Charter cities (sometimes called model cities) are semi-autonomous political units within an existing state with significant administrative and regulatory authority.


A comprehensive report by Rethink Priorities identified three main types of benefits charter cities could potentially deliver:[1]

  1. Direct benefits: increased income for those living in the city or its surroundings.
  2. Indirect local benefits: scaling up successful charter city policies across the host country.
  3. Indirect global benefits: facilitating experimentation with novel forms of governance.

The authors of the report do not believe that allocating resources to charter cities projects is cost-effective—relative to GiveWell's priority programs—based on their direct benefits. The authors speculate that the indirect benefits may exceed these direct benefits, but note that (1) such indirect benefits are very hard to estimate and (2) regardless of their magnitude, they can likely be produced more cost-effectively by special economic zones (SEZs) than by charter cities. While noting the potential value of additional research on the indirect benefits of charter cities, the authors conclude that "charter cities require more evidence in their favor before we could recommend them as a promising intervention to pursue."[1] 

In a series of replies, Mark Lutter, from the Charter Cities Institute, disputed the report's conclusions as overly pessimistic, arguing that charter cities constitute the only attempt to replicate the unprecedented economic growth of China, which lifted 850 million people out of poverty; that SEZs differ from charter cities in several important respects and are for that reason unlikely to deliver comparable economic benefits; and that, given their low budget, the apparent failures in Madagascar and Honduras provide evidence that charter cities are more, not less, tractable than it may otherwise appear.[2][3]

Further reading

Bernard, David & Jason Schukraft (2021) Intervention report: Charter cities, Effective Altruism Forum, June 12.

Mason, Jeffrey (2019) The case for charter cities within the effective altruist framework, Charter Cities Institute, September.

Wiblin, Robert & Keiran Harris (2019) The team trying to end poverty by founding well-governed ‘charter’ cities, 80,000 Hours, March 31.
An interview with Mark Lutter and Tamara Winter from the Charter Cities Institute.

Charter Cities. A defunct site with considerable information about charter cities as originally conceived by Paul Romer.

Charter Cities Institute | economic growth | global health and development | policy change

  1. ^

    Bernard, David & Jason Schukraft (2021) Intervention report: Charter cities, Effective Altruism Forum, June 12.

  2. ^

    Lutter, Mark (2021) Comments on ‘Intervention report: Charter cities’, Effective Altruism Forum, June 13.

  3. ^

    Lutter, Mark (2021) Further thoughts on charter cities and effective altruism, Effective Altruism Forum, July 20.