“If you’ve got some things that look robustly good in both the short and the long term, that definitely makes you feel a lot better than something that is only good from a very long-term perspective” – William MacAskill, Time Magazine, Inside the Effective Altruism Movement to do More Good
The Effective Altruism movement is experiencing a groundswell of activity since the publication of What We Owe the Future (WWOTF). I would like to submit that focusing on a new cause area – child health as a human rights policy – along with endeavouring to protect the first generation of future people, provides co-benefits to the movement, by blending near-term and long-term ideals. As a first step, I am proposing the EA community lobby the US government to ratify the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).
In this post I will outline how prioritizing and promoting child health rights might provide:
1. The potential to save millions of children per year
2. A trial of international policy influence as “hits-based” cause area for EA
3. An alternative focus to the controversial charity/philanthropy
4. A metaphor of the rights of the child as the rights of the future of humanity
5. Increase interest in the EA movement by endearing newcomers who would otherwise be turned off by less mainstream cause areas
Disclaimer: My intention is for this post to be a conversation-starter. I likely have not considered all the counterfactuals and downsides for my arguments, but feel I am at a personal dead-end. I hope the key gaps and uncertainties might be considered and addressed by readers.
Acknowledgements: Big thanks to Habiba Islam, and High Impact Medicine (Slack Hi-Med group), particularly Ben Stewart, for review and feedback on earlier drafts. Shortcomings of the article are all my own.
1. Goal – Saving Millions of Children’s lives per year
On the EA concepts of importance, tractability, and neglectedness (ITN framework), we must individually decide the importance of child rights, considering whether current children are more, equally, or less important than future people. Irrefutably, they are equally helpless, disenfranchised dependents on our altruistic efforts. Hopefully, there will be considerably more future people than there are current children, but I would argue that strengthening the rights, healthcare, and welfare of current children also strengthens those of future children, and thus, future generations as a continued benefit.
Reducing child mortality, however, is tractable. We already possess the knowledge, skills, and medicines to save lives. In this post by Max Roser of Our World in Data, he reports that globally, 4.3% of all children die before the age of 15, which is approximately 10 times the rate in the European Union, at 0.45%. He argues that “The global number of child deaths, as reported above, is 5,909,552 [and] 5,909,552-5,909,552/(4.3/0.45)=5,291,111 fewer children would die if the global mortality rate was 0.45% rather than 4.5%.” To extrapolate this reasoning, if every child in the world benefitted from EU-level health care and social welfare, the global child mortality rate could fall by an order of magnitude.
The corollary of the tractability argument is that child health as a human right is also neglected. Five million children are dying unnecessarily around the world, every year. Promoting children’s health as a human right is what I have colloquially called, “baby longtermism” – dually meaning extending the lives of current children, while promoting wellbeing of future generations.
2. International Policy Influence as “Hits-Based” Cause Area
As indicated, I am proposing the EA community lobby the US government to ratify the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Firstly, it seems to be a neglected cause; Open Philanthropy has evaluated US policy as possible cause areas here, but influence on international US policy was not one of them.
Second, international consensus is tractable; only one country in the world has not ratified the UNCRC. The United States is the outlier of 196 eligible United Nations countries, having not ratified the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, even though it contributed heavily to the draft, has signed it, and has ratified the two optional protocols. Somalia and South Sudan were the last two states to ratify the original convention in 2015. The United States has also not ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), however, several other countries have also not ratified the CEDAW, and the tractability of compelling several countries, with varying cultural and political norms, to collectively ratify a treaty is questionable. The USA is alone in not ratifying the Rights of the Child. Arguably, although controversial in its power as global leader, the US retains popular influence as soft power around the world, and its ratification may be a tractable game-changer for child rights.
Finally, I would suggest lobbying to ratify the UNCRC is important. Although universal ratification of the UNCRC would principally be a first step toward improving global child rights, it may also have direct effect on child welfare in the United States; in this recently-published report card, nearly half of the US states received a failing grade on laws for child marriage, corporal punishment, juvenile justice, and child labour. Contrary to Give Well’s dictum, “your dollar goes further overseas”, compelling the US to ratify the UNCRC might be a very cost-effective way of improving the lives of American children as well as global and future children. By ratifying the UNCRC, countries are required to submit a report within two years of ratification and every five years thereafter. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has adopted these guidelines detailing the information States are expected to give in their implementation reports. In doing so, the US would need to take a hard look at their child laws.
The next step in the process of ratification of this UN treaty, would be for the president to present the treaty to the senate for approval. It has not been done. The last president to consider it was then-senator Barack Obama, in this debate, when he indicated it was “embarrassing” the USA had not ratified it, and had promised to “review this and other treaties to ensure the United States resumes its global leadership in human rights”, yet it did not happen. While Obama’s running mate is president, and during a current election cycle, it might be an opportune time to influence policy.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, opposition to ratifying the UNCRC is based on incorrect assumptions about its implications for U.S. law and how the Convention affects U.S. sovereignty. In 2012, a volunteer-driven network of academics, attorneys, child and human rights advocates, educators, members of religious and faith-based communities, physicians, representatives from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), students, and other concerned citizens tried and failed to lobby Obama to get it ratified. They failed so badly their website here, has been web archived in 2013, and none of the contacts have responded to inquiries, highlighting the neglectedness of lobby efforts. Human Rights Watch continues to advocate for ratification, indicating “the main argument raised against ratifying the convention is that it is ‘anti-family’ and a threat to parental authority”, is inherently false, as “the convention instructs governments to respect the responsibilities, rights and duties of parents and to support families in their efforts to raise and care for their children.”
Lobby efforts to persuade the US government to ratify the UNCRC could serve as a test case of EA policy influence; achieving international consensus on the rights of children is a definable, concrete outcome in international policy. Not only this, but it aligns well with two of WWOTF’s recommended personal decisions deemed “high-impact” on how to do good in the world, political activism, and spreading ideas, while protecting the third recommendation – producing future children. Notably, ensuring child rights also follows the first of the “three rules of thumb”, taking actions that we can be comparatively confident are good; by stabilizing the affirmation of the rights of current children we can mitigate lock-in of bad values on the treatment towards future children.
Achieving international consensus on the rights of children could be a tractable first successful step for EA’s international policy influence – which could inform the approach to global policies on a wider array of pressing issues, such as comprehensive child health care, the rights of future people, the rights of nonhuman animals, AI alignment, etc. The lobby efforts might dovetail nicely with the EAs working on UN’s Our Common Agenda, for example, the Simon Institute for Longterm Governance may be interested in “supporting policymakers in their cooperation with future generations”, in endorsing child rights, as part of goal #1 “Leave No One Behind”. Particularly if we are close to reaching the world’s peak child, now is the time to lock in the rights of children.
3. An Alternative to Charity/Philanthropy
The Oxford dictionary defines philanthropy as “a desire to promote the welfare of others”. EA and philanthropy more generally however, have come under criticism for undermining systems change by supporting inequitable current systems. Promoting child rights, and human rights more broadly, is one means of doing the most good in promoting the welfare of others through creating systems change.
4. The Child as a Metaphor
Ever since Peter Singer’s drowning child thought experiment, children have represented the disadvantaged in Effective Altruism. I would suggest current children provide an easy metaphor for future people, having no agency in political decision-making, as the involuntary free riders of whose welfare we must be custodians. Who is more important than the very first of our future generations? I am not arguing that current children are more important than future people, rather, that the welfare of future people depends in part on the rights, welfare, health, education, and wellbeing of current children. Particularly if we have reached peak child, as noted above, there is an urgency to ensuring children thrive to reproduce to create and raise thriving future generations.
5. Babies Might be Good for (EA) Business
I welcome discussion, but I suspect there are few to no people in the world who would not want to uphold and promote the rights of children. Endorsing child rights as baby longtermism might be good for EA business, as a more palatable means of understanding the value-change to longtermism. Some have been known to be put off by less mainstream areas such as AI alignment, wild animal welfare, and extreme longtermism. Could promotion of child rights bring more people to the EA movement, and could child rights be the start of increasing newcomers’ moral expansiveness? I would suggest it is something to be approached with judicious ambition.
Secondarily, Effective Altruism is known to have exceptionally limited diversity in its membership, and is only just starting to rectify the equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) problem. Promoting child rights necessarily includes the rights of all children, all races, genders, religions, and nations. One would hope that by promoting child rights, more people will see themselves represented and included in the EA movement, meanwhile moral expansiveness increases. Also, by improving the social safety net of children, their parents - usually mothers - are freed from the exclusive burden of care of their children. In this way, endorsing child rights naturally also supports women’s rights. If it takes a village to raise a child, and the [global] village were better at taking care of our children, women could be endowed with greater agency.
Arguments Against Promoting the Rights of the Child
What are the counterfactuals? Would the lobby efforts create a poor opinion of EA with certain political parties in the US? Insofar as it alienates parties who are opposed to child rights, I suppose it is possible. Associated with this argument, is the risk of criticism of EA as political influencer. Sam Bankman-Fried was criticized for endorsing Joe Biden as the most hopeful candidate to address pandemic response. This risk to EA reputation as wealthy influencer might be mitigated by backing civil rights organizations which are already doing the work on child rights.
A second argument against promoting US ratification of the UNCRC is the cost/benefit consideration, for which I have had trouble finding useful data, as there is no precedent. The primary barrier to ratification is likely the degree of opposition within the United States. I am not American and have not invested in a comprehensive understanding of its political systems. If the president could be compelled to present the UNCRC to the senate for ratification, but there is no motivation or even overt opposition from the senate to ratification, the efforts are useless. This is part of the reason I propose it as a “hits-based” cause area; it is a potentially large expenditure which might end in failure, but a positive outcome could be large for EA as policy-changer in the international policy sphere, and of course, for child rights. I would suggest that there would still be a small but measurable gain in getting child rights on the agenda in the US, which could engage public popularity, force states to scrutinize their laws, publicly shame the US for its non-ratification status, etc.
Another argument against compelling the US to ratify the UNCRC is a question of the marginal benefit of taking near-consensus to consensus on the treaty. Arguably, countries which have already ratified it, continue to permit heinous child rights violations. I would suggest the marginal benefit here would be to US children, and in putting a spotlight on child rights internationally, thereby engaging public opinion, as indicated above.
If you think the idea of the EA community lobbying the US government to ratify the UNCRC is a reasonable cause area, there seems to be considerable need for every and all components of the lobby. First, the money to support the lobby. Second, collaborators to organize the movement. Ideally, these would be Americans who understand the nuances of the US political system, have success in lobbying, and have politically prominent connections. Third, idea generators and organizers who can best determine how to approach the lobby. Should it be a coordinated approach, consolidating money and efforts, or a multi-pronged, diverse approach? I would think the latter would be more successful; possibly one effort could gain traction even if several others fail. Support might be created in financial backing for civil rights organizations to lobby government, petitions distributed on social media sites, or other information-sharing sites, such as blogs, vlogs, and podcasts. Possibly better still - child activism – because there are no living people more invested in child rights, than children. How might they be involved?
Of course, I welcome any criticism on the idea of lobbying the US government to ratify the UNCRC; what are the downside counterfactuals I have not considered?
- Lia Harris
Meta-point – I think it would be better if this was called something other than "baby longtermism", as I found this confusing. Specifically, I initially thought you were going to be writing a post about a baby (i.e., "dumbed-down") version of longtermism.
Fair point. Although, I think I did also mean “dumbed down longtermism”. Every far longtermist threat, like engineered pandemics, AI alignment, existential risk, great power war, environmental degradation, etc, also threatens current children. Possibly regular people (non-EAs) would understand the threat better/empathize more easily if it were a threat to children vs concepts of future people.
I enjoy the comparison between kids' issues and longtermism, but I'm unconvinced signing the UN thing is the lever we want to invest in.
I'm interested in literature on the patients/agents distinction because I think it's easy for altruists to mistake a politically disenfranchised agent for a patient, i.e. it looks like there's a big opportunity for philosophy papers in this space.
Beyond philosophy: if the wikipedia page on adultism contains anything approaching the state of the art in interventions, then I think there's a case to be made for more research into what levers would improve the situation.
This N=4060 note is interesting:
I hate to be that EA, but I would rather hire philosophers, social scientists, and people experienced working with kids to explore this in a very basic/fundamental way than put the same money into lobbying.
Thank you for your post.
Thank you for the informative comment. I learned two things today - "adultism", and the difference between disenfranchised agent and patient.
I really appreciated your linked question/comment about relating abolition, suffrage, to non-human animals and future people. I agree! Do you think of my association between children and future people is a closer match?
Although I would 100% endorse increasing the agency of children and youth, I can't help but understand adultism as less of a prejudice, and more of a matter-of-fact with respect to small children. The study you cited are youth who already have some agency, as they are capable of reading and completing a survey, rather than babies who cannot control their own limbs.
Lastly, as an ally who has interest in children, what might move you closer to lobbying for consensus on the rights of the child?
I don't really understand the theory of action here. You suggest the goal is to save millions of children per year, but these largely die in countries that have ratified the convention. Furthermore, the four policy changes highlighted for the US (farm work, trial as adults, child marriage, corporal punishment) do not seem very closely tied to mortality - why not focus instead of more common killers like pre-term birth? You suggest that helping children more would help 'free' mothers from exclusive care of their children, but the four policies mentioned seem mainly neutral on this point, and some of them seem like they would actually make motherhood more difficult for at least a minority of mothers.
Thanks for pointing out where my argument lacks clarity. I can understand the confusion on the points you have made if the primary goal of ratification were benefit to US kids. I am suggesting the primary goal of US ratification is universal consensus, with the benefit to US kids as more of a positive externality.
The same is true about freeing mothers from exclusive care of children; it would not be the primary goal, but a positive externality. An example here would be in a low income country with no universal health care, a mother must make the choice between seeking and paying for health care for her sick child, versus going to work that day, feeding her other children, etc. Universal health care for children would free her from this problem. Actually, as I write, there is much to be said for improving the social protection floor in America, as well.....
You are also right in observing that ratification does not automatically save millions of kids. The reason I suggested it as a "hits based" cause area is as a first step in locking-in in value change toward protecting human rights of agent-less future people. I see it as a step-wise process:
With this information, how might I rephrase the original post to present it more clearly?
Thanks for writing this. I'm interested in politics and political interventions as potential EA causes. But I do disagree with you. I think this cause is not a good use of resources because it's not tractable and because I think it wouldn't have any valuable direct effects either. (The indirect effects on EA diversity and composition are not considered in this comment.)
Tractable- you won't get 2/3 of the Senate to concur. Opposition to these treaties is standard on the right. I would be very surprised Democrats get a majority that large in the next decade. If there's a particular part of the treaty that you think is really valuable, like making it illegal for 17-year olds to marry it would probably be more effective to work on that at the state level. Likewise, if you want shorter sentences for crimes commited by juveniles that can be fought for at the state level.
Value of ratification- there are many countries that compared to American have much higher child mortality rates, much worse schools, more child labor and so on, that have ratified the treaty. I'm not aware of any sudden change in child mortality or any other metric in any country that ratified the treaty. If there is one, that would definitely count in favor of the treaty.
I appreciate your questions on both of these points.
Tractability - Yes, I see the senate as the roadblock, depending on the party makeup within it. Of course, lobbying state-specific-laws might be more successful, but not as comprehensive. This is the reason I am suggesting going for the big goal. It is more about universal acknowledgement of child rights as agent-less future people. Even if the senate is destined to block it, do you see the possible value in bringing child rights to the agenda, raising the issue in the news, raising public awareness, spinning the possibility US ratification as "American champions of child rights", or any similar secondary goals?
Value of ratification - True, ratification does not directly guarantee improved child survival or welfare. It is why I am suggesting it as "hits based". As I am sure you know, UN treaties are only as strong as the sanctions other countries choose to place on violators. If the US ratified, as a relative global power, it would carry weight in sanctions, which it cannot do now. The benefit to US children I see as a positive externality only.
The goal would be in what universal consensus represents, step one in a global value change toward the importance of future people.
As someone with interest in political interventions as EA cause areas, I am curious whether you think there is a better approach?
I'm skeptical of elevating children's rights in this way, because people already claim to care intensely about the value of children and their futures, but differ on how to do that. The UN wants to make it harder for kids to work, I can think of libertarians who disagree. Or education about sex and sexuality- both sides claim they are protecting children and so forth.
With more novel concepts or trying to get people to widen their circle of concern to include animals or far future generations, I think maybe that's a worthwhile way to go. But people care about kids a lot- or at least claim to!
Maybe there's some smart solution but I can't think of good ways to advance your goal.
I would be suspicious of anyone (the libertarians you describe) who claims to be protecting children by endorsing child labour.