, which suggests it may be straightforward to do better if you are sufficiently motivated to do so. It is common to find developing countries with only a fifth as many physicians per capita as some OECD countries, which would suggest each could have five times as much direct impact, using the 'logarithmic returns' rule of thumb.
  • Try to get a job in an aid agency or charity working on your country and help them be better, using your superior knowledge of local circumstances.
  • Aim to start a business that can employ people and raise labour productivity in your country. This is particularly valuable if your business can i) import technologies from overseas to automate tasks and make each employee more productive, ii) employ staff or serve customers in poverty, iii) grow rapidly. This is something we suggest to people in developed countries too; as a person in a developing country you have local knowledge that can give you some advantages in this work.
  • The internet opens up opportunities for remote 'direct work' that can be similarly as valuable regardless of where in the world you are. For example, if you have the necessary quantitative or analytical skills consider training in: statistics or data science, web design and programming. These can be learnt significantly through online education. You can then 'earn to give', or do 'direct work' for a valuable organisation, such as Wave. Valuable skills may also assist with future migration options.
  • Consider becoming an expert at assisting people in your country to migrate to richer countries.
  • Enter politics, the military or the civil service in your country, with the goal of making decisions based on the greater good of the world, cost-effectiveness research, and being otherwise 'incorruptible'. Be aware that in some countries refusing to participate in corruption or sectarian politics may be dangerous to you personally, or prevent you from advancing in your career.
  • Spread important ideas within your country, or online. For example, you can translate important works on moral cosmopolitanism and animal welfare to your local language, or blog about them. Alternatively, learn another language such as English or Spanish and participate in discussions online - for example, anyone can promote vegetarianism through social media regardless of the country they are in. Of course, traditional ideas in effective altruism, like 'give 10%', are likely to be a much tougher sell in a lower income country.
  • One advantage of being in a poorer country is that your living costs are much lower in terms of US dollars. Someone who is earning to give in a rich country could sponsor you to do one of the above at a much lower cost than that to support someone in the US doing the same.
I'm interested to hear about other ideas, or why the above options are not actually sound.


Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 11:37 AM

Thank you for this post. I was hoping to read what others say, but unlike other posts, this post doesn't seem to have got comments. Perhaps that, in itself, is a comment on how unimportant or uncomfortable the topic is for other EAs.

I am not an EA, and am not familiar with your work. It is unclear to me whether these suggestions are based on some data or discussions with others, or whether this is an opinion piece. BTW, I live in a not-so-rich country and am a full-time volunteer.

While many suggestions seem in the ballpark of what makes sense, I must admit deep discomfort at your suggestions regarding migration. You have two in your list:

  • Try to migrate to an OECD country, perhaps by moving for higher education. This one is straightforward and usually on people's lists anyway where possible.

  • Consider becoming an expert at assisting people in your country to migrate to richer countries.

I am unclear why you think migration is a good EA idea. You call it "straightforward" but it is not obvious to me how migration to richer countries can help overall social impact, at least in the poorer country to which the potential EA belongs. I can understand suggesting migration to escape tyranny. And I can understand individuals moving to a richer country for education or better salaries and better "quality of life" for themselves and their immediate family. Migration/ open borders can also be viewed as a human right (country boundaries are a construct of history and politics etc). But you are suggesting this as a way of being an EA, and that puzzles me.

Here is what I think: Once a person migrates

  • the person's skills are unavailable to the home country. As I assume you see the potential EA's profile as someone who is highly intelligent, you are suggesting a step that deprives the country of origin of its creamy layer of skills, its innovative persons and potential entrepreneurs
  • some fraction of earned money may be sent back, but that is actually not likely for many years, and if that is a reason for suggesting migration, there should be data to support it. Anecdotally, I don't see it happen around me.
  • migration changes exposure and loyalties of the person who migrates. They forget conditions back home, get caught up in esoteric intellectual causes and forget ground realities that need to be addressed. They get busy working on keeping their visas, getting green cards, and citizenship. None of this benefit the home country in the short and medium run--maybe much later, there will be some flow-back, but the person may not be an EA by that time :(
  • migration moves the person away from family, reducing the roots and connections. The family left behind has less support. They all spend large amounts of money commuting to meet each other, or they lose contact except in a vacation-together shallow way.
  • when someone migrates, the person can no longer inspire others in the home country to work on causes that would benefit the people of that country. Others, too, want to migrate to improve their "quality of life"

Also, when you suggest migration as a mode of being an EA, potential EAs may see it as a message that their home country is not a nice place to live and work. Such movement may make sense if there is some major problem in the country, but wanting to migrate just because a country is not so rich and to call it "EA" seems decidedly odd to me. People are happy and productive in non-rich countries, too.

Another point is that skills for developmental work are often difficult to get. Development initiatives need persons who can envisage such initiatives, staff them, and implement them. All that needs people who are good and have not migrated. Money cannot buy what is not available. Suggesting more migration doesn't make sense to me. It is my opinion that too many EAs who have no ground experience in other countries don't realize this problem well enough.

Migration is anyway a rather drastic step. It is far from easy. Even getting a visa is not easy, and there is a large amount of uncertainty around it.

Suggesting going to other countries to pick up some relevant educational or work skills makes sense to me. But migration as a recommended EA approach seems decidedly odd. Just my thoughts as a resident of a not-so-rich country who works as a full-time volunteer.

"Perhaps that, in itself, is a comment on how unimportant or uncomfortable the topic is for other EAs."

The simple explanation is that about 90% of forum readers here live in rich countries so don't feel qualified to say what people in other countries should do.

"I am unclear why you think migration is a good EA idea. You call it "straightforward" but it is not obvious to me how migration to richer countries can help overall social impact, at least in the poorer country to which the potential EA belongs."

OK the reasons are:

  • most people I speak to want to migrate for prudential reasons anyway;
  • better access to outstanding education and training opportunities;
  • much better opportunities to 'earn to give';
  • ability to influence larger foundation and government budgets, which are typically based in richer countries;
  • more opportunities to do valuable academic/industry research and innovation as R&D is disproportionately conducted in the rich world;
  • more widely recognised credentials allow more rapid promotions;
  • firms typically have much lower labour productivity in poor countries - that's usually a key reason they are poor - which will hold people back from accomplishing as much as they might otherwise;
  • it seems like emigration somewhat raises wages in the leaving country because it raises the capital to labour ratio;
  • Etc.

Of course your milage may vary if you want to pursue a career track that is easier to pursue directly in the developing world (e.g. development projects or 'bottom of pyramid' businesses'), significantly prefer life in another country, or think it would make you significantly less altruistic to live in the developing world.

On 'brain drain' and remittances Michael Clemens comments here: Global remittances are several times larger than all foreign aid.

I think we need to de-emphasize the notion of having a 'big social impact', as opposed to an 'optimal individual social impact'. The word 'big' implies an objective measure of largeness, which seems absurd to me. If I were to compare my social impact to Bill Gates, I would consider myself to have a 'tiny' social impact, no matter what I do.

Basically, I don't think that people should spend too much time comparing their social benefit to the absolute best people in the world, in part because that makes a very weak signal for individual optimization (If I do action A I would be doing 0.001% of Bill Gates' work, if I do action B I would be doing 0.002%). The much more high-signal alternative is to understand what the a relatively good outcome for the decider is, and consider their actions compared to that.

I realize that the content of this post really isn't about that specific point, but hear it brought up often, so would like to point that out.

For what it's worth, I think 'big' is better than 'best' or 'optimal' because it feels more humble, whether or not it actually means less.

I really wish people understood what optimal meant; that's it's a completely relative word (optimal given some constraints, which could in practice be quite limiting).

Maybe we could come up with a new word. I personally like 'optimization', but it could be with a qualifier.

My line for myself is to 'do the best I can with the resources available to me'.

I personally like the phrase 'do your best' a lot. It's unfortunate that typically people who say it seem to have low standards, and it's become associated with that, but that's exactly what we should be doing.

I suppose, though it's a bit unclear to me whether people actually read "big social impact" as "big in absolute terms" or "big compared to my capabilities" or "big compared to what people normally do". What natural term do you think might be better?

In this case, I imagine the title could have been something like, 'how to optimize your social impact if you live in a poor country', or just 'the best ways to do good in a poor country'.

I've always read it as 'big' relative to what you would have done otherwise, or might have previously thought was possible.

You didn't mention policiing or accountability campaigning, which the politics/development literature suggests is often a necessary step for a country to come out of poverty - depending on which country you're in.

Many of the countries rated by the Corruption Perceptions Index as being among the world's most corrupt are also among the world's poorest. My understanding is economists like Daron Acemoglu believe this association is causal and countries with corrupt, extractive institutions keep their citizens poor by stealing from their citizens and dis-incentivizing the wealth creation that could lift the country out of poverty.

Thus I think the politics/military/civil service option is especially promising. Ideally shoot to become a top general, the chief of police, a media figurehead, or a judge on the supreme court (note that the judge in this story had to work with the system in order to achieve a position of power, which I suspect is realistically necessary). The media is an especially interesting option if you could use Tor or similar to expose corruption at little risk to yourself.

Another thing to note about this approach is that it is likely to be a person in the third world's comparative advantage: their first world counterpart will find it relatively easier to pursue other options on your list, but relatively harder to get themselves taken seriously as a candidate for an important politics/military/civil service role in a third world country they weren't born in.

I think you need to think a bit deeper about the corruption thing. A political-economists view might be that there isn't that much harm in corruption per se, but there is a lot of harm in certain types of corruption. Sometimes corruption is a means of achieving fantastic policy goals, anti-corruption one of them. The key thing is to keep an eye on what matters and the effects of your actions, and make sure you're completely honest with those you love. Imagine saying to someone they should go into consultancy but never wear a suit - in some environments its a signal, and that signal can't be changed below in a meaningful way. But there are always counter-examples, like Dora Akunyili - but she wouldn't have done what she did without being a first class pharmacist with a fiery personality in the right place at the right time.

This was once controversial, but I now think that economists have settled into thinking that corruption is bad overall:

"Does corruption sand or grease the wheels of economic growth? This column reviews recent research that uses meta-analysis techniques to try to provide more concrete answers to this old-age question. From a unique, comprehensive data base of 460 estimates of the impact of corruption on growth from 41 studies, the main conclusion that emerges is that there is little support for the “greasing the wheels” hypothesis."

I don't think that addresses my comment. I'm not talking about corruption as a general phenomenon being correlated with higher growth. I'm talking about corruption being a political phenomenon and anti-corruption being a cause-blind political intervention. Without local knowledge you don't know if you're improving things or not. Political economy doesn't equal economics. But thanks, useful article!