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Call to action for the EA community

  • Take the role of the UN more into consideration in EA activities incl. discussions, workshops and other type of EA-events as well as impact research
  • Seek positions in and around the UN and affiliated organizations and improve institutional decision-making at the UN and its partners
  • Seek a seat at the table at multi-stakeholder discussions and processes to engage with the UN and its member states. Advocate for high impact policies at relevant UN events and processes for instance in the run up to the 2023 Summit of the Future.
  • EA research into funding of the UN and affiliated organizations as well as how EA recommended charities (can) work with the UN given the clear distinguished mandate, reputation and footprint the UN has in global human rights, peace and security and development issues.

The EA community seems to largely neglect an enormous system that has had significant impact in the past and present in preventing and solving worldwide issues in the areas of human rights, peace and security and development. These are the three pillars of the United Nations, the one and only intergovernmental organization where 193 member states come together to discuss common problems and find shared solutions to benefit all of humanity. It was founded in 1945 after the Second World War with the main purpose at the time to prevent another World War in the future. It has been successful in this manner, as the data on deaths in conflict where state governments are a participant of has tremendously declined since 1946. Over the years it has developed into an organization with many specialized agencies, funds and programmes. They do not all start with the UN in their names like United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) or United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). The World Bank, the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) are also all part of the UN system.

As a unique system with organizations that head global responses to global issues, it is remarkable that there is so little attention to this system in the EA community. If you look at where EA started from, looking into very focused, measurable impactful interventions it makes sense that this system was overlooked. It is big, slow and bureaucratic and for sure the UN has not always delivered sustainable and impactful results. In some cases it may have also caused harm in their interventions despite good intentions. However, it is too big and too important to neglect. Moreover, there is only one UN, where all member states come together to negotiate global solutions to global problems. It has a unique mandate and reputation and a scale and reach that no other non-profit organization could come close to. 

Bill knows

Bill Gates and Melinda French, who in the EA community have a certain level of respect due to comprehensive approaches and research for interventions in achieving global development goals through the Gates foundation, acknowledge the importance of the UN system. Did you know the Gates Foundation is the second-largest contributor to the WHO? As of September 2021, it had invested nearly $780 million in its programs. Germany, the biggest contributor, had contributed more than $1.2 billion, while the United States donated $730 million. Bill also realized there is an opportunity for his company in engaging with the UN. In 2021 Microsoft opened a UN Affairs Office in New York. The first private company to do so and it has been widely engaged in collaborations with different UN organizations specifically focused on delivering international digital transformation (e.g. providing accessible, equitable, safe internet for all). The Secretary-General of the United Nations developed a Roadmap for Digital Cooperation in 2019 and recently called for the development of a Global Digital Compact in his Our Common Agenda report. An important aspect of this Common Agenda call from the SG is that the UN has to become an institution of the people, as it was intended (instead of a place where only representatives of governments come together). This also requires the adoption of more multi-stakeholder approaches in international negotiations for international standards, rules, agreements and regulations. That means that the UN wants to hear more voices from civil society organizations, private sector, academia etc. that reflect voices from society about what matters and how to best develop solutions to current global problems. Coincidently, Microsoft represents the private sector in many UN discussions around digital transformations of society to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. 

The UN’s impact

The UN has achieved many milestones but as with any organization, it gets more media attention when it is failing rather than achieving impact. Did you know the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the first document to detail fundamental human rights that must be protected and it was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1948? (see more UN facts here). 

A more recent example is the UN global response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The COVAX initiative delivered its first vaccines in January 2021, 39 days after the first vaccination outside of a clinical trial and has shipped so far 1bln doses of vaccines to 144 countries of which 90% of the doses went to lower income countries. The WHO has been a key player in the global response to the pandemic in the past two years raising funds in record times. 200 mln was raised in the first months of the pandemic through the innovative COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund, which was a.o. responsible for distributing 50% of worldwide PPEs to Middle and Lower Income Countries in the first year of the pandemic. 

These are impressive results and we can easily say that no charity recommended by EA (research) organizations could ever achieve these types of results on this scale. That is simply because there is only one UN. It is not perfect, but it is the designated organization to respond to global issues and the WHO COVID-response has proven it can. The UN has an international mandate recognized by the biggest number of countries worldwide. It’s comparative advantage to other non-profit organizations is that it works directly with governments. Upon the request of governments they are present in countries and working with them to achieve common development goals. Their programmes are all aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) since 2015 when all the member states of the UN approved the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development - an action plan to help people and the planet, encompassing the 17 SDGs.

The UN has been working to increase its impact

UNSG Antonio Guterres has made proposals to reform the United Nations since the beginning of his term in January 2017. A huge task that many before him recognized, but never were able to make big steps on. In 2018, he introduced, together with member states through negotiations, the Reinvigorated Resident Coordinator System. Under this system the UN would have a Resident Coordinator (RC), leading each of the 130 UN Country Teams operating in 164 countries and territories, that would coordinate all organizations of the UN dealing with operational activities for development. The RC would bring the UN system together to increase their impact, efficiency and effectiveness at country level. This system, which was rolled out for just over a year when the pandemic hit and has been crucial in the effectiveness of the UN global pandemic response. To respond to COVID-19 the UN immediately appointed WHO to lead the Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan (launched Feb ‘20), the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) to lead the Global Humanitarian Response Plan (launched Mar ‘20) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to lead the immediate socio-economic response to COVID-19 (launched Apr ‘20). Through the Resident Coordinator system and the new UN Country Teams, the UN system worked more effectively in complementing each other’s work and utilizing each other’s strengths on the ground. Within the first months 121 socio-economic response plans were rolled out in 139 countries and territories. More than 3 bln USD was repurposed and the majority of interventions proved to be targeted to those most hurt by the crisis. This was in line with the UN principle and transformative promise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its SDGs to focus interventions to Leave No One Behind

What the UN and its reform need to increase the system’s impact

Like any other non-profit organization, UN Agencies, Funds and Programmes need money. While member states are the biggest donors, guided by the UN reform, the UN system is making efforts to attract a more diverse donor base. This is also increasingly embedded in UN strategies. The UN Development System realizes that to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, they need to move from funding to financing. This means that the UN intends to work more on leveraging their role and funding for local and more diverse resource mobilization like blended (public-private) financing. The UN has been struggling financially for a while. When an increase in funding was needed for the global response to COVID-19, we saw huge amounts of domestic stimulus packages. These were aimed at saving national economies and protecting populations against the social blows that followed with the spread of the virus in countries that could afford it. We are looking at a somber global context with the pandemic, increasing poverty rates, inequalities, violent conflicts, complex humanitarian situations and climate change. The increasing needs are not met with the resources necessary to address them. This means the UN has to become smarter. It has to work more effectively within its own system but also with other partners in the field from government actors to private sector and other development partners. Only this way, can they achieve transformative sustainable development results. 

The Ukrainian humanitarian crisis: giving with the heart, not the head

The EA community seems to be falling into the same trap that it has been warning others about – donating with the heart and not the head and the heart. UN Emergency Relief Coordinator/Head of OCHA Martin Griffiths warned during the UN Security Council meeting on the humanitarian situation in Ukraine on 7 March 2022: “This is not the only crisis”. We have not seen similar responses to refugee streams from Syria and Afghanistan for instance. 

In fact, for Ukraine within 2 weeks a staggering amount of 1,5 billion USD was pledged for humanitarian assistance to Ukraine where at this point almost 4 mln refugees have been documented. That already exceeds the amount of 1 bln USD the UN called for. Moreover the European Union granted Ukrainian nationals and permanent residents the right to live, work, access healthcare, housing and education immediately for up to one year without requirement to go through a lengthy asylum procedure. In practice, Ukrainian refugees in Europe are in no way treated the same as other refugees. This is another reason why it does not make sense to focus funding efforts on mitigating the humanitarian crisis for Ukraine if you want to have the biggest impact i.e. provide the biggest relief to refugees worldwide from the understanding that all lives are equal. In comparison, there are 22 mln Afghans in need of assistance inside the country and 5,7 mln people requiring help beyond its borders. The UN and its partners launched an appeal of more than 5 bln USD funding to shore up collapsing basic services in Afghanistan. The response up till now for that appeal is 569 mln USD. Clearly, there is much more international solidarity for the Ukrainian crisis which leads to ineffective spending of humanitarian aid preventing it from going to the people most in need. 

I was surprised to see that very specific Ukrainian organizations were recommended in an EA Forum post to give money to people who wanted to do something for Ukraine. Why was the ICRC or UNHCR or any other UN organization active in the country not recommended? UN organizations have worldwide experience with crises and specialized agencies are there to set up fast responses. For instance, UN OCHA coordinates and works with 119 aid organizations to mitigate the long-term impact of the war in Ukraine. Did you know OCHA established and manages the Centre for Humanitarian Data which focuses on increasing the use and impact of data in the humanitarian sector? The UN scaled up its presence in no time to reach people in need including on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support to traumatized children. If you donate to the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) your money will be spent for life-saving assistance whenever and wherever crises hit. By donating to such an organization you can be sure that your money will go to people in need in and around Ukraine, if that is the place where it is most needed. You can also be sure it goes to other places in case another humanitarian situation is more in need of funding. Then, you are truly indiscriminate based on the assumption that all lives have equal value and your money goes to the highest impact area, namely those most left behind. 

Moreover, as an international organization, the UN is also looking at the bigger picture. It is currently already issuing reports showing the implications of the conflict on food security around the world. As a result the World Food Programme has already reduced rations for refugees and other vulnerable populations across East Africa and the Middle East incl. in Yemen where 16,2 mln people are food insecure. 

EA’s do see the UN

Fortunately, I am not the only one recognizing this. I know the following organizations and individuals have been involved/working around this topic. If you are and if you are not listed here, I would be very interested to hear about your work from an EA perspective around improving international institutional decision making and increasing policy impact.

  • People affiliated with EA-aligned organizations (FHI, CSER, FLI and others) influenced the Our Common Agenda report of the UN Secretary General, leading to mentions of “future generations”, “long-termism”, and “existential risk”.  And probably because of their involvement the report highlights biorisks, nuclear weapons, advanced technologies, environmental disasters/climate change as extreme or even existential risks. The link directs to a great summary EA post of the report by Fin Moorehouse.
  • Researchers from CSER and Oxford University's Center for the Governance of AI at the FHI submitted advice to the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation. CSER/FHI activities
  • EA’s Max Stauffer and Konrad Seifert founded the Simon Institute for longterm governance to mitigate global catastrophic risks and develop future-proof policy making processes (see also this post). They engage with policy makers in multilateral institutions.
  • EA Ian David Moss founded the Effective Institutions Project, a new global working group dedicated to building a cross-disciplinary community of interest around the challenge of improving institutional decision-making.

PS: I will be at the Boston EAGx from 1 - 3 April and planning to go to EAG in Washington in September. I would be happy to chat with whomever is interested in this topic. 


Acknowledgement: thanks to Emil Iftekhar and Jan Willem van Putten for your useful comments on this post before publishing it. 





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The above says nothing about the UN's cost, or the expected cost of fixing it (including, most of all, the careers it would consume). As such the post doesn't bear on our decisions at all.

In 2020, the UN spent $62,581,351,665.73.[1] This is actually only ~one and a half orders of magnitude above EA spending. It seems pretty clear to me they don't produce 40x the impact.

Envelope time: We should expect the UNDP and the WFP to be the highest-impact programmes. (COVAX did good things, but it wasn't "a UN project", it was a CEPI and GAVI project with institutional cover from the WHO and distribution help from UNICEF.[2]) Roughly how cost-effective are they? 

In 2018, two years before it won a Peace Prize,[3] the World Food Programme was ranked worst of 40 largest aid agencies on the QuODA scale (decent proxies for aid quality). A 2008 study found that UN agencies were by far the least efficient agencies, with the WFP disbursing just $30,000 per employee, where the average was $1,000,000. 

"Aha!" you reply. "But that inefficiency, combined with their massive spend, just makes it more important for us to fix!"

To put it lightly, this seems prohibitively hard. Anecdata: Two idealistic friends of friends joined the UN straight out of college, joining different agencies. Both quit a couple years later, shocked at the sheer size of the hospitality budgets and the rigidity of the bureaucracy. You can see this as removing their naivete, but I prefer to say that the UN burns an extremely scarce resource: idealistic agency.

There is no steering such a huge and multipolar organisation. Even having a thousand bright people climb the ranks might have little effect, because the UN is the way it is because of powerful national incentives and organisational cruft, and because there are already 44,000 former idealists in it. The UN is so large, it spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year on coordinating between different parts of itself (the 2011 number was $237m). Smaller organisations outmanoeuvre them all the time.

I take the point about the Gates Foundation's UN programme and wish them luck. But GF has a different option set from EA (: they ignore lots of the most high-impact things), and so their best option is unlikely to be the same as ours even if they are best allocating their resources.

The above is only a sketch of a real cost-benefit analysis, but it's enough for me.

It's always good to look at precedents, and as we grow and exhaust better opportunities, there may come a day when it makes sense to reform the ancient giants. But please notice the skulls.

  1. ^

    I got this by naively summing this data, and am probably doublecounting something.

  2. ^

    For an INGO project, COVAX moved fast and was cheap. And it cost $16bn, all on logistics and admin (~all of the vaccines were donated from national governments). They distributed half of the doses they were donated. 

    $16 per dose is a good deal (though if I was doing a proper impact analysis I would have to count the ~$40 dose unit cost somewhere, or else share COVAX's impact with the donor countries).

  3. ^

    This tells you something about the Peace Prize.

A friend points out that UN peacekeepers seem very cost-effective (and not easy to replace anyway). This then is probably where a real cost-effectiveness analysis should focus.

In 2018, two years before it won a Peace Prize,[3] the World Food Programme was ranked worst of 40 largest aid agencies on the QuODA scale (decent proxies for aid quality).

Quoting form the linked page (from the website of The Center for Global Development):

QuODA’s 24 aid effectiveness indicators are listed below and we’ve published a detailed methodology along with the data.

I suppose that the claim in the parent comment that the WFP "was ranked worst of 40 largest aid agencies" is based on that "data" spreadsheet. But notice that 27 of those 40 "aid agencies" are not aid agencies but rather countries (e.g. Australia, United States). So this is already a big red flag. For each agency/country, the spreadsheet provides 7 indicators that are grouped under the title "Maximising Efficiency". One of those indicators is called "ME4" according to which the WFP performed 3rd worst among all 40 agencies/countries. Quoting from the "detailed methodology" PDF (removing footnote references):

Indicator ME4: High Country Programmable Aid Share

[...] The [OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC)], recognizing the need for a metric that reflects the amount of aid that is received and recorded by partner country governments, constructed a measure called country programmable aid. CPA is a measure of development assistance that excludes funding that does not flow to partner countries (e.g. donor administrative costs and imputed student costs), unpredictable flows (e.g. humanitarian assistance), and transfers that are not discussed between donors and partner countries (e.g. food assistance). [...]

So if I understand correctly, the the QuODA scale seems to "punish" agencies that spend money on food assistance directly (rather than giving the money to the host state), and therefore does not seem like a good scale for evaluating the World Food Programme. (To be clear, I'm not overall familiar with QuODA scale; I'm just reporting what seems to me like a very big red flag).

A 2008 study found that UN agencies were by far the least efficient agencies, with the WFP disbursing just $30,000 per employee, where the average was $1,000,000.

Maybe the WFP employs many locals in low-GPD-per-capita states as part of their efforts to distribute food and the salaries are not a large % of WFP's budget? (I don't know whether that is the case; I'm just pointing out that that metric does not seem useful here.)

Appreciate this. 

The second metric is aid per employee I think, so salaries don't come into it(?) Distributing food is labour intensive, but so is UNICEF's work and parts of WHO.

The rest of my evidence is informal (various development economists I've spoken to with horror stories) and I'd be pleased to be wrong.

I feel like this comments misses the point a bit. I think the UN is relevant not because it is such an amazing funding opportunity or because it spends its money effective, but because it is an important policy forum, for everything ranging from peacekeeping to the global health, the UN plays an important role in shaping the policy agenda and has an important coordinating role, increasing its effectiveness and making it more longtermist is potentially highly impactful, and does not have to mean "taking on a giant",  the UN-system has 100s of subsystems and policies we might be interested in tackling. 

I have to say that I also not appreciate the snarky tone which I read in this comment. 

I would love to see your estimates. As I say below, I overlooked peacekeeping and it is probably the diamond in the rough.

I am negative because of the lack of estimates, and because it really does seem relatively low importance and tractability. (Every UN insider I've spoken to (now 4) is extremely negative about it.)

I would love to be wrong.

Did you know the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the first document to detail fundamental human rights that must be protected

Surely this is not true. See for example the US Declaration of Independence, which took place 172 years earlier:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

@Larks, I think you might have misread it/or I might not have written it down clearly. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a milestone document in the history of human rights because it sets out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected worldwide. In international law, a declaration is distinct from a treaty in that it generally states aspirations or understandings among the parties, rather than binding obligations. The Declaration was explicitly adopted to reflect and elaborate on the customary international law reflected in the "fundamental freedoms" and "human rights" referenced in the United Nations Charter, which is binding on all member states. For this reason, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a fundamental constitutive document of the United Nations and, by extension, all 193 parties (member states/countries) of the UN Charter.The US Declaration of Independence is not a universal declaration on fundamental human rights. It is a national US declaration and has no international value. 

Oh and here is google's response on UN funding:

How much is the regular budget of the UN in 2021?

In 2021, UN humanitarian agencies and partner organizations needed a total of $37.7 billion to provide aid to 174 million people in 60 countries. At the end of the year, however, they had only received $17.2 billion, or 46 percent, of the total they requested.

And here is the more telling actual central budget to provide all the coordination that the world needs to run seamlessly (except for war-mongering):

How much does UN spend each year?

The regular United Nations budget for the 2018/2019 biennium, approved by the 73rd session of the General Assembly on 22 December 2018, amounts to 5.811 billion US dollars, inclusive of all supplements.

Oh and here is google's response on UN funding:

How much is the regular budget of the UN in 2021?

In 2021, UN humanitarian agencies and partner organizations needed a total of $37.7 billion to provide aid to 174 million people in 60 countries. At the end of the year, however, they had only received $17.2 billion, or 46 percent, of the total they requested.

Gosh, this that just been forwarded to me after a key meeting in the UN and over 40 years engagement with it. I really support the first post, but sense that the responses do not understand the importance of the UN. It is the ONLY organisation that seeks to serve ALL of the people of the world in true enlightened common interest. Too many nations would rather bomb their neighbours - or distant nations - in self protection and self interest (no names mentioned). All this does is make the world into their own distorted belief: that the world is a dangerous place. Actually, we live in an amazingly supportive universe is we could all only realise that, an and operate on that basis! EA's role is surely to do good better, not to run down the few instititutions that are actually trying to do so.

So cool. I would also like to add the encouragement of attending virtual UN events, such as the WIPO Conversation on Intellectual Property (IP) and Frontier Technologies: Fifth Session which I am currently attending.

I am not sure if the UN itself wants to hear public voices or more seeks that national institutions hear these voices and 'offer them UN products.'

Yes, perhaps similarly to EA, I see the UN's main contribution as goal setting and discourse and cooperation platform. UN's SDGs include animal welfare only to a limited extent (14 and 15 are not so focused on?) and long-term future is excluded. Considering counterfactual impact, the contribution can be positive or negative to various extent (probably international governance can look much better but also worse).

But this is the issue: UN seeks to coordinate itself, respond to crises, and express to indend to leave no one behind. The Secretary General always calls meetings when a crisis occurs. This is highly suboptimal to actually work with everyone to develop systems that prevent crises and various actors' interests and relevant specializations so that all can benefit from meaningful exchange - there must be the capacity for such, for example reducing report-writing work (unless different skills are needed in which case EA could fund 'upskilling in more interesting work' or natural language report writing by AI).

You say that "the UN has to become smarter." Of course, talent development and funding go hand in hand yet the latter does not automatically lead to the former. In addition, talent development may not be really needed if that leads to just scaling up the institution. Descaling and promoting various measures and implementing accountability-based almost directive efficiencies could solve issues. For example, if there is some digital tool that assists governments cooperate on human development issues (that also tackle animal and sentient AI welfare and are responsive to changes and self-institutionalize in a virtuous cycle) highly promoted so that even countries who would otherwise hesitate to de facto engage on these issues just join and 'steel production type' showcasing is really frowned upon then the system becomes talent constrained.

Yes this seems like sound cost-effectiveness rationalization based on an expert insight. You must go back to the original definition of EA, which leaves room for personal projects unless you seek to redefine it "project  ... to find out how to do the most good" (also EA deals with the issue of acceptable narratives which it should not). The project is that there are various people finding out and at the end it all works out due to persons' comparative advantages - some gain attention by conducting an analysis of one crisis and others write on crisis support cost-effectiveness comparison. If all are on board, of course, a top set of choices is always taken.

I have been wondering about these comment opportunities for governments too. I was thinking that perhaps 1) commenters should be enthusiastically approved by at least 5 community members and 2) they do not state affiliation with organizations from the broader EA network unless that is absolutely necessary (or they are confident about positive reception). Also, they should have solutions and ideally also teams (I am not sure if the CSER/FHI report does not reflect prominent narratives while omitting the important impactful ones - here it should not be understood that one needs to first 'catch' the UN and only gradually offer it better and better impact opportunities). What do you think should be the criteria for someone (persons of various 'identities' - such as students, persons working in different roles, of different nationalities, ...) to comment for themselves at the UN? And for EA-related organizations? Should maybe large grantmakers offer applications first?

Yes, so what are the ways to assist the UN to be more efficient in achieving its development intentions (including and in particular One Health and far future considerations)?

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