It'd be interesting to see how Toby Ord and others would update the likelihood of the different events in light of the past two years. I'm thinking specifically re:
Saw this and thought of Open Philanthropy's interest in South Asian air quality: https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/paying-farmers-stubble-burning-pollution-7566129/
Article copied below for ease of access:
Written by Kelsey Jack , Namrata Kala , Rohini Pande , Seema Jayachandran |Updated: October 13, 2021 7:30:54 am
The government can subsidise ex-situ equipment.
In a few weeks, millions in India will breathe much more polluted air as farmers across northern India burn stubble to clear fields for the winter wheat sowing season. It is both a health and an environmental hazard that repeats every year — one that a 2018 Lancet study found to be the number one reason for premature deaths in India. Cash payments — despite failed past attempts — remain a promising way to address this health emergency in the short run.
Annually, Indian farmers set some 92 million tonnes of crop residues on fire. Many are aware of the health costs to themselves and others. But they are caught between a rock and a hard place. Rules delaying onset of paddy sowing means later harvesting, leaving a short interval for field clearing. And financially strapped farmers often can’t afford other methods of crop residue management.
In this setting, imposing and collecting fines for burning is not viable. Politically, penalising farmers who face financial distress is unlikely to pass muster especially in the run-up to state elections. Instead, based on a recent study, we see the potential in providing farmers financial incentives to not burn.
We studied crop residue management in 171 villages in Punjab in 2019 and ran a randomised evaluation of a cash payment programme through J-PAL South Asia that rewarded farmers who did not burn their paddy stubble in kharif 2019.
Our study revealed four important lessons for policy. The first two are about how farmers view the decision to burn and the other two are about how cash transfers can help.
First, farmers perceive the alternatives to burning as too expensive, even though the central government has subsidised equipment for crop residue management. For them, the subsidies have not changed the calculus that moving away from burning hurts their bottom line.
Second, farmers state a preference for ex-situ management equipment such as balers over in-situ machinery such as the Happy Seeder and the Super SMS: They prefer to remove the paddy stubble from the field rather than working it into the field.
The good news is that the cash transfers we offered succeeded in getting some farmers to switch from burning to residue management, in no small part because they began to change the financial calculus and allowed farmers to use the removal method they preferred.
The third lesson that emerged from our study pertains to the best format of cash transfers: It was critical to offer some of the payment upfront. In principle, one could ask the farmer to manage stubble without burning, verify that, and then pay him only afterwards. However, this approach did not work in our study. Cash rewards worked only if a portion of the payment was given at the beginning.
Why is partial upfront payment essential? One reason is that it builds trust. Without it, farmers do not trust that they will get the promised payment afterwards. It also gives farmers some financial cushion given they need to pay for the equipment rental. They need cash to manage the stubble, so providing it to them after they have demonstrated they managed it properly is too late.
The final lesson is that the rewards farmers are offered need to cover their costs of managing stubble without burning. In our study, we offered Rs 800 per acre to most farmers, which accounted for about a quarter of the costs of equipment rental. That sufficed to get some farmers to change behaviour — the programme succeeded in reducing burning. But the majority of farmers who were offered that payment level still burned their paddy stubble. The problem was that they were still being expected to cover the remaining costs themselves — upwards of Rs 2,000 per acre.
Our study results suggest that a subsidy of about Rs 2,500 per acre should be able to achieve a marked reduction in burning. This was the amount the states of Punjab and Haryana had planned to pay farmers in 2019. Widespread health benefits mean that subsidising the entire cost for farmers to make the switch away from burning their paddy stubble is worth it for society.
In light of these four lessons, there are different ways forward in dealing with the issue of crop burning in the short run.First, of course, the government could restart conditional cash payments. Our study shows that this strategy can work, if the policy is designed correctly.
Other options are also on the table, though it will be important to test both the design and impact of these options to ensure they actually reduce burning.
The government can subsidise ex-situ equipment. Policies that may reap benefits in the longer run include further encouraging the operation of biogas plants, which could reduce the net cost of ex-situ management because farmers can sell the crop residue, or to encourage innovation of new, much cheaper and more appealing farm equipment for in-situ management.
An effective policy solution will be one that takes into account farmers’ preferred method of crop residue management (ex-situ right now) and recognises that they are making a financial calculation.
Testing effectiveness before these policies are scaled up is important for avoiding spending on things that don’t work.
Finding effective ways to make farmers prefer crop residue management to burning would bring large gains to society: The budget allocation to such policies will pay for themselves many times over with improved health and economic productivity for everyone.
This column first appeared in the print edition on October 12, 2021 under the title ‘Paying farmers not to burn crops will help’. Jack is associate professor of environmental and development economics, University of California Santa Barbara; Kala is assistant professor in applied economics, MIT Sloan School of Management; Pande is professor of economics and director of Economic Growth Center, Yale University; Jayachandran is professor of economics, Northwestern University
Really happy to see that this seems to have worked so well!
Would it be possible to clarify how MacKenzie Scott's donation of $50 million was counted in the above figures and how the numbers change if one were to not include it?
For the EA community: what other usually internationally facing organizations do you think could benefit from trying this approach?
A common critique of universal cash transfers is that it goes to people who don't need the money. In Israel, this backlash led to people donating the money they received (see https://t.co/tu0XWua1Kv?amp=1. This arguably increases the precision and reduces waste.
The upcoming 1,400 USD checks* seem like a good opportunity for EA-aligned orgs to raise a fair amount of donations - particularly GiveDirectly given how easy it is for people to make the connection between the money they receive and GiveDirectly's model. Are they gearing up for this?
*Apparently this round of checks will be targeted, and therefore not universal. Nonetheless, there could still be people who receive it and feel like they don't need it.
Really interesting thoughts! Thanks for writing them up.
Disclaimer: The below is descriptive, not normative, and chiefly focuses on people and organisations outside of EA
This may be overly cynical, but I think some of the reasons you list in favour of ToCs also account for why they often either don't exist or aren't publicly available, i.e. there's a misalignment between what's good for society (what you're getting at with "whether they should exist") and what the organisation and/or researchers consider to be their self-interest. For example,
maybe you’d realise that a line of research that seems fascinating to your researchers actually doesn’t have any clear path to influencing your intended outcomes. This would likely push in favour of deprioritising that line of research
As you suggest, it's very possible that sometimes what's most interesting and what's most impactful aren't perfectly aligned. Sometimes, one's skills and one's interests don't align with what's needed in the field in which one wants to work. This can be a bitter pill to swallow, especially for people who have already invested heavily in their education and problem area and can't just pivot to a more impactful project. Highlighting the discrepancy privately could jeopardise one's role or standing within an organisation - including if one's coworkers feel that you're questioning their effectiveness/utility; highlighting it publicly could jeopardise funding and jobs. Most people aren't EAs, but even EAs are human too.
Help potential donors, potential employees, etc. understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, and thus make informed decisions about whether to donate to you, work for you, etc.
At risk of repeating myself, sometimes people/orgs would rather not help potential donors, potential employees, etc. make fully informed decisions about whether to fund or work for you. This is particularly the case with grifts. That said, it also applies to organisations that want to do something, act with the best of intentions, secure funding, hire a team, and then fear looking down lest they realise that, like a cartoon character, they aren't on solid footing. Sometimes it's easier to just keep going.
Again, I'm not saying this is right, just positing it as another explanation for why we don't see more ToCs.
Thanks, was uncertain how to phrase that and evidently should've phrased it more clearly. Having lots of independently operating farms that aren't automated is more resilient (but perhaps less efficient) than relying upon a few large, highly productive, automated farms, because the failure of one has less of an impact on the whole.
Sure, sorry for not having spelled it out in the initial post. It's related to doing the most good in that overuse of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizer have serious impacts on the health of soil, water, people, insects, birds, amphibians, and mammals. Further, by reducing soil degradation and increasing the efficiency of farming, one could also reduce the pressure to clear forests for new farming zones while simultaneously increasing the earth's carrying capacity. Additionally, reducing fertilizer overuse could mean cutting back on the production of fertilizer, which is energy intensive and thus contributes to climate change.
Borlaug's Green Revolution is lauded as having saved millions of lives ("Norman Borlaug conducted research into disease-resistant wheat, helping to bring about the ‘Green Revolution’; he has been credited with saving hundreds of millions of lives" Introduction to Effective Altruism); this technology, if feasible, could be a big step in addressing many of the negative side effects of the Green Revolution, including overuse of fertilizer, water-clogged soil, damaged ecosystems, and polluted waterways. This therefore seems like an exciting possibility for people who care about the long-term future.
At the same time, it holds some of the risks that the Green Revolution held: such technology is likely to favor large, industrial farms. From what I understand, the Green Revolution led to further concentration of land in fewer hands, having negative effects on smallholder farmers who either found themselves unable to compete with farmers using industrial tech or were dispossessed as their farmland now became more valuable. Further, greater automation of agriculture could increase a country's fragility if the systems were to be hacked and sabotaged. Famine is already used as a weapon of war, so this doesn't seem so outlandish - though admittedly I think a lot of US agriculture is already controlled remotely. Further automation of agriculture could reduce the points of failure compared to an offline system.
Finally, I posted my question here because the EA community seemed a good bet for finding an intersection between people who care about environmental systems, carrying capacity, AI, and possible effects on smallholder farmers. I hope this explanation helps!
Interesting question! Before identifying countries in which to advocate, I think we'd need to
1. More precisely define what the goals are -> I'd infer from your post that you see poverty reduction as the main goal; other considerations could be to reduce suffering caused by family separation, exploitation of irregular migrants, or inequality, for example;
2. Identify the factors that we'd use to determine which countries would be the best places to advocate for more permissive immigration policy -> the importance, tractability, neglectedness framework is a useful starting point but would need to be fleshed out;
3. Use the above factors to assess which countries would be the best places in which to advocate for more permissive immigration policy;
4. Assess whether the impact of dedicating time and money to this cause outweighs the impact of putting the time and money into something else.
I don't have time right now to flesh out the analysis but would be very interested in hearing others' thoughts!
I agree that it could be helpful to provide more estimates of the likelihoods of the various scenarios. I'm not sure what to make of a statement like "It is expected that the number of people on the brink of starvation will double from 135 million to 260 million within the next few months", especially when the WFP quote was "the World Food Programme analysis shows that, due to the Coronavirus, an additional 130 million people could be pushed to the brink of starvation by the end of 2020." When I see "x could happen", I don't understand that to mean "we expect x to happen. Thanks!