This post explores two ways in which EAs can adapt priorities to local contexts they face:
- Trying to do the most good at a global level, given specific local resources.
- 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.
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:
- Identify the course of action that would maximize impact at a global level, given specific local resources.
- 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 research||Scope of altruism||Resources|
|Global priorities research||Global||General or specific|
|Local priorities research||Local||General 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 guide, Riesgos 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.
The points from the discussion above that I expect to be most useful to guide prioritization research by local groups are summarized below:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.