See my revised analysis (December 27, 2019 update) here. I thank you for your feedback.


Following the recent debate on the effectiveness of systemic interventions, I assert that investments in global trade may be effectively altruistic. If quantified, the impacts of investments in world commerce facilitation may outcompete the effects of funding GiveWell’s charities by unit amounts.

Unlike investments in GiveWell’s charities, financing trade advancement of developing nations enables individuals who live in emerging economies to gain commercial competitiveness and thus join a virtuous cycle of income growth. An increased income enables the beneficiaries to purchase health-related goods and services which are currently provided by GiveWell’s charities. Further, internationally competitive domestic industries enable beneficiaries to find better employment and find market for their informal businesses.

Trade investments cannot be directly quantified by the quality-adjusted life year (QALY) measure. This is because Health-related quality of life (HRQoL) has not been associated with income. However, GiveWell reports that decreased poverty is valued higher than improved health. I rely on literature estimates that value a QALY as 50% of GDP per capita of that nation.[i]


Investing in the negotiation of trade policies favorable to developing countries may present large returns on investment. For example, passing a bill through a registered lobbying firm in the United States costs about $200,000/bill.[ii] [iii] Assume that this bill contributes to a policy that reinstitutes the Generalized System of Preference (GSP) for India from which the United States withdrew in June. This will contribute $300 million to India.[iv]

This number assumes that other nations are not able to export to the United States in lieu of India, due to the lack of international competitiveness of their industries. Thus, the $300,000 million is assumed to be a pure efficiency loss, entirely borne by India.

In 2018, India’s GDP per capita was $2016.[v] That makes $2016 x 50% = $1008 per QALY. $300 million/$1008 = 298 000 (~300,000) QALYs. The cost per QALY is thus 200,000/300,000 = $0.66 per QALY. That is about $0.66 x 69.165 = $46 per statistical quality life (the life expectancy is India is 69.165 years[vi]). Lobbying for favorable trade policy is thus much more cost-effective than donating malaria nets thought Against Malaria Foundation (which provides a quality life for $3,337.06).[vii]


Further, enabling emerging economies to grow their trade capacities may be also cost-effective in the long term. For example, assume that developing and implementing a “one-stop shop” import-export window costs $1,000,000 for a single nation. Further, assume that this would make importing and exporting 1% more efficient. This increased efficiency may take place due to reduction of red tape (paperwork substituted by electronic forms), decreases in travel time that is required to obtain export and import clearances (visiting one government office instead of several bureaus), and facilitation of obtaining trade information.

Additionally, assume that over the next ten years, this nation will export $1,000 million and import $2,300 million annually. These values are based on trade data of Malawi. Malawi exported $1,080 million worth of products in 2015 and imported $2,312 million of goods and services in that year.[viii]

Therefore, due to the “one-stop shop” cross-border trade investment, over the course of ten years, a nation will be able to sell $1,000 million/year x 1% x 10 years = $100 million more products abroad and import additional $2,300 million/year x 1% x 10 years $230 million worth of goods and services from foreign nations. In total, the nation will gain $100 million + $230 million = $330 million.

Since this nation is small, it can be assumed that the increases in exports will all accrue to domestic sellers without affecting world prices. Additionally, presume that the extra imports also benefit to the investing country in their entirety. Either the increased efficiency of import facilities reduces the price for consumers, increasing the consumers’ real income, or the reduced trade barrier enables domestic producers to source cheaper inputs from abroad, making their production more efficient. The increased production efficiency may attract foreign direct investment and further boost the domestic economy. However, I am not taking these possible secondary impacts into account.

Supposing that the GDP per capita (purchasing power parity adjusted) in the investing nation is $1,300 (based on $1,309, the 2018 value for Malawi[ix]), a QALY in that nation is valued at $1,300 x 50% = $650. This value may grow slightly over the next ten years, e.g. to an average of $850.

Thus, the $330 million efficiency gains provide $330 million/$850/QALY = 388,000 quality life-years equivalents. With an initial investment of $1,000,000, a single QALY in that nation costs $1,000,000/388,000 = $2.58. That is $2.58 x 70 = $180 per healthy life. (Life expectancy in that nation is assumed to be 70 years on average over the next 10 years. This is based on the 2017 value of 63.279 for Malawi[x]).


Impact divestments, or diverting funds from purely profit-motivated investments to impact ventures, which enjoy the bottom lines of profit as well as of social and/or environmental return, may also outcompete GiveWell’s charities.

According to the United Nations Development Programme, 60% of impact investors accept returns on par with market returns.[xi] The consulting firm McKinsey estimates finds impact investment returns “comparable to market rate returns.”[xii] Assume that these values are adjusted for risk.

Shifting purely for-profit investments into impact investments does not reduce the investors’ wellbeing if these two types of financial allocation yield the same fiscal returns, adjusted for risk. However, divesting into impact brings additional benefit to those affected by this investment. Since at least 60% of impact investment enjoys market returns, then at least 60% of funds invested globally improve wellbeing of affected individuals without an additional cost.

This value assumes non-diminishing marginal returns on impact investment. This may not be an unreasonable assumption, given the unexplored consumer potential (which grows, rather than decreases with increased wealth) in underserved markets, such as those in impoverished areas.

Additionally, impact investment may yield the highest overall (socio-environmental) return in the poorest markets. However, these markets may provide the smallest return to the investor. Thus, effective altruists may invest into markets of different affluence depending on the relative values these individuals associate to their wealth (and ability to re-invest themselves) to that of others.[xiii]


Unlike impact investment, which offers financial returns to investors, non-profit support of trade competitiveness of disadvantaged groups and nations provides returns to others exclusively. Non-profit market competitiveness may also prove effectively altruistic.

For example, One Acre Fund (OAF), which is supported by TheLifeYouCanSave, describes a 248% return on investment.[xiv] However, the beneficiaries, farmers in developing countries, as opposed to the investors, accrue the entirety of these investments. The 248% value considers all expenses and the medium-term increases of incomes of the benefiting farmers but neglects the environmental impacts of the investments and economic spillover effects. Both of the unaccounted factors are likely positive.

Thus, investing into trade competitiveness of disadvantaged groups may provide quality life years at a negative overall cost, although these investments prevent altruistically-minded individuals from re-investing their returns themselves.


Publishing pro-corporate social responsibility (pro-CSR) agenda in major media costs $44,000 per year.[xv] If one article is published in a year in an outlet which enjoys 62 million readers per year,[xvi] and if every 1,000th reader is influenced to spend additional $10 on socially responsible purchases, on average, every dollar invested generates (62 million readers/1,000 x $10 per reader)/$44,000 = $1.41 of CSR-conscious spending. This constitutes a 141% return on investment. This return may carry vast economic spillovers alongside the supply chain.


Thus, investing in international trade may be more effectively altruistic than donating to GiveWell’s charities. Negotiation of trade policies favorable to developing countries, supporting emerging economies’ trade governments, for-profit impact divesting, non-profit advancement of competitiveness of disadvantaged groups, and corporate social responsibility advocacy may all provide a higher number of quality life-years than organizations recommended by GiveWell, per unit amount spent.


This is my hypothesis. If you agree, please help me mobilize the global community to pursue cost-effective international development through trade. If you disagree, please provide constructive criticism. If you have any questions, ask. If you know other cost effective-trade-based development specialists, please refer me to these. I welcome any comments below as well as personal messages through the platform.

[i] Li Huang et al., “Life Satisfaction, QALYs, and the Monetary Value of Health,” Social Science & Medicine 211 (August 1, 2018): 131–36,

[ii] Lee Drutman, The Business of America Is Lobbying: How Corporations Became Politicized and Politics Became More Corporate, 1 edition (Oxford ; New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015), 86–87.

[iii] Williams, “182: I’m a Reformed Lobbyist. Ask Me Anything,” DecodeDC, February 23, 2017,

[iv] “Trump Terminates Preferential Trade Status for India under GSP,” The Hindu Businessline, accessed October 7, 2019,

[v] “GDP per Capita (Current US$) - India,” The World Bank Group, accessed October 7, 2019,

[vi] “Life Expectancy at Birth, Total (Years) - India,” The World Bank, accessed October 14, 2019,

[vii] Chris Weller, “The World’s Best Charity Can Save a Life for $3,337.06,” Business Insider, July 29, 2015,

[viii] “Malawi Trade at a Glance: Most Recent Values,” World Integrated Trade Solution, accessed October 14, 2019,

[ix] “GDP per Capita, PPP (Current International $) - Malawi,” The World Bank, accessed October 14, 2019,

[x] “Life Expectancy at Birth, Total (Years) - Malawi,” The World Bank, accessed October 14, 2019,

[xi] “Impact Investment,” United Nations Development Programme, accessed September 15, 2019,

[xii] “Impact Investment.”

[xiii] William MacAskill, “Effective Altruism: Introduction,” Essays in Philosophy 18, no. 1 (January 31, 2017),

[xiv] “Our Impact,” One Acre Fund, accessed September 14, 2019,

[xv] “CSRwire Distribution,” CSRwire, accessed September 16, 2019,

[xvi] “Bloomberg Media,” Bloomberg Finance, accessed October 14, 2019,


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77 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:14 PM
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Thanks for writing this! I'm surprised EA's haven't been more interested in this topic considering The Copenhagen Consensus Center (CCC) has long been advocating reforms for open trade as an exceptional way to aid global development, giving significantly better returns than most commonly considered effective interventions alleviating global poverty.

Thank you for pointing me out to CCC! In relation to trade, the Center recommends the conclusion of the Doha Development Agenda WTO round. This round started in 2001 and has been at a stalemate for about a decade. This is because of the single undertaking principle of the WTO: nothing is agreed until everything is agreed (i.e. all 164 WTO Member countries have to agree on every single item of the Agenda). Currently, a small number of countries disagrees on about a percent (e.g. agriculture trade) of the Doha Agenda items (99% of the issues have been settled). Thus, a WTO decision-making reform may be needed to lower international tariff and quota trade barriers. Additionally, the United States is currently jeopardizing the functioning of the multilateral WTO system from which developing economies benefit. Because the conclusion of the Doha round and the general functioning of the WTO is dependent on the decisions of a few governments, it may be difficult to quantify the amount that would influence these decisions. Do you know how the authors determine the cost-effectiveness of concluding Doha? E.g. in terms of certain nations 'buying votes' of other Members?

Thanks for writing this! I take the broader point and I think you provide good reasons to think that international trade deserves more attention as an effective intervention.

I may be missing something, but I'm really not sure what to make of that $200k number. It seems low intuitively, but a little examination makes it seem even stranger. In 2018, about $3.5 billion was spent on lobbying. In the 115th congress, 2017-2019, 443 bills were passed, as in, actually became law. So it seems reasonable to say that about 200 bills became law in 2018. That's almost twenty million dollars per bill. And that's in a weird idealized scenario where spending on lobbying gets the bill passed and where all lobbying money is being spent on lobbying-for (not lobbying-against) and where the money is evenly divided across bills.

We have no idea what the distribution of effectiveness looks like, and I totally buy the idea that some bills can be passed with only $200k in lobbying funds, but that would be true at the tails of the distribution, not in expectation.

Dear Matt, Thank you for your note. The 200K per bill is a rounded average based on The Business of America Is Lobbying by Lee Drutman (pp. 86-87). This number refers to the amount paid for a bill that benefits a major U.S. corporation, rather than a nation. Additionally, in his "182: I’m a Reformed Lobbyist. Ask Me Anything," Williams reports that (corporate - high-paid) lobbyists may be paid around $500k/year. Thus, 200K would amount to about 5 months of a full time effort of a skilled lobbyist in D.C. However, you may be right that passing a bill that would benefit a nation as opposed to a corporation may be much more expensive than passing an industrial legislation amendment. I will try to consult this number with a professor who teaches lobbying in D.C. tomorrow.
According to the professor, India could spend [hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars] on this issue, up to 5 million. Some countries that hire lobbying firms in D.C. spend a hundred thousand dollars a month. Thus, if it takes about 2 years for the bill to pass, India could spend 2.4 million. However, by that time, India may be so developed that it will not be eligible for the GSP status anymore.. Plus, by that time, the WTO may develop a framework that assigns objective criteria to a country's development status. The U.S. may be either mandated to by the WTO or choose to follow this framework.

Another advantage of increased trade is greater economic interdependence, which I think reduces the probability of conflict. If that conflict were to manifest itself as nuclear war, this could have catastrophic consequences, plausibly reducing the long-term potential of humanity.

Thanks! For sure, there is plenty of literature how increased trade reduces conflict. First, an economically-motivated nation will go less likely to a war with one of its important trade partners. Second, this may not be possible, if military of either of the economies cannot sustain itself without trade. This also implies that governments are interested in securing militarily strategic resources (such as energy) abroad. According to Blackwill and Harris (War by Other Means), the foreign investment into resources may increase security within nations that would be otherwise at risk of fighting over these resources in armed conflicts (e.g. the Chinese military protection of South Sudan where China sources its oil). Would you by chance recommend any literature that quantifies the security spillovers of trade investments??
Unfortunately I'm not familiar with that literature, but others feel free to jump in!
OK, thanks!

Thanks for exploring an interesting area. I may be misunderstanding, but I think section 1 is saying:

Donate $200k LEADS TO $300m for India LEADS TO 300,000 QALYs

If this is correct, it would indeed be stunningly good. Apologies if I'm being too sceptical, but I'd like to raise two doubts:

(1) I would be surprised if paying $200k is sufficient to bring about a bill, except perhaps in fairly favourable circumstances. I tried following the sources, but I don't have access to the book, and I didn't listen through the half-hour podcast. If you... (read more)

I think the $300m are gains from trade, and the US would also presumably benefit (although not as much). So, in a sense, yes, it would "magic up" $300m worth of value, because the status quo is the prevention of mutually beneficial trades.
I think the $300m comes from an article [] in the Hindu Business Line, which says that "Trump’s decision [to end preferential trade status for India] will cost American businesses over USD 300 million in additional tariffs every year." So this suggests that there is indeed an opportunity cost to the $300m; firstly because the $300m hasn't been magicked up, the $300m could have been spent on something else. This opportunity cost doesn't seem so bad, but another opportunity cost is that without the preferential treatment, the US may trade with other nations. We don't know who those other nations are, so the value of the lost trade is not clear.
Hello! Sanjay, for (1), see my reply to Matt above. The $300m is the efficiency loss incurred by the U.S. which will need to either accept increased costs due to the new tariffs that result from the end of the Indian GSP status or pay more for the former imports from India by manufacturing them domestically (more expensively). However, it is possible that other nations export to the U.S. in lieu of India. However, because these countries do not enjoy Indian efficiency, the $300,000 will be paid extra. Yet, my argument neglects that other countries may be able to grow their industries and reach Indian efficiency. This may be possible especially for close competitors to India (maybe Indonesia?), who thus enjoy effective preferential market access.

Lant Pritchett (influential development economist) makes a related argument in Randomizing Development: Method or Madness?:

[C]ross-national evidence shows that the four-fold transformation of national development, to higher productivity economies, to more responsive states, the more capable organizations and administration and to more equal social treatment produces gains in poverty and human well-being that are orders of magnitude bigger than the best that can be hoped from better programs. Arguments that RCT research is a good (much less “best”) invest

... (read more)
Hello Cole! This argument also advocates for the support of institutions in developing nations, perhaps as a part of systems thinking(?) Additionally, it is plausible that non-RCT methods may increase development outcomes more effectively than RCT methods. However, perhaps RCT-based programs benefit from the credibility that solicits added investment. Additionally, RCT research is highly localized - e.g. what may work in a region of Kenya (where an RCT is run) may not work in another region of Kenya. Thus, divesting RCT-based donations may bring net benefits. Should any non-RCT-founded approaches be supported, if one is convinced (based on their expertise) that these are more effective than RCT-based programs?

Thanks for looking into this!

However, GiveWell reports that decreased poverty is valued higher than improved health. I rely on literature estimates that value a QALY as 50% of GDP per capita of that nation.[i]

You can see the (perhaps outdated?) moral weights GiveWell used for comparing saving the life of children vs doubling someone's income for a year. They assume value scales essentially logarithmically in income. (read more)

Hello Michel, The GiveWell's moral weights are intriguing indeed. I used QALY as opposed to DALY intentionally, because I did not included the decreasing value of a life-year with increasing age (as is the case for DALY but not QALY). Ah, I see! I cited the other study on the same topic. This one values life years in low- and middle-income countries. For Malawi (a least developed nation), the research estimates QALY as 1%–51% of GDP per capita. I took the upper boundary of 50%. Woods, Beth, Paul Revill, Mark Sculpher, and Karl Claxton. “Country-Level Cost-Effectiveness Thresholds: Initial Estimates and the Need for Further Research.” Value in Health 19, no. 8 (December 2016): 929–35. [] In Australia (based on the research I cited originally), I believe the QALY value was comparable to GDP per capita. Perhaps, based on the argument that the most poor people value other priorities more than personal health (e.g. protect animals by malaria nets as opposed to individuals), in poorer countries a QALY is valued less than annual income while in advanced economies QALY is valued about the same as GDP per capita. - Yes, a more internationally focused U.S. administration, especially in the higher ranks, would benefit emerging economies. _ Yes, actually - thank you! This is a valid point. Rapidly developing India could lose its development status in, for example, 5 years anyway. In this case, after India's industries develop to an internationally competitive level, other countries would be able to develop their economies through effectively preferential market access (relative to India) to the United States. I will look into the counterfactual more and let you know when it is revised!

To what extent do you think the benefits of trade liberalization are contingent on the economies of developing countries moving up the value chain into more complex products in terms of what they're exporting? Is there a non-trivial possibility that trade liberalization deepens existing resource curses (i.e., exporting but not processing raw materials) or is it far more likely that trade liberalization increases economic complexity?

And thank you for speaking to the DC EA group, I enjoyed your talk!

Hi! Thanks so much for coming :)) ... I believe that the latter, because it seem like developing nations that are able to attract foreign investment are the ones that grow economically (Baldwin, The Great Convergence). This is despite the deregulation of the market (e.g. lowering worker and environmental standards, protecting IP rights, allowing monopoly, and institutionalizing other measures that benefit foreign investors). First, emerging economies are under no obligation to adhere to international agreements. They can revise these agreements any time, e.g. allowing tech transfer or nationalizing foreign investment. Second, for their public image and because of their Western company standards, large MNCs tend to hire workers formally (however, this may be more prominent for B2C as opposed to B2B companies - B2Bs do not suffer as much public scrutiny, unless entire value chains are scrutinized for sustainability). Relatively to the conditions of informal laborers (e.g. 1/2 of a developing nation's workforce), the formal deregulated employees still enjoy better protection, higher payments, and thus increased ability to escape poverty. Third, based on economic theory, a country that trades less is able to use its resources less effectively. This lowers the nation's growth. Fourth, with the value-added trade where parts can be imported and re-exported multiple times, lower import tariffs of a nation mean lower input prices for domestic processors. Fifth, the countries which are excluded from GVC trade fall further behind their integrated competitors. This also implies that the infant industry argument for protectionism is no longer valid - industries develop through foreign investment rather than though protection from foreign competition. Higher growth should enable further diversification of the domestic economy and domestic investments into higher value-added activities. Yet, even though a nation may grow economically through trade liberalization, it must enact d

I think this might be underestimating how much it costs to implement a new bill. You cite 200k USD, but I don't think that includes the chance that it fails to pass or fails to get a legislator to sponsor it. I think it would be useful to try different numbers for that.

OK, thanks! Although these should be adjusted for probability of failure (as per Drutman's analysis), the 200K may still be a bit low. Also see my response to Matt_Lerner. The number may even go up to 5m. I will revise these numbers.

I would like to understand the sentence: "I rely on literature estimates that value a QALY as 50% of GDP per capita of that nation" -- would it be possible to explain and/or provide an updated link to a source? (I tried following the link, but it said "doi not found")

Remove the period at the end of the link.
Yes, and an updated link of the source that cites the example of low- and middle-income countries (as opposed to Australia that the original link examines) follows: Woods, Beth, Paul Revill, Mark Sculpher, and Karl Claxton. “Country-Level Cost-Effectiveness Thresholds: Initial Estimates and the Need for Further Research.” Value in Health 19, no. 8 (December 2016): 929–35. []