This essay could perhaps be called, “is improving people’s economic station good?” because all the arguments presented here apply just as well to people in the developed world as to people in the developing world. But my readers generally don’t spend a lot of effort trying to make people in developed countries wealthier, and lots of them do do a lot to make the globally poor better off.

When people calculate the effects of efforts to alleviate global poverty, they tend to report figures in terms like QALYs/dollar. I believe this is misleading; it gives a reasonably precise measure of the direct first-order effects, while ignoring the other complicated consequences of interventions. These other complicated effects include some negative and some positive ones, but they tend to significantly outweigh the first order effects. Instead of evaluating global poverty interventions by the magnitude of their first order effects, we should look at their indirect effects as well.

Let’s divide the effects into three categories: direct, medium-term, and long-term. We have the most certainty about direct effects, but long-term effects matter most.

Direct effects

Donating to global poverty1 has one important direct effect: the people you’re donating to are better off. In the case of GiveDirectly, this happens because they have more money; for deworming charities, people are better off because they don’t have worms anymore, which likely substantially improves their quality of life2. We have better evidence about these direct effects than about anything else, and when people talk about the benefits of GiveWell top charities, they almost exclusively talk about these effects.

Medium-term effects

Global poverty interventions have some indirect effects that are still easier to quantify and reason about than their long-term effects on economic or technological progress (which I discuss in “Long-term effects” below).

  1. Making people wealthier causes them to eat more factory-farmed animals.
  2. Making people wealthier causes them to consume more environmental resources, reducing wild animal populations.
  3. Making people wealthier worsens climate change, increasing existential risk.
  4. Global poverty interventions (probably?) decrease fertility.

Kyle Bogosian’s calculations suggest that increasing someone’s income in the developing world by $1000 causes about 15 days of land animal suffering, which probably means that a donation to GiveDirectly does more harm via creating factory farming than it does good via making a human financially better off. His calculations rely on uncertain estimates and I do not consider it robust, although it does draw on some hard data and it would probably be possible to substantially reduce the error bars on this estimate.

Additionally, making people wealthier causes them to consume more environmental resources. This has lots of effects, but the most direct one is that it reduces wild animal populations. If wild animal lives are net negative on balance, we should want to reduce the number of wild animals. I have not seen any adequate estimates of the effect size here so I cannot say how much it matters, but I suspect that it outweighs both the direct effect of making humans wealthier and the effect of increasing factory farming.

At the same time, if people consume more environmental resources, that contributes to climate change. This has an unclear effect on wild animal suffering but certainly increases the risk of extinction from severe runaway global warming.

Global poverty interventions probably decrease fertility. Unlike the other topics discussed in this section, lots of research has actually been done on this question, although I haven’t read it so I can’t make any confident claims about it. But what I know suggests that making people healthier and wealthier probably causes them to have fewer kids, which reduces population size after a generation. This could be good or bad for all of the many reasons that people existing could be good or bad. Most directly, this means that fewer people get to live decent lives, which is bad. But it also means more suffering on factory farms. Fewer people possibly means less converting wild habitats and therefore more wild animal suffering, but at the same time, wealthier people consume more environmental resources, and I’d expect the increased-wealth factor to matter more than the reduced-population factor (wealthy countries consume way more environmental resources than poor countries).

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, promoting global poverty attracts more interest in effective altruism and possibly has spillover effects into other cause areas. Many people get into effective altruism by learning about how much good they can do by donating to global poverty efforts, and later

Long-term effects

Improving people’s standard of living has lots of potential long-term effects. Of the plausible effects I’ve thought of, these look the most important3:

  1. It could increase international stability by reducing scarcity/competition.
  2. It could decrease international stability by adding more major actors, making coordination more difficult.
  3. It probably increases research on dangerous technology4.
  4. It probably increases research on beneficial technology.
  5. It becomes harder to make differential intellectual progress.
  6. It causes humans to consume more environmental resources.
  7. It could decrease international stability by making arms races more likely.

Increasing international stability could be beneficial or harmful. Greater international stability reduces the chance of war, which reduces existential risk from nuclear or biological weapons (or other existentially threatening weapons of war that have yet to be developed). In a more stable world, nations probably have an easier time creating cooperative agreements to avoid arms races. Additionally, increasing stability probably increases technological research, which could be beneficial or harmful.

Technological research both increases our ability to avert catastrophes and increases the potential danger arising from of powerful technologies. I suspect that improved technology generally increases the probability of an existential catastrophe. Right now our greatest existential threats arise from technologies developed by humans, and our technological development has done comparatively little to alleviate natural existential risks. I would expect this trend to continue.

If we increase global technological development, that probably makes it harder to make differential intellectual progress, which means that we have a more difficult time accelerating existential risk research to the point where it moves faster than research that increases existential risks. Helping poor people in countries like Malawi and Kenya probably doesn’t have much effect on technological development, but we should expect it to have at least small effects in the long run, at least in expectation.

Consuming more environmental resources could be either good or bad. As discussed before, it reduces habitats which reduces wild animal suffering, and this is a good thing if wild animals’ lives are net negative. (Although climate change could increase wild animal populations.) It probably reduces existential risk by reducing the chance of runaway global warming, which is probably but not definitely good.

Confidently claiming that global poverty has either good or bad long-term effects requires making conjunctive claims about uncertain effects: for global poverty reduction to be beneficial, it must increase international stability and this must reduce arms races and the chance of a major nuclear war and preventing human extinction must be good; or it must reduce international stability and this must slow technological development and it must be beneficial to slow technological development (and, again, preventing human extinction must be good); or it must increase climate change and this reduces wild animal populations without substantially increasing existential risk and wild animal lives are net negative; etc. Claiming that global poverty does long-term harm requires making similarly complex conjunctive arguments.

Although I cannot make any confident claims here, I lean toward expecting these effects, in order of confidence:

  1. Global poverty alleviation accelerates dangerous technology more rapidly than beneficial technology, which is bad.
  2. Global poverty alleviation increases international cooperation, which is good.
  3. Global poverty alleviation increases climate change, which is bad.

I tend to think that this first effect outweighs the second and I am more confident that it occurs, so I am weakly confident that making people wealthier has net negative effects in the long run.

Conclusion

Alleviating global poverty has second- and third-order effects, some of them good and some of them harmful; these effects are significant and hard to quantify. Without serious engagement with the long term effects of global wealth, we cannot confidently claim that global poverty interventions do net good or harm.

The evidence tends to point weakly toward the conclusion that making people wealthier does net harm. This makes me wary of supporting efforts to alleviate global poverty. On the other hand, the evidence is nowhere near strong enough to justify trying to prevent people from helping the global poor. Any arguments in this essay about the long-term effects of global poverty should be treated as highly speculative. Nonetheless, this suggests that we cannot confidently claim that global poverty prevention helps the world in the long run.

Notes

  1. When I talk about donating to global poverty, I’m mostly talking about GiveWell top charities, because that’s what readers primarily donate to.

  2. For GiveWell’s other top recommended charity, the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF), people primarily tout its life-saving benefits, but I believe these are severely overstated. Still, AMF does prevent people from getting non-fatal cases of malaria which improves their quality of life, although I don’t know how valuable this is compared to cash transfers or deworming.

  3. I’m sure I’m missing lots of important effects. I don’t believe people address these sorts of issues enough, so I expect there exist lots of significant long-term effects that haven’t been explored.

  4. Developing countries currently have meager research output compared to wealthy nations, but this changes as countries become richer.