Hide table of contents

Summary

This post explores two ways in which EAs can adapt priorities to local contexts they face:

  1. Trying to do the most good at a global level, given specific local resources.
  2. Trying to do the most good at a local level.

I argue that the best framing for EAs to use is the first of these. I also explore when doing good at the local level might be the best way to do the most good from a global perspective, and suggest a way to explore this possibility in practice.

Introduction

Effective Altruism is a global movement that aims to use resources as effectively as possible with the purpose of doing good. Members of this global community face different realities and challenges, which means that there is no one-size-fits-all path to making the world a better place. This requires local groups to adapt EA research and advice to their specific contexts.

Currently, there is limited guidance on how to do this, and many approaches have been adopted. Research done with this purpose is known as local priorities research, and includes projects like local charity evaluation and local career advice. However, the exact goal of such an adaptation process has often been unclear, in a way that can come at the cost of doing the most good from a global perspective.

This post seeks to improve the local group prioritization framework. I break down the current usage of local priorities research into two different approaches: one seeks to do the most good impartially in light of the local context, and the other aims to do the most good for the local region. I make the case that EA groups should focus on the first approach, and discuss various ways in which this could influence local group prioritization research.

Existing concepts in priorities research

To begin, it's useful to start this discussion with the definition of global priorities research (GPR). The definition I'll use throughout this post is the following, adapted from the definition of the term used by the Global Priorities Institute:

Global priorities research is research that informs use of resources, seeking to do as much good as possible.

“Resources” here includes things like talent, money, and social connections. The agents who have these resources can also vary; ranging from individuals trying to decide what to do with their careers, organizations defining which projects to work on, or community builders trying to figure out what are the best directions for their group.

On the other hand, local priorities research (LPR) is the term frequently used to refer to research aimed at adapting priorities to local situations. The essential idea behind this concept is that, as one post puts it, it is “quite similar [to GPR], except that it’s narrowed down to a certain country”. That post defines it as follows.

While GPR is about figuring out what are the most important global problems to work on, LPR is about figuring out what are the most important problems in a local context that can best maximise impact both locally and globally.

This term is used to describe many research activities, including:

  • Local cause area prioritization
  • Charity evaluation
  • High-impact local career pathway research
  • Giving and philanthropy landscape research

Some examples of projects within local priorities research include EA Singapore's cause prioritization report, which identifies AI safety and alternative proteins as Singapore's comparative advantages; the Brazilian charity Doebem, which aims to identify the best health and development charities in Brazil; and EA Philippines's cause prioritization report, which identifies 11 potential focus areas for work in the country, ranging from poverty alleviation in the Philippines to building the EA movement there.

The two meanings of local priorities research

The definitions of local priorities research above modify GPR for local contexts in two distinct ways, which makes the goal of the research unclear. They involve changing, from global to local, not only the resources to which this research applies, but also the individuals one wants to help. By changing only one of these at a time, we arrive at two concepts that are currently mixed together:

  1. Identify the course of action that would maximize impact at a global level, given specific local resources.
  2. Identify the course of action that would maximize impact at a local level.

From here on, I will refer to (1) as contextualization research, and refer to (2) alone as local priorities research.

My definition of contextualization research (CR) is as follows:

Contextualization research is research that informs the use of specific resources, seeking to do as much good as possible.

The key element of this type of research is the specificity of resources to which the research applies. These resources could be individuals in a certain region, but also those with certain skill sets, work experience, or career stage. It can also apply to a single individual, as when someone adapts career advice written for a more general audience to their skill set, interests, and moral views.

CR can also be about particularly advantageous resources that someone has. Consider a case of two people from the same country, with similar skill sets and interests, who would both excel in one of the main EA cause areas. If one of them is well-connected with government representatives, then they might do more good by not taking a mainstream EA job. This can also apply to different local EA groups, such as for groups in countries with some specific comparative advantages, or groups where many members have a particular skill set.

Some examples of CR projects for local EA groups include:

  • Evaluating which EA cause areas are particularly pressing in the country, from a global perspective
  • Identifying career opportunities within EA cause areas in the country (including upskilling opportunities)
  • Identifying the most efficient ways to donate internationally

On the other hand, my definition of local priorities research is:

Local priorities research is research that informs use of resources, seeking to do as much good for a certain region as possible.

The key aspect of this definition is the local scope of altruism. The aim of LPR is to benefit individuals within a specific region, without considering, say, national nonprofits that operate abroad, or even externalities that interventions may have on other nations. For instance, improving pandemic preparedness in one's country may prevent pandemics from spreading elsewhere, but this is not taken into consideration.

Note also that the restriction here applies only to the scope of altruism, and not to the resources involved. For example, the best career pathway for some people intending to help their country could be to move to a wealthier country and earn to give, with the goal of supporting their country's most effective charities. Similarly, one could donate to foreign charities operating in the country of interest, even if it entails making international donations.

In practice, almost all LPR projects I have seen to date are related to health and development in developing countries. Therefore, I expect that most LPR proposals will belong to this category.

Some examples of LPR projects:

  • Identifying what are the main issues in one's country
  • Evaluating charities that address these issues
  • Identifying career paths that address these issues

The table below summarizes the differences in the prioritization research concepts according to my definitions.

Type of researchScope of altruismResources
Global priorities researchGlobalGeneral or specific
Contextualization researchGlobalSpecific
Local priorities researchLocalGeneral or specific

Should EAs engage in these types of research?

As hinted by the table above, I consider contextualization research to be a type of global priorities research. Contextualization research can significantly enhance the effectiveness of resources available to a local EA group. For instance, if many group members are unwilling or unable to move abroad, exploring the most (globally) impactful career options within their countries could be among the best research opportunities for the group. Some projects that illustrate the potential of CR include this LMICs career guideRiesgos Catastroficos Globales, and EA Singapore's cause prioritization report.

On the other hand, local priorities research in itself goes against the aim to do good impartially. It’s important to remember that the beneficiaries that we can help the most are not necessarily those who live in the same region as we do. Although LPR is valuable, it may not achieve the same impact as CR, and so focusing on a specific region might prevent a group from helping others even more. Therefore, I don’t think that local EA groups should aim to do LPR in and of itself.

I think EAs often should adapt global priorities research for local contexts, and contextualization research is the most effective way to do so. When deciding whether a group should do this kind of research, and what exactly to investigate, it's important to consider what resources the group actually has. For instance, if most members of the local group are willing and capable of moving abroad, research into career pathways within the country would not be as valuable.

It's not always necessary to have the resources in question before doing CR. The output of the research can be used to attract people to the local group, or guide the group's outreach strategy. However, the more resources available, the more justified the research effort becomes, and having resources allows for better-targeted research. Therefore, research should be done in proportion to the benefit that it would bring to the group, and it should scale up as the group becomes bigger.

(When) do CR and LPR coincide?

One particularly interesting possibility is the potential overlap of CR and LPR, that is, that the areas of highest priority from a local perspective are also the best opportunities for local EAs to work on. In this case, working on LPR would be justified, since it would be the most effective way for the group to do good. Below, I discuss some scenarios where this might occur, and how often I expect them to coincide.

One clear example of overlap occurs in regions where local problems align with global ones. For example, in Burkina Faso, malaria prevention is likely one of the most promising career pathways for local EAs. Similarly, in the US, preventing risks posed by advanced AI ranks highly on both local and global priorities. These opportunities should not be hard to identify, especially when effective organizations operate in that country.

Another potential scenario where CR and LPR might converge is when there is a large pool of resources associated exclusively with local priorities. Plausible scenarios include instances where a very large number of people are committed to supporting effective ways to help their nation, or when a billionaire pledges to allocate their wealth effectively to assist their home country. Even if there are more effective opportunities for impartial interventions in the country, the scale of resources tied to a country's priorities could be significant enough that identifying those priorities results in more good done.

In practice, how often do CR and LPR actually overlap? Ultimately, this is an empirical question that I wish effective altruists would engage with seriously. In the case of health and development, I think that it is might be true for a number of lower-middle income countries. This is even more likely true in the case of populous lower-middle income countries, such as India, Pakistan, and Nigeria, given that a higher population (for a given income distribution) means that there will be more people below a certain income threshold. In other cases, it is less clear whether this convergence holds, but I suspect that CR and LPR will typically lead to different conclusions. 

Consider, for example, the case of Latin America. Most Latin American countries are categorized as at least upper-middle income countries, including the region's top ten most populous countries. The region has five lower-middle income countries, and no countries classified as low income. One preliminary analysis comparing how cost-effective health interventions would be in Colombia (an upper-middle income country) relative to Nigeria (a lower-middle income country) indicates that interventions in Nigeria are around 10 times more cost-effective than interventions in Colombia. These results suggest that one would need considerably more resources devoted to local priorities to justify doing LPR from an impartial perspective.

Thus, in the case of Colombia, and of most countries in Latin America, the size of the gap in effectiveness suggest that CR and LPR may lead to different priorities. EAs in Colombia who wish to contribute to global health and development might do more good by working remotely for highly effective organizations in this area, researching development interventions. The difference may be large enough that even earning to give in Colombia and donating to GiveWell recommended charities could be better than other LPR options.

Nevertheless, as I mentioned above, the existence of an overlap is an empirical question, and it is possible that LPR may be appealing enough to overcome this gap. To explore this possibility, I suggest that we begin this exploration with countries where LPR is highly likely to coincide with CR. By studying these countries, we can learn about the attractiveness of LPR, and have a better sense for where the bar lies.

Takeaways

The points from the discussion above that I expect to be most useful to guide prioritization research by local groups are summarized below:

  1. Don’t forget the global goal. Effective altruism is about doing the most good, regardless of the location of the beneficiaries. In some cases, local interventions may be the most effective way to do this, but if we want to have the most impact, it’s important to remember that perhaps the best beneficiaries are not necessarily those who are so close to us.
  2. Contextualization research can be really valuable. As a global movement, effective altruism will need to adapt to local circumstances. Research that identifies the most promising actions for local groups and their members can significantly increase their effectiveness.
  3. Understand the local context. It's important to know what resources are available to a group to make the most of contextualization research. Groups should avoid conducting extensive research based on uninformed guesses, and should only do research as deeply as necessary to make their actions more effective.
  4. The bar for local health and development interventions may be high. In some countries, such as Burkina Faso, India, Pakistan, and Nigeria, focusing on local interventions may be among the best opportunities available to a group. By contrast, in upper-middle-income countries, a global focus for interventions may be more effective. To explore this possibility, it may be useful to start by focusing on local interventions where they are most likely to be the best option, and learn from that experience to guide priorities elsewhere.
  5. Take these conclusions with a grain of salt! This post summarizes my initial thoughts on adapting priorities to local contexts, and my main goal was to distinguish between contextualization research and local priorities research. Although the takeaways above are my best guess to how we should adapt EA to different contexts, they shouldn’t be taken as correct without questioning. Further research on the points I discussed above is really valuable, and could easily change my mind about what we should do.

Acknowledgments

I'm especially grateful to Ángela Aristizábal for suggesting the topic of local priorities research and providing me with excellent feedback, and to Loren Fryxell for the discussion that led to the differentiation between CR and LPR. I also benefited a lot from comments by Alejandro Acelas, Luzia Bruckamp, Jaime Fernandez, John Firth, Sjir Hoeijmakers, Muhammad Putera, and others at EAGx Latin America and GPI. This post was edited with the help of ChatGPT.

Comments12
Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 11:21 PM

Hi Luis, thank you for writing this up! I think it's a well-written forum post that clarifies important distinctions and makes valuable points, and on a topic that AFAIK is being considered and discussed by many people in the community currently.

I agree with most of your points. In fact, I've come around on one that we previously disagreed on, namely on defining "local priorities research" more restrictively than how many people are currently using it: I now see more of the value of having "local" in LPR clearly refer to the altruistic scope rather than the resources being prioritised, consistent and contrasting with the "global" in GPR referring to the global altruistic scope.

There are two further comments/suggestions I'd like to make:

Consider using a different name than "contextualization research"

I think adding new terminology that isn't immediately clear should be avoided whenever possible, and CR isn't self-explanatory nor does defining this new term look unavoidable to me. I think using something like "resource-specific GPR" or "targeted GPR" - though a mouthful - is much clearer than CR, because (1) the terms themselves are more self-explanatory (including by using the word "priorities") and (2) it's immediately clear that they refer to a subset of GPR.

There may be cases in which "pure" LPR is worth doing for local groups

I expect there are cases in which it will be worth doing LPR (according to your new restricted definition) as a local group from the perspective of doing the most good impartially even when it doesn't overlap with CR/resource-specific GPR. In other words, I expect there to be cases where doing "pure" LPR would be a recommendation coming out of doing resource-specific GPR for a local group.

Take your Latin American example: my guess is it will often be valuable to do the type of research you link to there even if you expect not to find anything close to competitive to GW top charities, and even if there isn't a large pot of restricted funds that may be influenced by it.

A few reasons for doing LPR in such a case could be:

  • showing one cares and is knowledgeable about local problems before making the claim one should focus on other geographies or cause areas

  • substantiating and better being able to communicate the claim that donations go further in those other countries or cause areas

  • using this as a training opportunity for charity researchers who could later move on to charity evaluation that would qualify as GPR

As we've discussed elsewhere there are clear trade-offs and risks for engaging in LPR at a local group level (e.g. opportunity costs, risk of motivated reasoning or value drift) - so I share your caution in recommending this as an activity. However, I don't think a blanket recommendation against doing (well-considered and careful) LPR at a local group level is justified either, for the above reasons.

Names: How about context-specific GPR? (or some variation on this). It takes into account resources / location etc. 

I like that one!

I like this too!

I also like it!

Thanks again for your comments, Sjir! Both of your points are great, and the second one which has led me to think LPR is more important than I thought before.

I still stand by the approach to doing LPR that I propose in the post. Given that there are cases where LPR is highly likely to be effective, I believe that starting with these cases, learning from them, and subsequently determining the best strategy for other situations is a great compromise between the risks and benefits involved. That said, I do think that LPR has the potential to be really successful and get a lot of people involved.

Addressing the specific advantages of LPR you outlined:

  • On the first two points, my intuition is that local groups could learn enough about that without getting anywhere near the work required for charity recommendations. Alejandro's analysis is an example of the type of research that I believe moves in this direction, though a more comprehensive exploration is likely warranted.
  • On the last point, this could indeed be one of the main benefits of LPR. However, prioritization research based on geographic location is not the only way to train people for GPR charity evaluation. Some examples, which I consider to be GPR, include replicating GiveWell's work, or identifying the best donation opportunities from a non-welfarist perspective (such as those that promote justice).

On the "contextualization research" term, I think I'm a bit more satisfied with it than you are, but I also recognize that it isn't the ideal name. Suggestions for a better alternative are welcome!

When I wrote the post, the framing I used was focused on the differences in direct impact of focusing on local causes. This meant not mentioning a number of other important considerations, both positive and negative. Since writing the post, I've had the opportunity to talk more to others, and to reflect some more on what these other considerations are. Below, I highlight some that I consider particularly important (see Sjir's comment for some others).

Getting people involved with effective interventions for local problems can serve as a way to get more people involved with effective global interventions. This can happen because it will be easier for some people to get involved with a local problem first before getting involved with a global problem, and also because working on local-level interventions can increase the popularity of EA in the region. I've recently learned that GiveDirectly's US cash transfer program appears to have led to a really large increase to their international donations to people in extreme poverty, due to these two channels. They claim that this was the case, and a quick look at their funding from previous years shows no signs of such a large increase in (international) donations in 2020. If this increase in international donations was indeed not caused by something else, then this example makes me a lot more optimistic about this indirect benefit of doing LPR. Relevantly, I should note that GiveDirectly (1) first consolidated their international transfers program before starting their US transfer program, and (2) tried to emphasize international transfers following the media attention they obtained for US transfers.

A second point in favor of LPR is that, in practice, it doesn't need to be the case that resources directed to local causes come at the expense of resources for the global cause. If an EA group already has a well-developed core group, and can already do outreach to those interested in the global cause, then the group might be able to start dedicating resources to LPR at a relatively low cost. As long as this doesn't compromise the group's ability to do outreach for global issues properly, I think that LPR might become a valuable activity for EA groups to engage in.

It's also worth highlighting some downsides:

  • Value drift: if research and outreach of local problems comes at the expense of global ones, then this could be a reason for the group to lose most of their impact. And, as the number of people working on local priorities increases, this could attract even more people with a local focus, in a gradual drifting process that might result in a group that's much more focused on local problems than the ideal.
  • Research costs: high-quality research requires a lot of time, as well as specific research skills. There's already a lot of research available on the most relevant global issues, but for the local problems the group's countries would have to mostly do this themselves. The opportunity cost is doing direct work, doing context-specific GPR[1] that's not LPR, or doing outreach for global problems, which is quite a high bar.
  • Low-quality research has a really large cost in expectation. If the recommended charities aren't among the best local opportunities, then this further increases the gap in effectiveness of local vs global interventions.[2] Furthermore, it opens up space for large damage to the group's reputation, such as negative media coverage.

These considerations highlight a timing aspect of the overlap between LPR and context-specific GPR. They suggest that LPR is generally better suited for more mature EA groups, which have already consolidated their outreach structure for people willing to work on global problems. Depending on how high the benefits of LPR turn out to be, this could mean that at some point we would want to do LPR even in the US. But there's still a lot of uncertainty, and I think that more information on the benefits and costs of LPR can be quite valuable. I would feel excited about attempts to get a sense for the magnitude of some effects mentioned here, such as by evaluating the GiveDirectly US transfers case more carefully, and looking for other related cases. And I'm excited about EA doing some work on LPR for the information value, particularly in the countries where it's most likely to be the best local opportunity, such as India.

  1. ^

    This is the same concept as what I refer on the post as contextualization research; see Vaidehi's comment.

  2. ^

    Given a heavy-tailed distribution of impact at the local level, redirecting donations from the average charity to a better-than-median but not great charity is also likely to have negative impact in counterfactual terms. I won't explain why here, but you can read about properties of heavy-tailed impact in this paper.

Hi Luis, thanks for disambiguating between these two defintions! I found this post easy to read, clear and convincing. 

When I was first started working on local priorities research, I definitely intended it to be what you call "Contextualisation Research", and projects that I ran focused on LPR were all CR related. I think (if Yi-Yang agrees with your proposal) it might be helpful to get the original LPR post re-named or add a disclaimer to the top to prevent people who are finding this later assuming that the original post only calls for "LPR" as you define it. 

Thanks, Vaidehi! 

The possibility of confusion is the worst thing about me using the term "local priorities research" to refer so something that was used in a broader sense before. My hunch is that it's worth it, because it seems to me to be by far the most accurate description of what I call LPR. I really hope this won't prove to be too confusing, and I wouldn't want to trouble those who have written before to make changes in response to this. But I think that in a number of cases the term was used to refer to both LPR and CR, in an ambiguous way.

My guess is that the best thing to do (if people agree with the distinction I've made) is to use LPR in the narrower sense from now on, and maybe making an edit or adding a comment explaining the usage of the term in past posts when authors see fit.

Hey Luis, to be clear, I agree with your post (and using a new name - I like context-specific GPR).

My main proposal which may have been unclear is that you proactively reach out to folks who uses the old definition in their work, in case they don't see this post, and suggest they edit their posts.

Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities