Thanks to the many people who gave us their feedback as we wrote this. This is a very shallow investigation; we have no particular expertise in the topic or in research, and wrote this report over the course of 2 days. We welcome any feedback and hope to see further discussion/investigation from others with more expertise.
Open Philanthropy should investigate as a new cause area the potential of equitable international/multilateral macroeconomic policy. This would increase the financial resources available to developing countries by allowing them to retain more of the value of their current financial activity, and to then re-invest that value in their economic growth.
The negative flow of money from economies in Low and low middle-income countries is well documented— they are estimated to have lost more than $383B in resources in outflows to developed countries in 2012, dwarfing the $68B in aid they took in during that year. The sources of these outflows included: illicit financial flows, tax loss, lending, debt repayments, and profits repatriated by foreign investors. We think that there should be more discussion of international macroeconomic policy and norms within EA— i.e. economic practices that affect/involve multiple countries, or institutions that impose policy multilaterally. These include international trade policies, tax policy, intellectual property policy, and conditions created by the IMF and World Bank and tracked by the WTO.
We posit that better economic outcomes might be achieved by researching and advocating for policies that help developing countries retain more financial resources, benefit more from the market value they create through interacting with international markets, and prevent that value from inequitably escaping local markets.
How this differs from Open Philanthropy’s existing work:
We believe there has been limited consideration for this type of cause within the effective altruism community so far. While there have been ongoing discussions on the forum about macroeconomic policy in developing countries as a potential focus area (perhaps most famously in Hillebrandt and Halstead’s Growth and the case against randomista development, one of the forum’s most popular ever posts), these discussions have primarily focused on changing government & market behavior within the developing countries themselves.
The most relevant work includes Open Philanthropy’s funding supporting macroeconomic policy in the US and Europe (which has received recent criticism), and their new program on global aid advocacy, which hasn’t announced any grants yet but is considering, amongst other tactics, “expanding access to capital or helping to reduce debt burdens, e.g. by supporting governments in negotiating more favorable terms from development finance loans.” While we’re very excited about the areas that the global aid advocacy program is considering, they don’t appear to include the work we propose here (ex. they’re considering helping reduce debt burdens by supporting governments to negotiate favorable terms, rather than considering tactics like pushing for IMF reforms).
The current problem:
According to one report from 2014, low-income countries (LICs) lost 18% of their GDP to extralegal financial flows that year, interest payments on foreign debt, etc. We were only able to conduct shallow research, however we have found some compelling examples of differential market forces:
- Developing countries lost $16.3 trillion USD to leakages in cross-border financial transactions and payments between 1980 and 2012.
- Uneven burden of patent licensing and royalty fees between nations— LMICs paid $77 BN in patent licensing fees and received in aggregate $13 BN in 2020. The combined population of LMICs in that year was 6.57 billion people.
- The burden of structural adjustment conditions taken on by governments when accepting IMF loans are borne most significantly by the countries most dependent on loans. Some countries, such as those in West Africa, have sometimes had to navigate 1000+ loan conditions over the 30 years between 1985 and 2014. Contrarily, China has only had one loan from the IMF (active 1986 to 1987) in the same time period with 28 conditions attached. It is widely recognized that structural adjustment programs have detrimental effects on vulnerable people.
Programs like these overwhelmingly affect the domestic economies that house the world's poorest people, and we believe working to improve these policies could improve well-being for people in poverty. If successful, changes to these policies could create positive spillovers in multiple countries, with potential second-order impacts on things like the quality of government institutions, public infrastructure, and healthcare systems in developing nations, for example.
The creation of an equitable international marketplace could release billions of dollars annually to governments and markets in LMICs for them to use as they see fit to address local societal problems. Releasing this money free from the conditionality of loans or regulations imposed by international granters could create an environment for novel and creative solutions to poverty alleviation and either social goods.
What a funder like Open Philanthropy could do:
Strategies for funding further research would likely look similar to those proposed by Open Philanthropy for their macroeconomic policy work.
Areas of research might include:
- Investigate which international economic practices have most helped today's LMICs bounce back from extreme market events (i.e. famine, recession, violent conflict, etc)
- Methods for increasing financial resources that governments can use to implement better domestic policies. For example, we can see that developed nations use a larger portion of GDP as government spending than LMICs, though the data are incomplete/have poor resolution as to which government programs improve life most/dollar spent.
- Further research into which actions by governments and international actors trigger periods of growth in LMICS, and research on best methods for influencing stakeholders to take those actions.
- Research into improvements to governance structures that would create more favorable policies for LMICs - consulting resources and experts from the growing IIDM community will be useful here.
Once research is conducted to determine the most promising policy recommendations, funding advocacy is a necessary component of ensuring those policies are implemented. Again, a lot of the recommendations for tactics here may look similar to Open Philanthropy’s potential tactics for macroeconomics policy advocacy. This includes ideas like funding public communication, think tanks, creating a shadow United Nations Economic and Financial Committee, designing model bills, etc.
We note that there may be an especially time-sensitive opportunity to fund advocacy in international tax cooperation policy. With the recent agreement of 136 nations to a global minimum tax, there is likely a unique period of elasticity and opportunity to help direct implementation in a positive direction. Actions might include:
- Funding advocacy to help US and European governments to implement the domestic policies necessary for the global agreement to continue, which is currently at risk of failing.
- Making a grant to (or explore how much additional funding could be used by) Tax Justice Network, who work for more equitable tax measures on multinational corporations.
This forum post on Tax Havens may also have useful resources/suggestions.
Some remaining questions:
This submission presents a surface-level survey of the potential that could come from more equitable international/multilateral macroeconomic policy. Some remaining questions that additional investigation hours could aim at answering are:
- What does the existing research landscape in international financial policy look like? Are there particular interventions that already have strong consensus that haven’t been implemented?
- What sorts of funding/incentives/environments lead to high-quality and unbiased research on these topics?
- What are the current avenues through which these sorts of policies are determined?
- What are the trade-offs with global peace and security of international macroeconomic policy change?
More concrete answers to these questions, and many others like them, could clarify the costs associated with allocating resources to the cause area. Further research would also provide clearer resolution on the expected value of committing resources to developing and implementing policies in this area.
Risks and uncertainties:
We are aware of unsuccessful past attempts to implement international economic norms to improve the lives of people living in developing nations. In some cases, as with the IMF's structural adjustments, poorly designed macroeconomic policies can generate extensive negative effects on health & welfare, as well as social factors.
As Open Philanthropy enters this new cause area, it will be important to be aware of the pitfalls of previous efforts in the international macroeconomic policy area to avoid potential harm to billions of people.
It is also possible that this area is very intractable; we're unsure how likely it is that none of the policies recommended as a result of Open Philanthropy grants would be implemented, or that they would be implemented sub-optimally so that no material change in economic practices took place. In this case, the primary risk is that resources which could have been used to push a more surefire cause would have been misdirected, delaying progress that could have been made elsewhere.