Who is setting global priorities?

In a situation where different activities have very different benefit to cost ratios, it is important to set priorities, and finish those with the highest values first.  Any individual who didn’t set priorities would achieve much less than they could; they might end up malnourished because they are busy reading their junk mail. While it is relatively easy to set priorities for a single human’s personal life – not that we always follow them – setting priorities for humanity as a whole is very difficult and requires in-depth study.

The central limit theorem suggests that the cost effectiveness of different projects ought to have a ‘log normal’ distribution, if not an even fatter-tailed one. Furthermore, there is no reason to think that (e.g.) political reform, different environmental causes, R&D for various technologies, conflict resolution, poverty reduction and so on are ee in the same ball-park of cost effectiveness, so we should anticipate a large variance in the distribution. This would leave some causes orders of magnitude more important than others. What research on this topic has been done, by groups like J-PAL, GiveWell, the WHO, and so on, indeed finds that the value of different methods of improving the world varies dramatically, with some doing enormous amounts of good and others achieving next to nothing. Unfortunately, as far as I am aware – and I would love to be informed otherwise – there is no one who has taken on the role of picking out and promoting the most important tasks we face.

The Copenhagen Consensus set out to fill this gap in 2003, and produced reports that were of mixed quality, though excellent value for money and a substantial improvement on what existed before. Sadly, it is not currently planning another round of research because it is out of funding (though still taking donations). In the absence of a comprehensive and broad comparison of different causes, resources naturally flow to the most powerful or vocal interest groups, or the approaches that people intuitively guess are best. Given our terrible instincts for risks and magnitudes we don’t have regular direct experience with, it would be an extraordinary coincidence if these actually were the most valuable projects to be embarking on.

The natural home for a properly-funded and ongoing global prioritisation research project would be the World Bank or alternatively, the OECD, or a university. If anyone is reading this and has some influence: global prioritisation looks like a cost effective cause to hop on. Though given the lack of research on the topic, I’ll admit it is hard to be sure!

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  • C R Krieger

    Perhaps an important step is to decide who makes the list.  Not all list makers are equal.  They each have their own agendas.  For the US, the Congressional Research Service or the Government Accounting Office (I refuse to see them as the government “accountability” office—that is Congress) might be the best bet.  Not the Office of Management and Budget.  Beyond the US, it is all agenda driven.

    Regards  —  Cliff

    • Jess Riedel

      Sure, but–given that we have zero lists–I’d rather see many organizations encouraged to make lists rather than concentrating too much on deciding which organization is best at list making.  

      Maybe if the Future of Humanity Institute came out with a list, it would at least spark some discussion.

  • Margin

    “…setting priorities for humanity as a whole is very difficult.”

    Because the concept is incoherent.

    There is no such thing as “one humanity” that has coherent interests.

    There are only individuals who have interests that sometimes overlap, sometimes stand independent, and often conflict.

    • robertwiblin

      Needless to say I want some prioritisation that matches my fairly total classical utilitarian values. Of course this is a value judgement by me. Fortunately, because it is nearly universally believed that suffering is bad and pleasure is good (among other things that are importnat) it is quite imaginable for one of the organisations I mention to set up a body along these lines.

  • Eric

    Can you elaborate a bit as to why the Copenhagen reports were of mixed quality? 

    • robertwiblin

      Quickly – the ones on climate change didn’t use stochastic modelling, so missed the worst-case scenarios. It also used a high discount rate and valued the lives of the poor by willingness to pay which made their wellbeing seem much less important than people in rich countries.

      • Jess Riedel

        > It also used a high discount rate

        Did they just use estimated interest rates, or also one of those intrinsic discount rates which try to capture the fact that we don’t really care about future people?

      • robertwiblin

        I don’t have time to write comments on this, but drop me an email and I can forward you a document critiquing their approach.

  • While it is relatively easy to set priorities for a single human’s personal life – not that we always pay attention – setting priorities for humanity as a whole is very difficult.

    Setting priorities for “humanity as a whole” is fundamentally different from setting individual priorities, since negative externalities abound in economics but are mostly absent in individual planning. This is why advocacy of certain priorities in economics is the gist of ideology. 

    To think you can prioritize humanity-wide tasks on a narrow empiricist, nonideological basis is really extraordinarily naive. Essentially, you’re taking philanthropy as the model for social planning. This itself is ideology but a simplistic—ultimately ridiculous—ideology. 

    • robertwiblin

      I don’t expect it to be narrowly empirical or non-ideological – naturally I want any such list to match my values as closely as possible. But other people share my values sufficiently that I expect better prioritisation, even by a group quite different from me, would still lead to outcomes I prefer.

      Yes it’s harder doing a whole system because you have to take into account externalities. If such externalities are prevalent this seems like a reason in favour of doing it (e.g. studying how bad climate change will be).

      I don’t know what you mean by ‘taking philanthropy as a model for social planning’. I am not suggesting that we get rid of the market and centrally plan everything. A top priority might be ‘deregulate the economy’. My expectation is that after a market outcome we should look around and see what can be significantly improved by non-market means.

      Information on ‘best buys’ for improving welfare would help both selfishly and altruistically motivated people. It would naturally inform the many philanthropists out there, but also selfish actors who wanted to improve their own lives (perhaps through individual choices, or lobbying their local governments to adopt a particular policy, or whatever).

      In general, I find your comments confusing enough to take a long time to reply to, but not very enlightening, so I probably won’t reply often in future.

  • Tim Tyler

    > In a situation where different activities have very different benefit to cost ratios, it is important to set priorities, and finish those with the highest values first.

    Note that that isn’t really the approach that the critical path method recommends.


    “the World Bank”
    A lobby of large corporations

    “the OECD”

    Doesn’t include China, India, Russia, Brazil or a single African country

    “or a university”

    Should one university hold that much power?

    No global organization exists that could set global priorities, everything has to be done through treaties, in part this is a good thing because free countries can’t be forced into a global consensus that says gay people should be hanged and democracy abolished in favor of a single United Russia/CCP like party, but it is also a bad thing because it prevents a global tackling of income inequality, human rights violations, environmental pollution and use of limited natural resources.

    • robertwiblin

      I’m not suggesting that any such organisation actually have the power to force people to do much, just that they should produce information to assist and influence those who would like to do good. That said, the current decision-making processes on these issues are really quite bad, so I don’t think the idea is as crazy as it sounds.

      I don’t know that much about the World Bank’s internal structure, but I think calling it a ‘lobby of large corporations’ is unduly pessimistic given what they end up spending their money on. I think they are more controlled by rich donor governments than corporations. Possibly you are thinking of the IMF.

      • IMASBA

        “Possibly you are thinking of the IMF”

        The World Bank co-wrote the Washington Consensus with the IMF…
        “I’m not suggesting that any such organisation actually have the power to force people to do much, just that they should produce information to assist and influence those who would like to do good”

        That gives tremendous power, just imagine it’s an American private university: free market fetishist economists, a tiny global minority would see their influence multiplied a hundredfold because they get to make the assessments

        The World Bank, the OECD and any university’s economy department are all the wrong way to go: they are the domain of politicians, lawyers and economists. Recommending global priorities and solutions should be done by scientists, for example a joint venture of many national science academies. Economists don’t live in the real world and have no knowledge of the underlying issues regarding natural resources, technology and the environment.

  • Epiphany

    Leverage Research is working on a big plan and they are definitely doing prioritizing.  Their style is to go meta – they’re looking for the root causes of problems, considering solutions that use lots of leverage, figuring out what those solutions will take to implement, and are thinking about which high-leverage projects should be done soonest.  This is not extremely obvious just looking at their website but it’s become evident after I’ve talked with them.  You wanted to know who is thinking about this.  They are:


  • I totally agree about the need for a global priority list. As per the example of charities, the benefit/cost ration can vary greatly.

    The real issue is that there is no well researched list at the moment. I or anyone else could certainly come up with a top ten list, but it would be of no use. There needs to be a level of funding above what is the individual level to create such a list based on research.

    The actual carrying out of what’s on the list is separate issue. Thinking about how to carry out the items, obscures the issue of the global priority list.

    For example, one would imagine that such basic science research as the EU’s LHC would be on the list. The EU is self-selecting in carrying out that item of the list.

    So the counter argument would be, since the EU is already working on the LHC then why need the list? The response is then, how many other important items are not being carried out because there is no list to assist in comparing what to focus on?

    Once a well-researched list is created then different, states, NGOs, any type of organization really can self-select to take part in carrying out one item or more of the list.

  • Niel Bowerman

    Hi Rob,
    You suggest that the central-limit theorem suggests a log-normal distribution of effectiveness. Yet, a large number of interventions have zero or negative value (http://80000hours.org/blog/66-social-interventions-gone-wrong), the probability of which is zero in a log-normal distribution. Surely a log-normal is not the correct prior here?