EAF’s ballot initiative doubled Zurich’s development aid

by Jonas Vollmer11 min read13th Jan 202023 comments

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Summary

  • In 2016, the Effective Altruism Foundation (EAF), then based in Switzerland, launched a ballot initiative asking to increase the city of Zurich’s development cooperation budget and to allocate it more effectively.
  • In 2018, we coordinated a counterproposal with the city council that preserved the main points of our original initiative and had a high chance of success.
  • In November 2019, the counterproposal passed with a 70% majority. Zurich’s development cooperation budget will thus increase from around $3 million to around $8 million per year. The city will aim to allocate it “based on the available scientific research on effectiveness and cost-effectiveness.” This seems to be the first time that Swiss legislation on development cooperation mentions effectiveness requirements.
  • The initiative cost around $25,000 in financial costs and around $190,000 in opportunity costs. Depending on the assumptions, it raised a present value of $20–160 million in development funding.
  • EAs should consider launching similar initiatives in other Swiss cities and around the world.

Initial proposal and signature collection

In spring 2016, the Effective Altruism Foundation (EAF), then still based in Basel, Switzerland, launched a ballot initiative asking for the city of Zurich’s development cooperation budget to be increased and to be allocated more effectively. (For information on EAF’s current focus, see this article.) We chose Zurich due to its large budget and leftist/centrist majority. I published an EA Forum post introducing the initiative and a corresponding policy paper (see English translation). (Note: In the EA Forum post, I overestimated the publicity/movement-building benefits and the probability that the original proposal would pass. I overemphasized the quantitative estimates, especially the point estimates, which don’t adequately represent the uncertainty. I underestimated the success probability of a favorable counterproposal. Also, the policy paper should have had a greater focus on hits-based, policy-oriented interventions because I think these have a chance of being even more cost-effective than more “straightforward” approaches and also tend to be viewed more favorably by professionals.)

We hired people and coordinated volunteers (mostly animal rights activists we had interacted with before) to collect the required 3,000 signatures (plus 20% safety margin) over six months to get a binding ballot vote. Signatures had to be collected in person in handwritten form. For city-level initiatives, people usually collect about 10 signatures per hour, and paying people to collect signatures costs about $3 per signature on average.

Picture: Start of signature collection on 25 May 2016.

Picture: Submission of the initiative at Zurich’s city hall on 22 November 2016.

The legislation we proposed (see the appendix) focused too strongly on Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs) and demanded too much of a budget increase (from $3 million to $87 million per year). We made these mistakes because we had internal disagreements about the proposal and did not dedicate enough time to resolving them. This led to negative initial responses from the city council and influential charities (who thought the budget increase was too extreme, were pessimistic about the odds of success, and disliked the RCT focus), implying a <1% success probability at the ballot because public opinion tends to be heavily influenced by the city council’s official vote recommendation. At that point, we planned to retract the initiative before the vote to prevent negative PR for EA, while still aiming for a favorable counterproposal.

Counterproposal

As is common for Swiss ballot initiatives, the city decided to develop a counterproposal. Their initial draft did not say anything about effectiveness and focused on other topics that we did not consider important. On 28 June 2018, I was able to present the initiative to the financial commission of the city council, carefully preempting objections and misconceptions (see the slides). I managed to convince them to make significant changes to the counterproposal in return for promising to retract the original proposal (which is also standard practice in Switzerland). The city council voted to bring a counterproposal to the ballot that increases the development cooperation budget from $3 million to $5–17 million per year (0.3–1% tax percentage points (calculated as 0.3–1% of the federal tax amount), with exceptions in case of budget deficits) and states that grants should be made “based on the available scientific research on effectiveness and cost-effectiveness.” The counterproposal was supported by all parties (SP, glp, GP, AL, EVP) except for the right-wing ones (FDP, SVP), with 79 in favor, 38 against, and no abstentions (see the minutes (p. 883)). We supported the counterproposal because it contained the key points of our original initiative and had a high chance of success. As promised, we then retracted the original proposal.

Historically, 75% of counterproposals had passed in the city of Zurich. According to public opinion polling (“Sicherheit 2018” p. 147), 59% of the Swiss electorate and 85% of left-wing voters (a ~70% majority in Zurich) agree with the statement “Switzerland should provide more foreign aid.” Other polls had found similar results. For these reasons, I assigned a 77% probability that the counterproposal would succeed at the ballot.

Campaign and vote

As is usual, the parties in favor of the counterproposal invited us to their campaigning committee. On the EAF side, the campaign was coordinated by Noémie Zurlinden, a development economics Ph.D. student at the University of St. Gallen, and Patrick Stadler, who previously worked at a Swiss aid agency and New Incentives (a charity which went through Y Combinator and received several GiveWell incubation grants). They worked with the committee on billboards, media interviews, a press conference, and a press release. The parties contributed substantially to the budget (around $20,000, of which we contributed $5,000) and administration of the vote campaign.

Picture: Vote campaign billboard. Translation: “One tax percent against global poverty – YES on 17 November 2019. Zurich for a good life, also elsewhere. For effective development cooperation.”

The vote took place on November 17th, 2019. The counterproposal passed with 69.7% in favor, which is considered a very strong majority. Voting turnout was 36%.

Picture: Vote results.

See also:

Policy implementation

This seems to be the first time that Swiss legislation on development cooperation mentions effectiveness requirements. We are very excited about this. At the same time, this means it’s pretty unclear how the additional funding will be allocated in practice. Much of it will go to large local charities, but parts of it might also be allocated to projects that are considered particularly effective by EAs (e.g., the Swiss branch of TamTam, a charity that primarily conducts fundraising for the Against Malaria Foundation).

Well-known development economist Prof. Dina Pomeranz of the University of Zurich offered to advocate for the counterproposal publicly and participated in several media interviews. (We had been in touch for many years, she’s a member of our advisory board.) Hopefully, the local administration and members of parliament will make use of her expertise in professionalizing the allocation of funds to development projects. Plans for such a professionalization announced by city officials could constitute another positive outcome of the ballot initiative.

We have the relevant contacts to encourage proper implementation of the initiative, but our organization now has a different focus and so won’t be able to spend much time on this. If any Swiss effective altruists interested in international development would like to help improve implementation (on a volunteer basis or paid), I encourage them to get in touch (jonas.vollmer at ea-foundation.org). I think this could be a highly effective use of their time, likely worth hundreds of dollars per hour invested.

Cost-benefit analysis

I quickly prepared a post hoc cost-benefit analysis of the initiative. For details, see the Guesstimate model. In the bullet points below, the numbers sometimes do not add up precisely due to rounding and small imprecisions introduced through the randomness of Monte Carlo simulations.

Costs:

  • Financial cost: $9,000 for collecting signatures, $9,000 in other salaries, $5,000 for the vote campaign.
  • Opportunity cost: $190,000 worth of senior staff time, $8,000 worth of volunteer time.
  • A larger development cooperation budget implies additional taxes or cuts from other budget items in Zurich.
  • Total costs: $220,000.

Benefits:

  • The budget increases by around $5 million per year, or an expected 4 million after accounting for exceptions due to budget deficits. With a 2–12% discount rate and a time frame of around 50 years, this corresponds to a present value of about $20–160 million.

Costs vs. benefits:

  • The above implies $80–1,100 raised per dollar spent.
  • How cost-effective is the city’s new budget relative to direct cash transfers? Donating to GiveDirectly is perhaps ~30x better than giving money to random people in the world. The cost-effectiveness of Zurich’s current budget might be somewhere in between and might improve thanks to the initiative. For instance, the city might support highly effective projects (like TamTam) with a small part of its budget. This leads me to assume that cash transfers may be 1–10x more cost-effective than Zurich’s new budget. Under this assumption, the initiative raised $20–600 per dollar spent.
  • If we compare to giving to GiveWell’s top charities rather than cash transfers (according to their 2019 model), it raised $1.40–50 per dollar spent.

This compares favorably to most conventional fundraising methods, which usually raise $1.50–10 per dollar invested. It seems similar to other EA fundraising projects, though it looks less attractive from a longtermist perspective (because these funds are specifically going towards global development).

That said, some substantial indirect benefits aren’t accounted for:

  • This legislation creates a precedent for (cost-)effectiveness requirements. As a result, large Swiss charities and the federal development cooperation agencies may adopt evidence-based approaches more quickly. (E.g., some executives at the largest Swiss charities read our policy paper and expressed interest in impact evaluations.)
  • Ballot votes are taking seriously by politicians and verify the results from public opinion polling. The clear outcome from this initiative could arguably improve the chances of an increase in federal development funding or reduce the chances of a cut (which has been proposed repeatedly by the right-wing party).
  • Tangible successes can help boost the credibility of the EA community, including in other cause areas.
  • The knowledge gained could also be valuable for replicating the initiative elsewhere.

Potential replications

Given the clear success of the initiatives, effective altruists should likely consider replicating similar ballot initiatives elsewhere. Ideas include:

  • Other Swiss cities. Basel, Lausanne, Bern, Winterthur, and St. Gallen seem particularly promising because they have leftist majorities and are not too small. Unlike Zurich, they do not have existing aid budgets. Geneva might work as well but has a large existing aid budget with more vested interests. Replications would be low-cost because we can rely on the learnings from this initiative. That said, it seems unusual and against the customs to scale local ballot initiatives to a large number of cities, and development cooperation is generally under the purview of the federal government. This could lead to some pushback, which would have to be prevented or managed carefully.
  • Other places. Ballot initiatives are possible in many U.S. states and many other countries in the world. There may also be other ways to influence government aid funding from the “ground level” in some countries (though I am not immediately aware of any).
  • Different proposals. Carl Shulman points out: “California has had several regional initiatives to spend on scientific research (e.g. a successful one for stem cell research, and a lost one to tax tobacco for cancer research).” There have also been several successful animal welfare ballot initiatives, both in Switzerland and the United States. Ballot initiatives seem promising for issues that are low on the political agenda and on which the population tends to vote differently from legislative bodies, perhaps such as budget increases or animal welfare.

Depending on the type of initiative, this could be a promising activity for EA groups (consisting of volunteers and some part-time staff), aspiring EA politicians, or organizations with several full-time staff.

If you are interested in launching another initiative in Switzerland, please let us know in the comments and email jonas.vollmer at ea-foundation.org. I won’t contribute myself, but I can put you in touch with funders and others who are interested and share additional information. Those interested in U.S. ballot initiatives can reach out to Rethink Priorities.

For an extensive report, see Rethink Priorities’ Intervention Profile: Ballot initiatives.

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Kaspar Etter, Aaron Gertler, Zachary Robinson, Jason Schukraft, Patrick Stadler, Pascal Zimmer, and Noémie Zurlinden for giving feedback on this article.

Appendix

Counterproposal by the city council

Gegenvorschlag des Gemeinderats zur Volksinitiative «Ein Prozent gegen die globale Armut (1%-Initiative)» (Gemeindebeschluss)

AS 856.100

Beiträge für die internationale Zusammenarbeit

Art. 1 Die Stadt gewährt jährlich Beiträge für die internationale Zusammenarbeit. Der Umfang der Beiträge entspricht mindestens 0,3 und höchstens 1 Steuerprozent.

Art. 2 Wenn die Stadt einen Bilanzfehlbetrag aufweist oder wenn die letzten drei Rechnungsjahre insgesamt mit einem Defizit von mehr als 30 Millionen Franken abgeschlossen haben, können die jährlichen Beiträge tiefer ausfallen oder ganz entfallen.

Art. 3 Die Stadt strebt für das Vergabeverfahren möglichst tiefe Kosten und, wo sinnvoll, eine Koordination mit dem Bund an. Die Vergabepraxis orientiert sich an der vorhandenen wissenschaftlichen Forschung über Wirksamkeit und Wirtschaftlichkeit sowie an den Aspekten der Transparenz und der Ökologie.

Art. 4 Der Gemeindebeschluss vom 5. März 1972 betreffend Entwicklungshilfe im In- und Ausland (AS 856.100) wird aufgehoben.

Art. 5 Der Stadtrat setzt diesen Beschluss in Kraft.

Unofficial English translation

Counterproposal of the municipal council to the popular initiative "One percent against global poverty (1% initiative)" (municipal resolution)

AS 856.100

Contributions to international cooperation

Art. 1 The City shall grant annual contributions for international cooperation. The amount of the contributions shall be a minimum of 0.3 and a maximum of 1 tax percentage point.

Art. 2 If the City shows a balance sheet deficit or if the last three financial years have, in total, concluded with a deficit of more than 30 million Swiss francs, the annual contributions may be reduced or omitted altogether.

Art. 3 The City shall aim to keep the cost of the grant award procedure as low as possible and, where appropriate, to coordinate it with the Federal Government. The award practice shall be based on the available scientific research on effectiveness and cost-effectiveness as well as on the aspects of transparency and ecology.

Art. 4 The municipal resolution of 5 March 1972 on domestic and foreign development aid (AS 856.100) is repealed.

Art. 5 The City Council puts this resolution into effect.

Original proposal (ballot initiative)

See also the initiative sheet.

Städtische Volksinitiative

Ein Prozent gegen die globale Armut (1%-Initiative)

Gestützt auf Art. 15 ff. der Gemeindeordnung der Stadt Zürich und das Gesetz über die politischen Rechte stellen die unterzeichnenden Stimmberechtigten der Stadt Zürich folgendes Begehren:

Die Gemeindeordnung der Stadt Zürich wird wie folgt geändert:

Art. 2 septies

1 Die Stadt unterstützt hochwirksame Hilfswerke im Bereich der Internationalen Zusammenarbeit mit einem Prozent ihres Budgets.

2 Mit den zusätzlichen Mitteln soll eine möglichst grosse Wirkung erzielt werden, insbesondere im Bereich der globalen Armut und Gesundheit. Die Stadt unterstützt daher Hilfsprojekte, welche durch unabhängige wissenschaftliche Forschung, insbesondere randomisiert-kontrollierte Studien aus der Entwicklungsökonomie, als kosteneffektiv eingestuft wurden.

3 Die Stadt setzt sich im Rahmen ihrer Möglichkeiten beim Bund und beim Kanton Zürich dafür ein, die Öffentliche Entwicklungshilfe (APD) auf ein Prozent des Bruttonationaleinkommens zu erhöhen.

Begründung:

Die globale Armut ist eines der wichtigsten ethischen Probleme unserer Zeit: Nach wie vor sterben in Entwicklungsländern jeden Tag 20’000 Kinder – ein Elend, das wir nur ertragen können, weil wir es nicht selbst täglich vor Augen sehen.

Über zwei Drittel der Schweizerinnen und Schweizer wollen, dass die Schweiz mehr Entwicklungshilfe leistet (repräsentative ETH-Umfrage «Sicherheit 2015»). Trotzdem investierte die Schweiz 2015 nur 0.52 Prozent des Bruttonationaleinkommens und erreichte damit nicht einmal das UNO-Mindestziel von 0.7 Prozent. Weniger wohlhabende Länder (z. B. Niederlande, Grossbritannien, Dänemark und Schweden) spenden deutlich mehr als die Schweiz. Als einflussreichste Gemeinde der Schweiz kann sich die Stadt Zürich besonders gut auf Bundesebene dafür einsetzen, die humanitäre Tradition der Schweiz fortzusetzen.

Der Nutzen der Entwicklungshilfe wird immer wieder pauschal infrage gestellt, vor allem medial. In den letzten 10 Jahren wurde jedoch intensiv geforscht, und wir wissen heute bedeutend mehr über erfolgreiche Entwicklungszusammenarbeit: Unabhängige Forschungsinstitute haben Hilfsprojekte identifiziert, deren hohe Wirksamkeit durch wissenschaftliche Forschung und insbesondere randomisiert-kontrollierte Experimente («RCT») mehrfach nachgewiesen wurde. Selbst skeptische Expertinnen und Experten anerkennen die Wirksamkeit dieser Projekte. Die Stadt kann sich auf diese unabhängigen Evaluationen verlassen und einen wissenschaftlichen Beirat beiziehen.

Mit dieser Initiative setzen wir hohe Qualitätsansprüche an Hilfsprojekte und nehmen unsere globale Verantwortung wahr.

Unofficial English translation

Municipal Popular Initiative

One percent against global poverty (1% initiative)

Based on Art. 15 et seq. of the Municipal Code of the City of Zurich and the Law on Political Rights, the undersigned voters submit the following proposal to the City of Zurich:

The Municipal Code of the City of Zurich is amended as follows:

Art. 2 septies

1 The City shall support highly effective aid organizations in the area of international development cooperation with one percent of its budget.

2 The additional funds shall be used to achieve as large an impact as possible, especially in the area of global poverty and health. The City shall, therefore, support aid projects that have been deemed cost-effective by independent scientific research, in particular, randomized controlled trials from development economics.

3 Within the scope of its possibilities, the City shall commit the Federal Government and the Canton of Zurich to increase official development assistance (ODA) to one percent of gross national income.

Rationale:

Global poverty is one of the most important ethical problems of our time: 20,000 children continue to die every day in developing countries - a misery that we can only bear because we do not see it before our eyes daily.

Over two thirds of the Swiss people want Switzerland to provide more development aid (representative ETH survey "Security 2015"). Despite this, Switzerland invested only 0.52 percent of its gross national income in 2015 and thus did not even reach the UN minimum target of 0.7 percent. Less prosperous countries (e.g., the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Denmark, and Sweden) donate significantly more than Switzerland. As Switzerland's most influential municipality, the City of Zurich is particularly well-placed to promote the continuation of Switzerland's humanitarian tradition at the federal level.

The effectiveness of development aid is often questioned across the board, especially in the media. In the last ten years, however, there has been intensive research, and today we know considerably more about successful development cooperation: independent research institutes have identified aid projects whose high effectiveness has been demonstrated several times through scientific research and, in particular, randomized controlled trials ("RCT"). Even skeptical experts acknowledge the effectiveness of these projects. The City can rely on these independent evaluations and consult a scientific advisory board.

With this initiative, we set high quality standards for aid projects and meet our global responsibility.

Media coverage

Note: All media coverage is in German. If you do not speak German, I recommend using DeepL to translate the reports.

When the initiative was launched, media coverage was mostly positive:

When the city found issues with the initiative and recommended against it, reports were more critical:

During the vote campaign and after the vote, media coverage was mostly positive. Some reports were critical in a way that appeared reasonable to me.

After the vote:

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